Thursday, August 29, 2013

Herman Melville and the Collapse of AMERICAN LITERATURE as a Scholarly Journal

Cathy Davidson in her "New Melville" issue of AMERICAN LITERATURE (March 1994) gave  Paul Lauter lavish space in the lead article to explain why his students' "distaste for Melville" was understandable. He quoted his students sympathetically: "'You really feel belittled when you're reading Melville,' one said. 'I know this is art, and I can't understand it.' 'You feel,' another added, that 'something's wrong with you; that you're missing something.' My students seemed actively to dislike Melville, to feel humiliated by the prose and ignorant before the dense web of Melville's allusive, syntactically intricate style and his convoluted plotting." Melville, Lauter said, had become "a representative of what they hated about their academic training." Lauter concluded: "For them, the modernist preference for difficult, indeed obscure, texts is no virtue; it may, in fact, reflect a process deeply infected by class standards, whose effect is to marginalize them culturally."

Davidson's NEW MELVILLE issue accomplished part of its apparent goal, for a while. At least one female reader announced that she would never teach Melville again.

Davidson's NEW MELVILLE issued what amounted to a ferocious CEASE AND DESIST order against my work on a biography of Melville: "WE ALREADY HAVE FULL-SCALE BIOGRAPHIES OF MELVILLE."

Perhaps foolishly, after the initial shock and dismay at the March 1994 issue of AMERICAN LITERATURE, I gathered up my strength and finished the biography in, it turned out, two volumes, each full of absolutely new episodes in Melville's life and even more revelatory sidelights on many episodes already known.

I worked for many years transcribing documents and trying to make sustained narrative from them.

Here is what AMERICAN LITERATURE did with the second volume, after Richard Brodhead, Andrew Delbanco, and Elizabeth Schultz had already damned me as an unreliable biographer because I had mentioned that Melville finished a book in 1853 (something we had known about since 1960) and finished another in 1860 (something we had known about since 1922). I was not worth slandering any further, not after Delbanco had said that everything in both volumes was suspect. I did, however, merit a "brief mention":

in “Brief Mention”
Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851–1891 . By Hershel Parker. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press. 2002. xvii, 997 pp. $45.00.
"What? a thousand-page second volume on four decades when nothing happens?" Hershel Parker imagines this response from potential readers, given that previous biographers have, at best, glossed over this period of Melville's life. Although his turn to magazine fiction produced some now celebrated pieces, the poetry Melville wrote for over thirty years is generally considered unimportant. Nonetheless, Parker asserts, Melville's life and career were far from over in 1851, and he uses his meticulous archival research on family letters and diaries, newspaper articles, and marginalia from books read by Melville to prove it.

Look, look, at how many books on Melville AMERICAN LITERATURE has given substantial reviews in the last decades and look at what AMERICAN LITERATURE has done to real archival work on Melville in that time. Shame, shame.

“The study of English . . . isn’t a science, and so the “research” you do is, as my colleague Louis Menand has pointed out, archival futzing aside, not really research.” So says Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker blog for 27 August 2013.
Now that almost no English professors are guilty of “archival futzing,” is there any reason that universities should support English departments?

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