Saturday, September 9, 2023

Puzzled Reviewers of (DAYSWORK) and my relief and pleasure at the book when it came.

             A very strange thing happened to me this week because a book called  DAYSWORK was about half on  Melville.  The reviews made it pretty clear that Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel had had a high old time making fun of me.

 I was notified in the Washington Post that "Hershel Parker, the crusty and dogged author of a 2000-page tome on Melville, here [is] referred to only as The Biographer . . . .[There is a] digression is on . . . two oystermen who rowed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1896 and who inspired The Biographer." "They were not only brave but, by God, they could row!"

I went across the street to ask a neighbor to see the Wall Street Journal. Again, "dogged." "Two dogged Melville chroniclers nearly sunk by their labors were Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. . . . Parker, archly referred to as 'the Biographer," comes under frequent ribbing for his exhaustive, overly flattering two-volume life of Melville, published in the late 1990s. Elizabeth Hardwick's short biography of Melville--which "the Biographer" disparages as a "booklet"—also catches the authors' interest."

Then the Sewanee Review quoted long passages from Dayswork on me, the "most comprehensive of his numerous biographers, . . . legendary for his staggering precision and his devotion to his hero.” But I sinned by being willing to forgive him for something that angered a daughter.

Then the Boston Globe appeared: "Among the recurring guest stars is ’the Biographer,' never named but clearly the epic Melville chronicler Hershel Parker, depicted over the course of the novel as a bit of an obsessive, possessive crank. At one point, the narrator points to an instance in which the Biographer took it upon itself to correct a word choice of Melville’s long-suffering wife, Elizabeth Shaw Melville. This leads her to a chain of observations on penmanship, famous authors, and their (often female) transcribers. . . . Hardwick also wrote a book about Melville, called, simply, “Herman Melville,” which, we learn, the Biographer sneeringly dismissed.

Well, reading it would be disheartening, but I had to have a copy to add to new shipments going to the Collection at the Berkshire Athenaeum. So I ordered it. I also ordered from eBay an advance, uncorrected copy for a few dollars cheaper.

         You would not believe it unless you ignored the reviews! Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel had not crucified me. I knew what that felt like: I still see Richard Brodhead and his bloody hammer and Andrew Delbanco with the bloody nails he had pulled out because he bent them going in. I had, they claimed, invented Poems, which we had known about since 1922, and merely made up "The Isle of the Cross." I could not be trusted anywhere in either volume. My reputation never recovered: after all, these critics were writing in the New York Times and the New Republic. They were at great schools. They must have toiled for years and years on Melville documents.

         Yes, the writers of DAYSWORK disapproved of me a couple of times and said things a little askew because I had never explained something fully, but the Globe was right, I am among "the recurring guest stars." Yes, they invade my privacy a time or two in very hurtful ways. But they see me as I see myself, not only brave, but as persistent as Harbo and Samuelsen. If I were to make a list of the dozen times I deservedly felt most triumphant, even exalted, at achieving something unknown and wonderful about Melville, I would see that Chris and Jennifer had seized on six or seven out of the dozen. Make it a poulter's dozen, and as I think I may add a few more. Anyhow, they understand that archival research can be triumphant, as it was several times in my long career. They understand greatness in writers and occasional grandeur in toilers in the archives.

         Now, those silly reviewers. They were stumbling about blindfolded. They had those advance uncorrected copies. I have the real thing, and I swear I was happy with it even after seeing the first page of the acknowledgments and  thinking, OK, I have been left out before. 

    Later I turned the page: Chris Bachelder and Jennifer Habel say: "We relied on the efforts of too many to name, but we would like to acknowledge the achievements of Hershel Parker, the Biograper, whose prodigious research and writing about Melville we found invaluable."








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