Herman Melville (Magill's Literary Annual 1997)
Hershel Parker’s massive first volume of a proposed two- volume life of Herman Melville is an impressive and often daunting work. Straightforwardly titled, Herman Melville: A Biography is written with the assurance that comes from years of researching and studying and then intimately knowing the subject in question. The book, more than nine hundred pages in length, covers Melville’s life from his birth in 1819 to the moment in November, 1851, when he triumphantly presents an early copy of his masterpiece Moby Dick to his fellow author and, at that time, close friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, to whom the book was dedicated. It was, according to Parker, the “happiest day of Melville’s life,” and thus a propitious point at which to pause. Indeed, despite its shares of disasters and deaths, Parker tells a happy story in this book. (The next volume, already drafted, will perforce be a darker work, given the tremendous disappointments and tragedies in the second half of Melville’s life.)
Parker’s biography of Melville has been eagerly anticipated by devotees of the great writer. Parker, who began his formal Melville studies as a student at Northwestern University in 1962, is acknowledged by most as the leading authority on Melville’s life, and his reputation for exhaustive and precise scholarship is legendary within academia. He has long served as the associate general editor of the Northwestern-Newberry The Writings of Herman...
(The entire section is 2429 words.)
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Herman Melville (Magill Book Reviews)
The second volume of Hershel Parker’s biography of Herman Melville covers the period from the publication of Melville’s masterpiece, Moby Dick, in 1851 to the author’s death in 1891. Enthusiastic readers of Melville’s first two books, Typee: A Peek at Polynesian Life (1846) and Omoo: A Narrative of Adventure in the South Seas (1847), simply could not forgive the author for foisting upon them the deeper and more difficult novels that followed. As a result Melville’s last four decades are years of increasing neglect by the reading public and of a deepening sense of his failure among family members keenly aware that neither was he a good provider. Parker captures the poignancy of a man determined to pursue relentlessly his literary art when almost no one recognized the greatness so obvious to his admirers today.
Parker writes as a biographer, not a critic, and in discussing Melville’s works is largely content to describe the reactions of unenlightened reviewers to his books. An important exception is his treatment of the long philosophical poem “Clarel” (1876), which he analyzes carefully with emphasis on the explication of a character named Vine, patterned upon Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom Melville developed a close but short-lived friendship in 1850 and 1851.
This biographer knows his subject thoroughly and writes well, but he expends far too much of his attention on nondescript persons who were...
(The entire section is 350 words.)