Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Entitled Mediocrity"--Comment on Richard Brodhead by R. Parrish in Amazon review of MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY

The big topic here behind Parrish's comment is the disadvantage of elite education to character development.   What Richard Brodhead learned in his decades in elite schools left him what William Deresiewicz calls a member of the "entitled mediocrity"-- unable to function with instinctive grace and originality and power in any intellectual or moral crisis.

R. Parrish’s new comment about Richard Brodhead on the review of MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY by Robert Pratt Hastie

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Joining the Chorus of Praise January 22, 2013
Amazon Verified Purchase
Heartily I join with Jack O'Connell in his chorus of praise for Hershel Parker's marvelous new book Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative. Much of what I would say about it to my friends he has already elegantly enumerated in his review so I won't repeat his points here, with all of which I agree. I would only add that if your subject is Melville, then like the deep-diving writer himself, you have to want more More MORE from his biographer and the only MORE biographer of Melville is Dr. Parker. That he has been attacked by the lesser "researchers" in the field for the archival-based detail-oriented biographic approach (isn't that the essence of scholarship?) is baffling to me and I don't blame him a bit for fighting back in this book with a vitriol equal to that which has been flung at him. (Who can help thinking of Moby-Dick under attack by harpoons?) But what is new here is a rare glimpse of the personal cost of scholarship, not only in regard to inexcusable reviews but to eyes and vertebrae and lungs, day after weary day bending over microfiche machines and difficult-to-decipher documents, seeking out the gold nugget that will increase our understanding of the details of Melville's life. (There is also an update on new information regarding Melville which has been found since the 2-volume biography.) I am especially pleased therefore in this book to learn something of the personal life of this matchless Melville scholar himself. In fact, what is so special about Dr. Parker's 2-volume biography about Melville is that it is all about Melville, not about Parker, whereas in most of the New Criticism biographies the subject of the biography too often is lost in the fog of the self-serving viewpoint of the biographer whose main purpose is to prove some academic/sociologic/sexual thesis. Not so with Dr. Parker who is all Melville all the time. But at least now, with the Inside Narrative, we at last see something of Hershel as well. I am personally delighted.
Robert Pratt Hastie

Initial post: Jan 25, 2013 8:26:04 AM PST Parrish says:
And as an aside...

As someone who followed the Duke lacrosse case closely, it was interesting to also discover within a portrait of Richard Brodhead, and to notice that his earlier attitudes and actions may have foreshadowed the path he was to take a few years later, when confronted with a crisis of another sort, when he was President of Duke University.

In the lacrosse case, he seemed to exhibit a primary concern for public reaction (otherwise known as PR), to the extent that he appeared (at least to this observer) to be willing to sacrifice even innocent students for the sake of a university's image. For example, he stated, when interviewed near the case's end (Jan. 2007), "Why didn't I join with the defense team and file motions with them? Because it was essential that we not be seen as a partisan player in this..." --which is pious-sounding; but it a catch-all excuse which just as easily could have been uttered by a bystander at any lynching; and on reflection, seems (when taken in connection with other examples of Brodhead's indifference or even outright hostility to his falsely-accused students) to suggest a kind of callousness on his part towards the unjustified suffering of others. (Perhaps he was in agreement with Duke's Board Chair, Robert K. Steel, who said it would be "best for Duke" if the falsely-accused went to trial, and even if they were convicted; and when asked to explain his failure to defend them, replied, "Sometimes individuals have to suffer for the good of the organization.")

Towards the author of the Melville biographies, and even towards Melville himself, we seem to see a similar frame of mind exhibited: "Brodhead's false accusations against me must be in some way a consequence of his New Critical training and practice, I decided. In sober truth, if your training leads you to dehumanize Melville, to be blind to his agony, how can you not carry your training over to the way you treat real living people...? If you think that facts about authors are not real and authors are not real, then you may come to see living people outside your own private circle as unreal. Cut them and they do not bleed, or if they do bleed their suffering can never be of the significance of your own discomforts of the discomforts of your class...Some of the behavior of the Melville critics who refuse to look at documentary evidence is innate in their character, I assume, but some of their actions, I would think, must be a consequence of lifelong practice of a dehumanizing literary approach, the New Criticism. Their nature is subdued to what it works in, like the dyer's hand." (p. 173)

Alas, the committee searching for a new president for Duke could not avail itself of the discussions about Brodhead's nature as presented in this volume; otherwise its considerations might have turned in another direction; and its ensuing disgrace (which forever tainted the university for its role in "Scottsboro II") might have been averted.

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