NEW COMMENT ON MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE—THE FIRST REVIEW SINCE CARL ROLLYSON’S IN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL TO RECOGNIZE THAT THIS IS “A BOOK ABOUT BIOGRAPHY AS A GENRE” AND THAT IT “CONTRIBUTES TO THE RELATIVELY NEW FIELD OF BIOGRAPHY STUDIES,” AS WELL AS BEING A HISTORY OF MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY. I AM QUITE CONTENT WITH THIS REVIEW!
On the back cover of Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative, Harrison Hayford declares ‘Hershel Parker has become, quite simply, the most important Melville scholar of all time.’ This assessment is in keeping with the commanding way in which the author charts the recent history of Melville studies, interweaving his analysis with forthright assertions that leave the reader in no doubt as to Parker’s views on certain trends in literary criticism. Unsurprisingly Parker, who has spent much of his career battling waves of hostile criticism of what he terms ‘documentary facts’, is keen to demonstrate that six decades of ‘unholy war’ against biographical scholarship is finally being challenged. He locates a future for ‘intelligent reviewing’ in personal and ‘litblogs’ which remain outside, although not necessarily therefore above, some of the worst excesses of partisan literary scholarship. As much as it is a critique of Melville studies and more specifically biographical study of Melville, this is a book about biography as a genre. Whilst it is not a manual for the budding biographer, this collection of insights, which explores the difficulties of taking on such an enormous, theoretically fraught task, will serve as a useful case study to anyone wishing to engage themselves as a chronicler of literary lives. Melville Biography also contributes to the relatively new field of biography studies. The book is divided into three sections: the first is an autobiographical account of the researching and writing of Herman Melville: A Biography; the second is a detailed account of the aforementioned critical hostilities Parker sees Melville studies as having faced for well over half a century. Charles N. Feidelson, Jr., and others wither under the magnifying glass of Parker’s loathing for New Criticism and the New York intelligentsia. Blinded by his anger at the ‘dehumanizing’ project of New Criticism the author is not; however, Melville Biography is somewhat weighed down by its disagreements. Nonetheless, Part III presents a productive progenitor of the previous two sections in a discussion of some of the ways in which Parker thinks work on Melville might progress. Using ‘episodes not fully developed’ in his biography or ‘told only in chronological fragments’ Parker ‘invites’ scholars to ‘harness the Internet’; he highlights, in particular, a potential project that would plot ‘the literary and personal interconnections among early British admirers of Moby-Dick’.