Monday, April 18, 2011

Brenda Wineapple's Defilement of the Agnus Dei and Melville


On the editorial reviews of Brenda Wineapple’s 2003 HAWTHORNE: A LIFE are, as they say now, to die for. Sacvan Bercovitch was ecstatic: “Clearly the best biography of Hawthorne; the Hawthorne for our time. Beautifully conceived and written, it conveys the full poignancy and complexity of Hawthorne’s life; it makes vivid the times and people and places, and what a rich array of people and events! A delight to read from start to end.”

Benita Eisler, we know from Wineapple’s acknowledgments, is a buddy of Wineapple’s, but she overcame her familiarity in this objective comment: “Brenda Wineapple’s Hawthorne is, quite literally, an electrifying life. The power and sweep of the writing galvanizes a subject frozen, by earlier biographies, into a series of stills. We understand, finally, a man and artist torn by every conflict of his time, adding a few of his own, a man both strange and strangely familiar. The great achievement of this stunning biography lies in the feat of restoring Hawthorne to the rich and roiling America of his own period, while revealing him, for the first time, as our contemporary.”

Robert D. Richardson was awe-struck: “With the possible exception of Herman Melville, no one has ever understood the grand tragic Shakespearian nature of Nathaniel Hawthorne's life and work as well as Brenda Wineapple. Her brilliant, powerful, nervy, unsettling and riveting book is authoritatively researched and beautifully written; it has itself the dark mesmeric power of a Hawthorne story.”

And so the quotations go, down to Jamie Spencer’s: “Wineapple is a splendid stylist and a master of concision. She can capture an entire personality and life in a brief paragraph. She can define a complex amatory relationship in a sentence. Her eloquent hands bring Hawthorne vividly alive for us.”

I hate it when I disagree with experts, as I frequently do with the idolators of James Wood, and I hate it when I think back to the 1840s when there was in the reviewing coteries of Manhattan something then known as the Mutual Admiration Society, and, having thought back, look askance at modern reviewing in such revered organs as the New York TIMES, the NATION, the NEW YORKER, the NEW REPUBLIC, and THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS.

I know something of Hawthorne and more of Melville, and I find only one reviewer who has been honest about Wineapple, Denis Donoghue, and only in an organ far distant from Manhattan, the Los Angeles TIMES. He found that Wineapple’s prose frequently lapsed into “the style of romantic fiction” and quoted examples of vulgarities of language.

I stayed away from Wineapple’s biography of Hawthorne for years because I was so shocked by her quite savage dismissal of my biography of Melville as a companion to Edmund Morris’s DUTCH, as dishonest as any review I have ever seen, but I mustered my declining forces and read it, starting with the passages on Herman Melville, where I feel most secure, even if I am secure only in my fantasy, as Wineapple declared. In HAWTHORNE: A LIFE Wineapple is nowhere near as contemptuous of me: it is as if after having knocked me out of contention for a Pulitzer in a popular magazine she had blocked the whole review from her mind and assumed no one would remember it.

[It strikes me that Wineapple's behavior is like Andrew Delbanco's saying in 2002 in the NEW REPUBLIC that I could not be trusted anywhere because I made up THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and POEMS then in his 2005 book casually mentioning the existence of THE ISLE OF THE CROSS and POEMS, but not bringing up his having so vehemently challenged their existence in 2002. To savagely review my biography in 2002 was to write for the eyes of the Pulitzer judges, of course. In 1997 the Pulitzer jury reported that the first volume of my biography of Herman Melville contained "great passages of exciting writing." My biography would "be the one that scholars and Melville fans will be reading and referring to for the next fifty years. . . . This biography is a stunning achievement." Wineapple, Richard H. Brodhead, and Delbanco knew that I had been a finalist in 1997 and could not risk the next jury feeling the same way the 1997 jury had felt. What if there were no misery memoir like ANGELA'S ASHES to captivate the jury by its brevity, as one of the judges later confessed?--A misery memoir marketed honestly in the UK and Ireland as fiction, by the way, as Trevor Butterworth reported.]

I am horrified, utterly appalled at the casualness of Wineapple's telling about Hawthorne and Melville, for casualness slides quickly into carelessness. One passage I have mentioned in another post and call attention to it here because I simply cannot understand how any of her admirers failed to alert her to a gaff so humiliating that it should send her out of the field of biography forever. I am talking about lambs.

Appallingly, all but unbelievably, Wineapple misquoted what Melville wrote Hawthorne three or four days or so after their farewell meeting in Lenox at the Wilson (later Curtis) Hotel in mid November 1851 This was in response to Hawthorne’s letter which, from the evidence, praised MOBY-DICK—praised it very highly, maybe even extravagantly. According to Wineapple, Melville professed in the aftermath of reading Hawthorne’s praise to "feel spotless as a lamb."

We are dependent upon Rose Hawthorne Lathrop's transcription, but this daughter of Hawthorne's knew a Biblical reference when she saw one. Melville felt then, after reading Hawthorne's letter, anyone who knows the Bible or falteringly consults a biblical concordance would have recognized, as spotless as Jesus, the Lamb of God. Wineapple apparently visualized Melville as the Pittsfield farmer who milked his own cow and had been around exceptionally clean sheep, if he was going to say that he felt "spotless as a lamb."

Well, Melville HAD been around the Melvill farm when there were sheep, and nearby when sheep went astray, as in November 1837, when there was a notice in the Pittsfield SUN, accompanied by a woodcut of a sheep: “STRAYED From the subscriber on or about the first inst. sixteen sheep, consisting of thirteen EWES and three WETHERS marked by a crop of the left ear. Whoever shall return said Sheep, or give information where they may be found, shall be liberally rewarded. / ROBERT MELVILL.”

But Melville felt as spotless as Jesus, not as bedraggled as these 13 ewes and three wethers or any other besoiled sheep he had seen in New York or Massachusetts.

Think what this means: think what Wineapple missed of Melville’s religious nature and his sometimes reckless application of religious terms to mundate affairs or to his own high theological skepticism and all but instinctive belief. Baa-baa, thinks Wineapple, spotless as a lamb. Can you trust anything she says about Melville, Hawthorne, and religion?

Wineapple misquoted the text of Melville’s letter so as to desecrate the Biblical meaning just as she trivialized the whole of the last encounter in the Berkshires of these two momentous men. In another post I will give some embarrassing examples of Wineapple’s casualness with fact sliding fast into carelessness and outright error. I say embarrassing. This sort of thing ought to be embarrassing to Wineapple, but I find that I am embarrassed myself, partly for Hawthorne and Melville, I suppose, and partly for the sake of the ideal of the responsible biographer, who first absorbs all that has previously been garnered reliably and then does no new harm.

Not one of Wineapple’s ecstatic friends saved her from her baa-baa blunder. Not one of Wineapple’s ecstatic reviewers mentioned it. You see why I keep thinking of Duyckinck and Mathews or Mathews and Duyckinck and the Mutual Admiration Society of 1840s Manhattan.

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