Wednesday, January 30, 2013

MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: Another day to go on the NEW YORKER blog "Books to Watch Out For: January"

NEW YORKER blog 3 January 2013—Up all month of January

January 3, 2013

Books to Watch Out For: January

Posted by The New Yorker

“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 Hershel Parker's history of the writing of Melville biographies, enriched by his intimate working relationships with great Melvilleans, dead and living. The first part is a mesmerizing autobiographical account of what went into creating his award-winning two-volume life of Herman Melville. Next, Parker traces six decades the persistent war New Critics have waged against biographical scholarship on Melville. American literary critics, he finds, impose New Critical theories of organic unity on Melville's disrupted career even while truncating his body of work and minimizing his aesthetic interests. Parker celebrates the "divine amateurs" who use new technology to discover dazzling Melville stories and also lauds the writers of literature blogs as potential redeemers of academic and mainstream media reviewing. In the third part, Parker invites readers into his biographical workshop and challenges them with ambitious research assignments. Throughout this bold book, Parker seeks to reinvigorate the all-but-lost art of scholarly literary criticism and biography.

Reviews (for blurbs):

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.

Hershel Parker's Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative is the cap-stone to the vital contributions he has made to the stony field of Herman Melville scholarship. The book infuses humor, irony, and scholarly insight to the art of understanding Melville and his entire body of work, along with a sobering survey of Melville scholarship from the past 100 hundred years (both its groundbreaking accomplishments and its more corrosive counterparts).This book stands as a stoic testament to a field of research flamed solely by zeal and Spartan tenacity. Parker's process arrives to the truth of the matter in a field littered with the rambling surmises of New Critics hoping to eradicate authorial insight in favor of critical skewerings. Parker not only stands for the tried and true ways of literary tradition, but also embraces the potential of the Internet and blogging to enable the potential of new information as well as finding new ways to reach an audience that continues to expand generation after generation. Herman Melville: An Inside Narrative has reshaped my own aesthetic and technique toward literary biography as well as brought new appreciation for Hershel Parker and that ungraspable phantom, the spirit of Herman Melville, that fuels the entire scope of his scholarly cosmos. --Paul Maher--Author of Kerouac: His Life and Work and Jack Kerouac's American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the Road.

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.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating and Beautifully Written! January 17, 2013
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If you have any interest in Melville, Moby-Dick, literary biography ... or beautiful, lucid prose, Professor Parker's magnificent new book is for you. I can't recommend it highly enough. Imagine: A brilliant scholar who can write! No wonder Parker understands Melville better than any of the many Melvillians working today--he is a fellow writer. The book is chock-full of so many illuminating and fascinating elements. Whether he is explaining to us--always so clearly and entertainingly--what he knows of Melville's hotel dinner with Hawthorne, at which HM presented one of the first copies of Moby-Dick to its deidcatee, and how he knows it, or elucidating the enormity of the cost HM (and his family) paid for his genius and it manifestation on paper, Parker is always your favorite college lecturer--wise, informed, enthused, reasoned, often funny, and empathetic. He desires to tell you why he loves Melville and why you will, too. Parker also knows the value of archival research--and the hours and miles logged during the creation of his definitive two-volume life of HM are stunning. Mr. Parker has the ability to convey the excitement of the true research scholar in the moment of "the find," as in this passage: "There will always be a few literary detectives who devote months or years to the pursuit of documents in the confidence that at last they will sit at midnight in a little bare motel room in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and turn through a big shoebox full of what looks like only bills of lading until they spy a blue folded paper, clearly a letter, a letter with the signature `Really Thine, H Melville'..."
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?
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5.0 out of 5 stars Joining the Chorus of Praise January 22, 2013
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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
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Good Time Coming January 22, 2013
Parker's new book was on display at MLA in Boston earlier this month (Jan 2013), so I bought one of the copies on the spot. Much controversy surrounded Parker's earlier two-volume biography of Melville, and I wanted to see how Parker would shape his public justification in this work. The book accomplishes that, but in the larger context of Parker's own life of scholarship and continuing discoveries in Melville Biography.

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.

5.0 out of 5 stars You Must Read This Book!, January 23, 2013
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This review is from: Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (Hardcover)
Over the past 40 years a virus has invaded the cloistered enclaves of academia. A virus called "theory" -- literary theory, film theory, art theory, architectural theory, Semiotics, and New Criticism to name just a few strains. Each version boils down to the same thing: a secret language created by inbred academics permeated with multisyllabic nonsense words, and tortured incomprehensible syntax that does not seek to communicate meaning, but to obscure it to all but a chosen few. These phantasmagoric theories do not teach students how to write a novel, a work of nonfiction, or how to paint, or sculpt, or build a house. It is an astounding fraud perpetrated on unsuspecting university students and the parents who have to mortgage their homes to pay for this carnival midway malarkey.

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.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspired and inspirational, January 26, 2013
Paul Seydor (Los Angeles, California USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative (Hardcover)
Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative is Hershel Parker's answer to numerous requests for a one volume version of his magisterial two volume biography of Herman Melville. Reasoning, plausibly, that the moment a single volume appeared, no one would read the original, Professor Parker gives us instead this splendid, wholly new book, which is actually several books in one, among them a biography of a biography; an autobiography of the biographer retracing all the many paths, places, departures, travels, destinations, by ways, swings, and roundabouts, both actual and virtual, by which writers get to know and become intimate with their subject; an odyssey, at once intellectual, spiritual, and deeply personal, of an esteemed literary critic and scholar engaging, grappling, and struggling with some of the largest, most important and central issues of scholarship and criticism of the past century. Parker, a brilliant thinker, can match the most arcane theorists on their own turf, but his is no dry, academic tome: written with verve, style, breathless energy, and unflagging enthusiasm (in the best Emersonian sense of that word), this book is also a stunning critique and stinging rebuke to half a century of critical theory and practice, both inside the academy and outside it in the world of book reviewing and commentary, beginning with the New Criticism and going through structuralism, deconstructionism, postmodernism, to the New Historicism, movements that seek to strip literature and the other arts of every human, social, cultural, and historical context except that of the work itself as an aesthetic object or structure. Arguing against so called "organic unity"--which, as it grew out of the New Criticism, should really be called "hermetically sealed unity"--Parker seeks to restore criticism and scholarship to the study of that far more human and humane, to say nothing of real, unity: that of the artist, his thoughts, his ideas, his feelings, his beliefs, his circumstances, his life and times, and how he transmuted these through the mysteries of talent, imagination, and genius into timeless works of art. Passionate, combative, blazingly eloquent, fearlessly frank and candid, and, yes, there's no sense using lesser words, inspired and inspirational, not least in his celebration of the joys and rewards of old fashioned--that is, patient, dogged, committed, tireless--research, Parker here demonstrates once again that he is a peerless Melvillian, a standard setting scholar, and a truly great critic.
--Paul Seydor, author of Peckinpah: The Western Films: A Reconsideration

Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative by Hershel Parker, about which Carl Rollyson wrote: "a fascinating study of biography as a genre and why it has incurred so much hostility."
16 January 2013

6:44am Jan 13
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.

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