Books to Watch Out For: January
“Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative” (Northwestern University Press), by Hershel Parker, out January 15th. “When I started to work on Melville,” writes Parker, who won two Pulitzers for his landmark biography of the author, “I assumed most of the work had been done.” But he quickly found the existing scholarship to be full of holes and half-answered questions. In his new book, Parker recalls the years he spent delving into archives to piece together the life and literature of his subject. This wide-ranging new book is a recollection of Parker’s own intellectual project, woven together with a history of Melville scholarship and reflections on the state of literary criticism and the nature of the biographer’s project. Parker writes with a rare combination of humor and passion that hooks the reader into this potentially arcane subject.
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Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative is amazing, and deliciously different from Hershel Parker s string of non-retirement works intricately rooted in verifiable facts, precise and reliable as ever, but juicier, braver, and better than anything he has done before now. This Inside Narrative masterfully and entertainingly blends intellectual autobiography, the untold and unexamined history of Melville scholarship, and instructive case studies in the praxis of biography. Research hounds like me, thrilled by Parker s tales of the hunt, will delightedly follow him on the trail of evidence and savor the joy of discovery. Academics across the disciplines will be challenged by Parker s insistent and cogently argued distinction between scholarship and criticism. All readers who cherish truth-seeking and truth-saying will be shocked then heartened by Parker s exposés of bad scholarship, fake scholarship, and the mutual admiration society of celebrity critics. As intellectual autobiography Parker s Inside Narrative is compelling and revealing. In essence Parker demonstrates why his two-volume Melville biography is matchless in scope, depth, accuracy, integrity, and humanity. As the wonderfully intimate autobiography of the biographer and history of the biography, Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative powerfully reveals what you need to acquire, and what you have to give up, to be maestro.--Scott Norsworthy-- Bibliographical Associate on The Writings of Herman Melville and author of Melville s Notes from Thomas Roscoe s The German Novelists.
Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative takes us on an extraordinary journey through the life and mind of Hershel Parker, the world's greatest Melville scholar. Parker vividly retraces his decades as workaday Champollion when he dug through libraries from New Orleans to Hampstead Heath, sacrificing his eyes on newspaper microfilm and 19th-century handwriting as he sussed out the details of the artistic development and financial struggles of Herman Melville. From his harvest of hundreds of primary documents, Parker then wove their revelations into his authoritative and compelling two-volume biography (1996 and 2002).Parker s life's work illustrates Beethoven's great maxim, that genius is the art of taking pains. In Melville Biography Parker frankly describes the uproar his serial revelations about Melville's life created within the clubby little world of self-anointed and self-important Melville critics, all strangers to the archives. This new book will enthrall not just Melville fans, but all fans of great literature. It is must reading for anyone who aspires to research a credible, fact-based biography. It is also must reading for anyone who cares about creating great art, for in its tales of triumph, conflict, and suppression at long last overcome, can be found all that one puts at hazard in setting out on such an unfashionable voyage. In Melville Biography, Parker embodies the title of another book on life-writing, Biography as High Adventure. --James Hime, Edgar finalist for The Night of the Dance, author of other Jeremiah Spur mysteries and the Kindle Book, Three Thousand Bridges.
Imagine our gain if Richard Ellmann had reflected in a book on his lives of Yeats, Wilde, and Joyce. Like Ellmann, Parker has devoted his career to biography, and now in this Inside Narrative offers his harvests of biographical research and thought. Never before has a literary biographer reflected as deeply and frankly on the craft of life-writing and the fate of a documentary biography as Parker does in this companion to his two-volume Herman Melville: A Biography. Lovers of literary biography will rejoice at the revelations of Parker s arduous research, his stunning discoveries, his dazzling handling of mundane evidence, and his hard-won theoretical convictions. Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative is part autobiography and historiography of Melville biography; part exposé of the follies of ahistorical writings on Melville by disciples of the New Criticism and their archivophobic successors; and part a series of exemplary demonstrations of a biographer at work, profiting from evolving online and digital archival resources as well as his decades of traditional archival research. Melville Biography leaves us knowing Herman Melville more intimately than ever, points new researchers toward biographical riches on Melville yet unexplored, offers practical guidance and heartfelt inspiration to any life-writer, and enriches all lovers of literary biography. --Robert A. Sandberg Discoverer- transcriber of Melville s House of the Tragic Poet and design editor for The New Melville Log.
Melville, our greatest novelist, deserves Parker, our greatest biographer. My own opinion is that Parker was robbed of the Pulitzer for Herman Melville: A Biography. Is it too much to hope that the Pulitzer committee corrects its mistake by selecting Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative for next year's prize?
Robert Pratt Hastie
Parker could have published his central section, the exposure of bad scholarship and irresponsible reviewing, without going farther, but the presence of Parts I and III shows the process of scholarship and its fruits in a way that goes far beyond the structured arguments of Part II. Many years ago from Randall's DUKEDOM LARGE ENOUGH I recognized the joy of book collecting and the value of early editions to the scholar. Parker's book should stimulate an equal appreciation of the scholar's life and work at the same time he increases our appreciation of Melville's.
MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE functions as both prologue and epilogue to Herman Melville: A Biography (Herman Melville: A Biography (Volume 1, 1819-1851), Herman Melville: A Biography (Volume 2, 1851-1891)), as Parker's Melville: The Making of the Poet expands his second volume of the big biography. Parker's work compares to that of the great Shakespeare scholars: E. K. Chambers, who in volume after volume established the modern understanding of Shakespeare and his theatre, S. Schoenbaum, who sorted out Shakespeare's lives, and Andrew Gurr, the modern Chambers. None of these had to deal with the resistance Parker did when presenting his profound research, including paradigm-shifting discoveries that were ignored or denied by his reviewers. Hereafter, as Melville said about a contemporary writer, "a grateful posterity will take the best care" of Hershel Parker.
In his groundbreaking new book, Melville Biography - An Inside Narrative, Hershel Parker goes to war against the theorists with an Old Testament wrath. I say, bravo! Parker brilliantly portrays how the rise of theory has degraded academic standards and slowly strangled the art of original research. The apostles of New Criticism argue that it is not important what Herman Melville intended when he wrote his masterworks; nor is it important what impact social events and commercial pressures had on his work. All that matters is the marvelous web of theories the New Critics can spin around his work. Parker calls this out for what it is: a rationalization for laziness, and a supreme act of narcissism.
Behind Parker's rage is a passionate plea for academics not to cede the field of original research to journalists. He fervently hopes they will shake off the fever that has gripped them for almost half a century and embrace once again the fundamentals of scholarship. Anyone concerned about the state of our universities and the quality of our social discourse must read this outstanding book.
--Paul Seydor, author of Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration
Reading Hershel Parker's Melville biography. I don't mean his biography of Melville but his book about writing the Melville biography. He is concerned, though, with much more than Melville. He is really writing a fascinating study of biography as a genre and why it has incurred so much hostility. I'm reviewing the book for The New Criterion.