Friday, June 8, 2018

AMERICAN LITERATURE (March 1994): "What the Devil Are You Trying to Do to Me" series

Cousin Meriwether and Me.
In 1876 my cousin Colonel Valentine Meriwether McGehee, a lawyer in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, died suddenly, only 35. 
He was interred in a metallic case after the usual time. His funeral was about to take place on the second night of his supposed death. After near thirty hours the watchers over his remains were surprised and horrified by seeing the glass casing of the coffin broken open and the appearance of the corpse's head thrust through the aperture. The colonel spoke to ask, "What the Devil are you trying to do to me?" It is unnecessary to state that he was soon relieved from his uncomfortable situation, and at last accounts he was in a fair way of recovery, and is no doubt worth many dead men yet.

I don't know about genes but I do believe in family traits being passed down. Many is the time I have asked, "WHAT THE DEVIL ARE YOU TRYING TO DO TO ME?"

One time, in 1994, cost me a broken wrist when I tried to run off the pain in the last snow and ice of the year. The “flagship” journal AMERICAN LITERATURE arrived with a whole issue devoted to demolishing Melville as a writer to be studied.

       Paul Lauter laid the groundwork by a selection of quotations supposedly from students: “You really feel belittled when you are reading Melville.” “I know this is art, and I can’t understand it.” “You feel 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 intricte style and his convoluted plotting.

     That was the preface to the collection, almost all hatchet jobs. It was known that I was writing a new biography of Melville, and already in the 1988 Northwestern-Newberry MOBY-DICK I had written a wholly new account of Melville’s meeting of Hawthorne in 1850 while the great book was in progress. It was clear from that account that my biography would be based on hundreds of new letters and many other new documents. It was clear, in particular, that I was redating previous poorly understood or misunderstood accounts, such as the assumption that Melville wrote the essay on Hawthorne before meeting him.

     So what did Julian Markels say? Page 115: “We can easily suppose that Melville’s entire life to that point went into writing Moby-Dick and that everything known about his life is relevant background. But we already have full-scale biographies of Melville, and Hayford tells us here that Parker is writing a new biography.”

Perhaps the cruelest and most ignorant thing ever said about me, although there are many other candidates (such as Richard Brodhead saying that only I in my black hole had ever heard of the 1860 POEMS), was the truly idiotic and malicious comment BUT WE ALREADY HAVE FULL-SCALE BIOGRAPHIES OF MELVILLE.”

          What the Devil were they trying to do to me? The intention of the powers at AMERICAN LITERATURE was clear: I was to be shut down before I could publish the biography , and Melville was to be removed from the canon of American Literature. Cousin Valentine Meriwether McGehee said it for me.

Melville did not want to be "oblivionated" either.


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