Parker Takes on Bio Critics
Informed that Carl Rollyson was going to be reviewing the work of fellow BIO member Hershel Parker for the New Criterion, we asked Carl to contribute something on the new book for TBC. In keeping with our policy, we include the review only because the subject book deals with the craft of biography.
“Nowadays people who know the least about research are apt to set the highest standards for people who are doing the work of retrieving archival information.” This is a fact of life that enrages Hershel Parker in Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative,his all-out attack on reviewers, academe, and even fellow biographers who fail to do their homework. Parker believes that the negative reception of his two-volume biography of Melville reflected the pernicious long-lasting influence of New Criticism and its successors that has made most literary critics incapable of evaluating the research that informs modern biography.
Parker goes after big guns like James Wood and Andrew Delbanco by way of demonstrating their inhumane judgments, which are the product of treating literature in a hermetic fashion, and pretending that it is only the work itself that counts and that there is relatively little value in understanding the genesis and development of literary works and the authors who create them. And yet, Parker points out, much of the authoritative knowledge these reviewers repackage in their collections of criticism derives from the very biographies they disparage.
Wood, Delbanco, & Co. revere “texts,” Parker observes, even though those “texts” often do not make sense because they have become corrupted—sometimes radically changed by the time they reach print. Working for decades as a scholarly biographer, Parker has been able to restore the author's intentions and to follow “the play of his mind” in a process so unfamiliar to critics that they think Parker is making up his narrative. Indeed, the attacks on his work, Parker argues, have done significant damage not only to his reputation but to the cause of biography.
Some readers may believe Parker overstates the damage that has been done to himself and to biography, but he presents a powerful case with plenty of supporting evidence. The academic mind—at least the one to be found in most English departments—seems a lost cause in Parker's book, which is all the more persuasive because it is an “inside narrative,” composed by a man whose professional life has been spent in higher education institutions.
But wait! There is hope, and it is only a click away. Parker believes the literary bloggers and amateur researchers who have made significant discoveries of Melville documents are to be celebrated and encouraged. Parker, who has kept apace with technological developments, does not spare a moment of lament for shrinking book review pages in mainstream publications. Biography, in his view, has a bright future on the Web.
Carl Rollyson's most recent book is American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath.