Monday, April 25, 2011

Biographer at work: one report from the trenches, 1992

Writing Melville biography in 1992.

“So-—moments of triumph, hours of focussing, moving, selecting, shaping. Thank God for the computor.”

Now, it’s possible some biographer at some time had absolutely nothing else to do but write the biography. I am assuming that other biographers beside me lamented over and over again the effects of interruptions, both unavoidable ones like death and classes and casual, thoughtless ones. 1992 was difficult. We moved from one state to another. We had 2 deaths in the immediate family (a mother and brother); my rotator cuff was ripped painfully in January but surgery was postponed all year to appease the insurance company; I worked on a major revision of THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE and made several research trips.

Most recurrent theme: The threat of interruptions and actual interruptio

Professional activities:
Member of the National Endowment for the Humanities Publications Subvention panel, 29 May 1992

Author of the eulogy of Merton M. Sealts, Jr., and presenter of the Hubbell Medal to him at the American Literature Section luncheon, at the New York City MLA, December 28, 1992.

"Melville as Sex Symbol," given at a panel on Melville at the 3 April 1992 NEMLA meeting in Buffalo, New York.

"Extraordinary Twins: The New Critics and the New Historicists Read Pudd'nhead Wilson," given at the Society for the Study of Southern Literature, Clemson, S. C., April 25, 1992.

"The Morewoods' Fancy-Dress Pic-nics at Melville Lake," given on August 8, 1992, before the Berkshire County Historical Society, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, at a fund-raiser for Melville's house, Arrowhead; the other speaker was the artist and Melville-lover, Maurice Sendak.

"Melville as Sex Symbol," repeated in a longer version at Nantucket, Massachusetts, in the Great Hall of the Athenaeum, October 13, 1992.

"'Poems by Herman Melville' (1860) and the Purpose of Melville's Reading on his Voyage around the Horn on the Meteor" delivered at "The American Renaissance and Historical Scholarship," an MLA session organized by David Reynolds for December 1992, NYC. (David S. Reynolds, Jerome Loving, Hershel Parker; Philip Gura respondant.)

Critical Essays on Herman Melville's MOBY-DICK, eds. Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), xiii and 570. For this collection Higgins and I wrote the long introduction, pp. 1-36, and I wrote a separate piece for a "New Essays" section at the end of the volume, to which John Wenke and David S. Reynolds also contributed.

"Moby-Dick and Domesticity," pp. 545-562, in Critical Essays on Herman Melville's MOBY-DICK, eds. Brian Higgins and Hershel Parker (New York: G. K. Hall, 1992), pp. 545-562.

"Letter to the Editor," Analytical & Enumerative Bibliography (1992), New Series 6, nos. 3 & 4, 216-217, response to an earlier letter from Fredson Bowers. (Published October 1994 although dated 1992.)

Perhaps my way of working was unusual. I had spent whole years transcribing new Melville documents into an increasingly massive computer LOG and now was reading long stretches of months and years in order to see how to break the information into clear narrative units.

Sample diary entries on 1853-1854:

30 July 1992: Worked on July-Sept. 1853. 12 pages after 2 days. Put in Happy, Fiddler, Cock, & something about Bartleby. John Hoadley. Lizzie neglected. So—moments of triumph—hours of focussing, moving, selecting, shaping. Thank God for the computor.

31 July 1992: Terribly hot & humid. Worked on 1853 in night & finished it early after getting back up. Then faced the awkwardness of 1854 & at last decided on narrative plus sections on long term CHANGES set in motion— Extremely difficult to isolate, leaving HM & Augusta & Lizzie & Composition to be told as narrative. Did not write at all—worked at organizing.

2 August 1992: 1854 = HARD—but I am writing & it only gets better.

3 August 1992: Some progress on 1854, organizing thematically the section to go after the wedding in January—before the year as it relates to HM & Lizzie & poor Augusta.

11 August 1992 [after trip to Gansevoort and Pittsfield]: Putting stuff in LOG and putting little touches in biography—surprising how much I brought back—including the clipping on Hoadley that gave me my key to Kate. At a novelistic phase—keys to character—Hoadley’s low confidential whisper.

20 August 1992 on talk with Hayford on phone (before he had read any of my drafts): “then talk about how different it is because of [so much new] information and because I am not Leon.”

1 comment:

  1. “So-—moments of triumph, hours of focussing, moving, selecting, shaping. Thank God for the computor.”

    Reviewers who had never performed archival work seized on my description of my THE NEW MELVILLE LOG to tell the world that I had focused on nothing, selected nothing, shaped nothing, and thought not at all. What can you do with them but over-praise them and restrict them to a few New York newspapers and magazines?

    Take the critic James Wood, the one who did not know that "redundant" in MOBY-DICK was a Miltonic term. According to Wood, I had confessed that in writing this "biography" (or "semi-biography"?) I had assembled documents chronologically in my computer then "simply moved chunks of the LOG from one computer file to the other," not bothering to construct a single sentence of prose of my own. This is, let me say, not what I said. I made no such confession. It is not what I did. The only time I moved chunks of the Log into the biography was to avoid retyping some passage I was intending to quote. I was saving effort and trying not to introduce new errors. Wood seems to suffer from the common malady among reviewers, the fear of documents: “My God, they might contain information no one had ever known before! Suppress them!”

    The ignorant arrogance of New York City reviewers of Melville books! Wineapple! Brodhead! Delbanco! Wood!