Herman Melville

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

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 Melville, which has as its goal the establishment of authoritative texts for all Melville’s books and other writings. This series has been both revered and (by some) derided for its extremely rigorous, detailed editorial approach and the numerous appendices, charts, and explanatory essays which sometimes seem to occupy more pages than the writings they supplement. Most textual scholars have held the series in high regard, but other readers and critics have criticized both the method and the almost obsessive attention to particulars.

The same praise and criticism will, no doubt, also be directed toward Parker’s scholarly biography, which belongs to the “too many facts are never enough” school of such works. Parker is nothing if not passionate about Melville. “My life is too valuable for me to waste it on someone who’s not majestic, who I don’t love,” he is quoted as saying in a profile by Philip Weiss in The New York Times Magazine. For such a scholar-biographer, each discovery is invaluable and therefore terribly difficult to omit. Yet when one considers how much Melville material has already been lost, one hesitates to criticize the monumental inclusiveness of this work. (In addition to the loss of The Isle of the Cross, which Melville wrote in 1853, after Moby Dick and Pierre, published in 1852, Melville documents and letters were still being destroyed as late as the 1950’s.) Better to have this information provided and protected than to risk further loss to time, accident, or fate, even if the reading experience is sometimes made more difficult by the repetitions, side-trips, and cumulation of details. To be sure, this is not an easy book to read. It is doubtful that many readers outside of dedicated Melvilleans will follow, or be able to follow, every page of this work. Even with genealogical charts for guidance, it is almost impossible to keep straight the various members of Melville’s immediate families, and the amount of historical and cultural data, the details of the contemporary political and literary worlds, sometimes threaten to overwhelm the narrative itself.

Which is not to say that Parker has written a stiff or pedantic work. He takes such joy in his subject, has such affection for Melville the man, that the book has a feel of play about it. The cover illustration by Maurice Sendak, also reprinted as frontispiece in the book, represents this spirit. (Sendak, best known for his children’s books, is also a great admirer of Melville; he has also supplied intriguing illustrations for Parker’s 1995 newly edited version of Pierre: Or, The Ambiguities.) In the drawing, Melville stands in profile before the rigging of a ship, a feather held in one hand, a flower stuck in the brim of his hat. He seems both an adventurer and a poser, a man of action and of romantic imagination. This is the Melville that Parker reveals in the pages of this book, a dreamer and an explorer and a thoroughly impractical and egotistical and self- destructive character. “More than once, I would have warned him away from a precipice,” Parker notes in his preface, “but I depict him as I see him. In an era when to write a biography is to expose a pathology, I hope I have manifested toward Melville and his family a measure of his own magnanimity and pudency, even if not . . . his unapproachable greatness of gusto.’ ”

It is impossible, then, to read this biography without noting the biases of the biographer. Parker is exceedingly precise in all matters of historical and personal fact, and his scholarship is to all appearances impeccable, but he clearly intends the work as a celebration of Melville. It is so steeped in the era it represents that there is almost an anachronistic tone to the book, and it often reads like a nineteenth century romance, with Melville as hero. Since Melville used his early adventures as the basis of his first writings, and, mixing fact (both personal and that mined from other books) with fiction, created a public persona of “Herman Melville,” the roguish sailor, perhaps it is appropriate that his biographer also take a seminovelistic approach to his subject, surmising unspoken or undocumented thought, creating dramatic scenes based on the best possible evidence, assuming motive as suggested by overall knowledge of the person. Parker is very forthright about his method, and he carefully distinguishes between what he absolutely knows and what is his best guess. In the...

(The entire section is 2429 words.)