Sunday, May 1, 2011

John Bryant's Contempt for Biographical Accuracy series, p. 257 of MELVILLE'S EVERMOVING DAWN

This continues the   "one Aunt Mary is as good as another Aunt Mary" series.

I was personally humiliated by having erroneous footnotes attached to the transcription of what was said at the Biographers' Panel. Now, years later, I see John Bryant's errors as part of a general carelessness about factual accuracy in professors who were taught by New Critics or the children of the New Critics. I will write somewhere about the way practitioners of the New Historicism, in particular, seem to regard biographical names or places or events as decorative items that can be chosen among without doing basic checking. To say Gansevoort died while seeing Melville's first book through the press is to diminish his triumph: at great cost to himself, he succeeded--he held copies of the book. To say that the temperature in Moxon's office was low is to misunderstand the metaphor: Moxon's MANNER was icy, and Melville managed to thaw him a little. This sort of thing matters--to me. And to confuse one Aunt Mary with another is to show no VISUALIZING of the scene, the fault I have complained about as common in Brenda Wineapple's HAWTHORNE: A LIFE. What would the Dorchester aunt be doing in Pittsfield?

These were real living people. They deserve to be thought of that way, not as cardboard pop-ups you can safely shuffle at will. And when documents are available, they ought to be used. Maria Melville's letter and other documents account for hours and hours of 2-4 August 1850 so that the possibility that HM began reading the NH book then was very very slim. He was the host! VISUALIZE! It's strange how important visualizing comes to seem to me as I think on the common contempt for accuracy in biographical matters.


  1. When someone at the 1990 Chicago meeting of the Melville Society put forth the long-since-refuted notion that Hawthorne's Ethan Brand was a portrait of Melville, Hayford demurred, saying, "Then your standard of evidence is different from mine" and "we are on different wave lengths." From the audience came a threatening rumble of Political Correctness like the mutinous muttering in Billy Budd. The meeting went from hostile to toxic. My diary heading is "Into the Lions' Den" but in my memory it became a vision of Hell, one later objectively recorded by Robert Wallace in Melville and Ruskin, even to the man he called the "red-bearded stranger." This satanic Confidence Man fresh from the Infernal Regions stood at the Doorway to the Pit laughing like Mephostophiles and crying out over and over, "FACTS DON'T MATTER!" Afterwards, despairing of the death of scholarship on Melville, I walked so far north along Lake Michigan in the blizzard that I got frostbite. That was my last Melville Society meeting, except the one held in Cancun, where I went so I could climb a pyramid at Chichen Itza.

  2. I have to say, you have more patience than I do. I look at carelessness in Kerouac books and even videos edorsed by the estate, filled to the brim with inaccuracies, I see one and shut it off or close the book. i cant bring myself to waste my time in what seems to be willful erring, committed largely in part to preserve the mythmaking devised by Allen Ginsberg and all of the biographers that sought him out for the "truth" on Kerouac.