Sunday, April 17, 2011

Irresponsible Reviewers Series--Brenda Wineapple

Brenda Wineapple and Ferocious Jealousy

The most scathing review of my biography of Melville was the one Brenda Wineapple published in the NATION for 2 May 2002, nominally a review of the second volume but fueled by rage toward the first. I was like Edmund Morris in DUTCH, not a careful biographer but one driven by fantasy, doing documentary research which would have been commendable had I not constantly veered between documentary evidence and fantastic departure from it. I had hoped the reviewers would say, “Thank you.”

Most baffling to me was Wineapple’s depiction of my attitude toward Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Here is Wineapple on the second volume: “Parker focuses on Melville's relationship to Hawthorne. But it's one of his book's more contradictory themes, since Parker is irritated by the pairing. Neighbors only for eighteen months, the two authors afterward saw one another about [why “about”?] three more times but in the nineteenth-century eye were yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, ‘if remembered at all,’ snaps Parker ‘as a man who had known Hawthorne, the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox months.’"

[Well, not in the “nineteenth-century eye.” Yes, in the tourist articles on the Berkshires in the 1850s and after they began again, postwar, in the later 60s, then in the 1870s when Hawthorne’s family began relying on Melville’s letters to fill out their accounts of Hawthorne in the Berkshires. The linkage of the two men was anything but general: it was specific to the Lenox months, and it was not anywhere I can think of in criticism on Hawthorne.—]

[Whoa! It’s hard not to stop to clarify and correct Wineapple. I will do that in a separate post.]

Wineapple went on: “Of course, Parker isn't the first biographer implicitly to lay the blame for Melville's neglect at Hawthorne's feet.” This is simply wildly irresponsible. Hawthorne had nothing to do with the neglect of Melville and I never said he did.

Sure, if he had been a different sort of man at a less hectic stage of life Hawthorne might have helped Melville’s career by reviewing MOBY-DICK, but it is Wineapple, not me, who blames Hawthorne for taking “Melville literally when he said not to write about it.” For him to write about MOBY-DICK would have been embarrassing. What would newswpaper editors say if you praised a book dedicated to you? Then Wineapple went on with a wholly irrelevant comment on another biographer: “Laurie Robertson-Lorant, whose earnest Melville: A Biography appeared the same year as the first installment of Parker's biography, doesn't much like Hawthorne.”

Wineapple goes on: “Despite Melville's capaciousness, Parker is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne's posthumous reputation and Melville's sinking one. Parker closely identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn't like Melville.”

Earlier I "snapped" and now I am “riled”? Lawsy me! No. Years ago the British-educated Brian Higgins explained to me why some critics seemed not to understand the points we were making so clearly. I think I can recapture his words: “They just don’t understand the level we operate at, Hershel.” We laughed then delightedly and repeated the saying thereafter, but I want to say it now with great seriousness. Wineapple, as Denis Donoghue said in the 28 September 2003 Los Angeles TIMES, often wrote vulgarly, “in the style of romantic fiction.” Her cheeky, flippant word choices show that she just did not understand the high earnestness, the gravitas of my biography.

Envious? Riled “by Hawthorne’s posthumous reputation”? This makes no sense to me at all. I do mention jealousy in a particular context, Melville’s returning in 1869 to the Curtis Hotel, where he had last seen Hawthorne before he left Lenox: Melville, I say, “began to reflect (jealously, skeptically, judiciously, and still lovingly) on the mental, aesthetic, and physical characteristics of the man who had so bewitched him and now so outshone him.” See how far those words are from what Wineapple accuses me of.

Wineapple: But alas, Melville was in fact forgotten in America until his own posthumous revival in the 1920s, especially in Britain, when, Parker declares more than once, Moby-Dick and sometimes Pierre take their place in a literary pantheon that does not include the establishment writer (according to Parker) Hawthorne. "Not one of all these British admirers ever asked Melville what it had been like to be a friend of Hawthorne," Parker writes near the end of his book. "They understood that Hawthorne, like Longfellow, was immensely popular but not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman." Take that, you American fools.”

“Take that, you American fools”? This cheap, vulgar tone is not mine.
I gave Hawthorne the graceful respect Melville always showed toward him and toward Vine, the character in whom he recorded (and perhaps then worked out) his own feelings toward Hawthorne. I am sure I never wrote anything in either volume which could be considered a slight toward Hawthorne. It was simply a fact, and still is, that much as I admire his best work I cannot accord him the high status that I gladly give to Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson. That is not a slap at Hawthorne, and it was not a slap at American readers. It is a simple fact that London had a cadre of brilliant reviewers all through the 19th century and New York and Boston did not.

Wineapple ascribed to my biography with a view of Hawthorne so unfamiliar to me that I have had to look through my own writing to see what could have led her toward her interpretation. I find nothing was there to push her toward words like “irritated” and “snaps.” One hesitates to psychoanalyze a living biographer, but I think I have an idea what happened. Wineapple had come to despise Hawthorne, and, driven by fear that I might get more than a mere “finalist” award from the Pulitzer judges, and thereby queer her chances the next year, she attributed to me much of her own antipathy toward Hawthorne.

Here I quote Denis Donoghue in four paragraphs of diminishing length:
“Hawthorne was, according to the image she [Wineapple] conveys, a miserable, whining man, aloof, self-obsessed, determined to be unhappy. Wherever he lived, he wanted to be somewhere else. On one page Wineapple calls him a prude and a boor, on another page a racist. Has she lived too long with him? I wonder. Biographers often grow to dislike their subjects. Lawrance Thompson, Robert Frost’s official biographer, came to detest him long before completing the second volume of the biography. Wineapple seems to have wearied of her subject and become exasperated with his debility.

“It’s hard to say what she especially dislikes in Hawthorne. With a wife and three children, he needed money and kept on grasping for it, but he can’t be blamed for that. . . . . Hawthorne kept his eye on the main chance.

“But I don’t think Wineapple is distressed by such acts of prudence. She is incensed by his passivity and the moral claim he made for it. . . . Wineapple wants to cuff Hawthorne about the ears . . . .

“Wineapple doesn’t bring forward the more agreeable side of Hawthorne’s character . . . .”

Yes, Donoghue laid it all out: something about her own feelings toward Hawthorne (all aside from hopes of the Pulitzer) had her so “riled” that she projected them onto me, all innocent as I was.

I never portrayed Melville as merely or mainly envious of Hawthorne, not even in my chapters on CLAREL, in which I assume, like Bezanson, that Vine is based on Hawthorne. Melville was not engaged in a vendetta against his own friend. He had, starting very early, in 1851, understood that Hawthorne had serious limitations, needed roast beef done rare, but nevertheless he valued him as a man and as a writer, grieved at his death, and reread him admiringly, although he had long since thought his way past some of Hawthorne’s best ideas. To compare “The Artist of the Beautiful” to “The Piazza” is to see how much farther into aesthetics Melville was consciously going past Hawthorne, early in 1856. In the late 1860s Melville would have been superhuman not to have felt moments of envy at the (no one dared say) absurd exaltation of Hawthorne’s reputation in the late 1860s. (I trace this phenomenon in detail in a chapter of the forthcoming MELVILLE AND BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE).

As he wrote CLAREL Melville was able to take an objective look at the man who had meant and still meant much to him. He saw all the alluring grace, still, and reflected his own excessive early admiration in Clarel’s attitude toward Vine. But at a telling moment Melville makes it clear that he knew that Hawthorne’s race of thought long since was run. At one point (2.733) I say: “In his thoughts of his friend and in his poem, these months, Melville was leading a steady, poised life.” Neither Melville nor I were out to disparage Hawthorne. To talk of the failure of his powers is not to attack him.

[An aside: Hawthorne people sometimes act weirdly on the subject of his intelligence. At the Pittsfield conference to celebrate the centennial of CLAREL I gave a long talk on Melville’s portrayal of Vine. At the end of it a man stood up in the middle of the hall and frothed and foamed at the mouth for several very long minutes in indignation at my talk and especially the conclusion, about Hawthorne’s race of though being long since run. I heard that Helen Vendler, who had just read the poem, kept whispering, “He’s right, he’s right,” meaning that I was right. I never learned who the man was, and he wiped out any possibility for rational discussion.]

In the 1860s Melville had no way of knowing the agonies Hawthorne endured in trying to write his unfinished romances—except the way any reader of excerpts in the Atlantic would have. Without such knowledge, he nevertheless understood Hawthorne’s decline, and pitied it. I gather from her wording that Wineapple has not read the manuscripts of the late romances but derives her information from books printed by the descendants, even more than from the new scholarly editions. She refers to “the crude claimant manuscripts” but she does not indicate that she knows the history of their composition. Understanding the sequence of their inscription, of course, is a task any biographer ought to undertake, at least to the point of verifying the work of Hawthorne’s fraudulently packaging heirs and his modern scholarly editors.

As it happens, I know a good deal about the unfinished romances. In 1974 and 1975 I spent many weeks on the manuscripts as I criticized two “Historical Notes” line by line (notes to volumes titled to reflect Julian’s packaging). I worked to clarify the textual policy, and after great effort got the editors to move pretty far away from a truly inhuman, unusable way of recording manuscript variants (a Bowersian mad-scientist system in which you worked 25 minutes to unravel textual instructions to get to information that could have been displayed in 8 seconds if simple chronology had been followed).

In my deferential Southern way, I pushed the editors very hard to abandon the titles attached to odd pieces of manuscript by the descendants. No one else in their lifetime would do a scholarly edition, so this was the time to make an absolutely fresh start. The editors at length agreed to call the volumes descriptively, THE ELIXIR OF LIFE MANUSCRIPTS and THE AMERICAN CLAIMANT MANUSCRIPTS.

In the ELIXIR volume I see a note dated 1 December 1982: “They don’t thank me anywhere? –I thought more about these volumes than they did! see 1974 & 1975 reports!” Well, Fredson Bowers is listed in both volumes as “General Textual Editor.” That explains that silence! I was content enough with helping to assure that the unfinished romances were published in a form accessible to readers.

In 1974 and 1975, I read those unfinished manuscript in absolute horror at what they revealed of the decay of Hawthorne’s mind.

Now, 75 years old myself, I shudder as I look at a few Xerox pages of Hawthorne’s manuscripts and at 504 in the CLAIMANT volume where some of Hawthorne’s laments are gathered: “All this amounts to just nothing. I don’t advance a step.” “I can’t possibly make this out, though it keeps glimmering before me.” “’Twont do, Oh, heavens!” William Manchester would have understood! I understand, being fearful of my health even in the early 1990s—so fearful than I drafted the second half of Melville’s life first, in case it was too sad for me to finish when the time came. Any earnest writer would pity Hawthorne for his facing the loss of his powers.

Yes, let’s be honest. It seems to me that a biographer of Hawthorne owes it to the reader to take on the appalling task of determining what relation Hawthorne’s vaunted early “ambiguity” has to the irresolution obvious in his lamentations in these late manuscripts. What happened between marvelous early stories and the, well, hapless parts of the late romances?

So, as I say, when I wrote the biography I knew a great deal about Hawthorne’s manuscripts, still, and in the early 1980s I had worked out for the first time that Fields definitely had nothing to do with the length of THE SCARLET LETTER though he had much to do with the way it was published, separately aside from the Custom House essay. Besides I had learned a lot about Hawthorne biography during the many years I had taught his stories and romances and edited some of them for collections, notably THE NORTON ANTHOLOGY OF AMERICAN LITERATURE.

I knew a good deal about Hawthorne, and I treated him with respect throughout my biography. Wineapple knew astonishingly little about Melville, as I will make clear in another post.

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