Saturday, January 19, 2013
The Incorrigible Sloppiness of Brenda Wineapple on NH & HM
In the few pages on Melville in her Hawthorne: A Life (2003) Brenda Wineapple stuffed together an astonishing number of errors, sentence by sentence. The “Pittsfield farm owned by Melville’s cousin” (222) was not owned by Robert Melvill, ever, and in any case had already been sold to the Morewoods, although they did not take possession for many months. “August 5, a day soon to be promoted as an American Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (without the scandal)” was not in fact soon promoted that way, not through the 1850s and 1860s or still later, and certainly not celebrated mainly as the day Melville and Hawthorne met. The promotion of the day as significant in American literary history was a phenomenon of the 1930s or later. She published after I had revealed in my second volume that on the climb Hawthorne was excited, not phlegmatic, uncharacteristically hamming it up, looking wildly about for his Great Carbuncle, not mildly. This is so important a correction that every biographer should use it, but she does not. She has James Fields slipping in his patent leather shoes, but no one says that. Presumably his patent leather shoes had regular soles. She says, “Herman Melville is the daredevil who sprints from rock to jutting rock” (222). Duyckinck in a letter to his wife says that Melville, “the boldest of all,” seated himself “astride a projecting bow sprit of rock” (Log, 384). Fields in the February 1871 Atlantic (251) says Melville bestrode a peaked rock, which ran out like a bowsprit, but not that he ran or leaped. Who says he sprinted (or leapt) from rock to jutting rock? In reference to the Monument Mountain–Icy Glen party, Wineapple says, “Of the group, Melville captured Sophia’s fancy” (222). What group? The only ones Sophia Hawthorne saw that day were Dudley Field (and Mrs. Field?), who called for Hawthorne in a comfortable “chariott and two”—two horses. Now, she saw some others later, including Melville. But Sophia never was exposed to “the group” who had made such a day of August 5, 1850. Wineapple failed to visualize the scenes. Then she calls Redburn “autobiographical” without qualification (223). She calls Melville “the bushy-bearded young man” (223) when there is no source for his being bushy-bearded on August 5, 1850. This is Wineapple: “Melville was the coxswain, not a dry-docked Custom House inspector, come back to tell all, striding off the gangplank into a garret where he could dip his pen into the inkpot and be, of all things, a writer” (223). Here we have Wineapple in her romantic fiction mode, with a lapse into Prufrock (“come back to tell you all”). Melville had not been a coxswain, as far as we know, had he? So he claims to Bentley to have been a harpooneer! Melville may have strode off a gangplank or walked slowly off one or he may have left the United States by a rope ladder for all we know. He never wrote in a garret (can you imagine the problem of lighting one?). This is cheap fiction.
Wineapple says that when Duyckinck went home to New York City “he carried the first installment of Melville’s review of Mosses from an Old Manse” (224). No, he carried the whole review. (I comment elsewhere about her saying “it’s not clear when Melville began the review.”) Wineapple has Melville (or his Virginian) reading Hawthorne “while lying on the new-mown clover near the barn” (224). Melville puts himself inside the barn, “the hill-side breeze blowing over me through the wide barn door”—another of her characteristic failures to visualize. There are other errors, delivered in lurid, irrational prose such as this: “Melville pictured Hawthorne as a mate bobbling like him on the troubled seas of publishing, recognition, and posterity” (225). The speculation that Melville “likely” burned Hawthorne’s letters “at Hawthorne’s behest” is absurd (228). All these errors and vulgarities, and more, are in a twenty-first-century biography. Others of Wineapple’s errors, including the worst, perhaps the grossest, most ignorant error made about Melville in any biography, her desecration of Melville’s reference to the Lamb of God, I merely mention here but have said more elsewhere: when Melville says that after writing a wicked book, Moby-Dick, he feels as spotless as the lamb, she prints the wrong article (“a” lamb), as if Melville had in mind a spiffy-clean Berkshire County South Down or Romney Marsh ruminant (243).
Once a detailed narrative of early August 1850 was in print in the 1988 Northwestern-Newberry Moby-Dick, in my 1996 biography, and in the 2001 Norton Moby-Dick, I assumed that critics would take note of these latest findings. In my view, to take one example, Brenda Wineapple in her 2003 biography of Hawthorne had an obligation to work through the evidence and clarify or supplement it. Instead, she declared: “Though it’s not clear when Melville began the review, whether before or after meeting Hawthorne, it’s obvious that Melville was smitten with Hawthorne and his work” (224). The Harlequin Romance vulgarity of “smitten” aside, it’s worth pointing out that accuracy here makes a difference for Hawthorne biography as well as Melville biography, and any biographer writing about the meeting of the two men and the composition of the essay has a duty to acknowledge the facts. It is perfectly clear that Melville met Hawthorne before starting to write the Mosses essay. Wineapple simply did not do her homework about Melville’s writing of the Mosses essay. She thwarts the goal of all real scholars, which is to make an advance in knowledge that others will build on.