Hershel Parker’s new book, Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative, has finally begun shipping. Click here to order it now at Amazon. Reading it is bound to inspire and challenge all readers, critics, and scholars invested in appreciating and understanding the life and writings of Herman Melville. Though the subject is Melville biography, literary biographers of any subject will find Parker’s intimate, autobiographical account of his decades-long efforts to analyze and assess Melville’s writings in the context of his life and times to be filled with insightful, historiographically framed discussions and analyses related to the art of literary biography.
Here is a full quote from the first Amazon review, by “New Englander” J. O’Connell:
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 dedicatee, 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?
No, not too much to hope — let’s hope. I happily have just received my copy and look forward to sharing my thoughts here as I read again through the chapters that I was fortunate to have read in draft form as well as the new chapters I have yet to read. The notes are copious. Just a glance shows them to be full of important information and challenges.
Call Me Herman: The Life and Writings of Herman Melville is a freely accessible collection of reference databases related to the life and writings of the 19th century American author, Herman Melville. After spending a mere 11 years writing and publishing a series of travel narratives and novels that culminated in the rhetorical, philosophical, and literary masterpiece that is Moby-Dick, Melville spent the last 35 years of his life writing and publishing poetry. Besides the four volumes of poetry he successfully saw through to publication — Battle-Pieces, Clarel, John Marr and Other Sailors, and Timoleon — at the time of his death he was still composing, revising, and arranging for publication three other verse-inspired or verse-filled volumes which he unfortunately did not live long enough to complete and publish: Billy Budd, Sailor; Weeds and Wildings Chiefly with a Rose or Two; and Parthenope.
Like any website, Call Me Herman is a work-in-progress, but even in its current, inchoate state, exploring its menus, submenus, and site map will provide visitors with a detailed overview of the entire corpus of Melville’s writings—published and unpublished, completed and uncompleted. The various databases include book and subject bibliographies sorted by author and year; a Melville Almanac that highlights important dates in Melville’s life; various annotated resource lists; an extensive selection of quotations; a gallery of art works that Melville saw, collected, or wrote about; and categorized listings of current and out of print books of Melville biography, criticism, and editions.
In addition to these archival resources, you will also find a calendar of upcoming events and links to Melville-related websites, blogs, and newsfeeds. The event calendar, links to various websites, blogs, and groups, and the constantly changing content of the newsfeeds indicate the extent to which Melville continues to attract, influence, and inspire readers, writers, scholars, visual artistis, critics, musicians, actors, and playwrights. A planned archive of cartoons and advertising copy will document Melville’s continuing influence on popular culture.
The Original Melville Room
Much as this website evolved out of a need for handy reference material, in the pre-internet decades of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, a similar need led to the establishment of what was to become the original Melville Room that was curated and housed on the second floor of Chicago’s Newberry Library. In the mid-1960s, the late Professor Harrison Hayford (1916–2001) of Northwestern University began to recruit scholars, editors, independent researchers, librarians, and graduate students to work on
editing and publishing scholarly, critical texts of Melville’s writings. As part of this effort, Hayford, with the help of Newberry Library staff—especially that of Richard Colles Johnson—collected, catalogued, and curated the many types of items that became the Newberry Library Melville Collection. Located in what became colloquially known as “The Melville Room,” the Newberry Melville collection was comprised of rare first editions of Melville’s writings, numerous file cabinets filled with copies or offprints of articles reviews, essays, and various sorts of Melvilliana. These file cabinets were surrounded by rows of bookshelves containing all the works of criticism and biography that had been published to date. The Newberry Library Melville Room served for decades as an essential repository of primary and secondary materials that Hayford and the Newberry staff made readily available to scholars, editors, and graduate students working not only on the texts of the multi-volume Northwestern-Newberry Writings of Herman Melville series, but on their own Melville-related research projects as well.
The Melville Society Archive
Most of the contents of the original Melville Room are now part of the Melville Society Archive, one of several projects administered by scholar and volunteer members of The Melville Society through its Melville Society Cultural Project. Working in collaboration with the New Bedford Whaling Museum (NBWM), the Melville Society Archive is maintained as a part of the NBWM Research Library. Just as with the original Melville Room, anyone with an interest in doing research related to Melville’s life and writings is welcome to visit, study, and conduct research in New Bedford, MA using the resources of the Melville Society Archive. The MSCP accepts donations of books, manuscripts, papers, and photos. You can visit the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s website for detailed information about visiting, donating, and accessing the resources of the Melville Society Archive.
Database Websites and Traditional Brick and Mortar Archives
Doing original research in libraries, newspaper and periodical archives, museums, and historical society holdings will always be important and essential. But now, more than two decades into the digital information revolution, author- or subject-specific websites complement the resources of the various brick and mortar archives that have been and will continue to be essential to scholars, biographers, and critics doing original research. Two such websites that offer their own unique, complementary resources for Melville scholars, critics, editors, students, and readers are Melville’s Marginalia Online which makes available digital images of the annotations Melville made in books he owned, borrowed, or shared and the Melville Electronic Library which is in the process of establishing online versions of Melville’s writings. Like these two sites, Call Me Herman is proffered as a complementary resource to the archival holdings and catalogs of important and irreplaceable institutions like the Houghton Library of Harvard College, the Berkshire Historical Society, the Melville Society Archive housed and curated in the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the Mystic Seaport Museum, and the New York Public Library. You can of course add to this list many other libraries, museums, and newspaper and periodical archives located throughout the world that are important for understanding Melville’s life and writings.
Just this past Spring 2012, the quarterly “Historic Nantucket,” published by the Nantucket Historical Association, presented a “Melville Issue.” It opens with an editorial overview by Nathaniel Philbrick, Historian and NHA Research Fellow, and features articles by two well-known Melvilleans — Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, University of Connecticut Maritime Studies Professor, and Hershel Parker, author of the definitive, two-volume Melville biography.
In “The Unemployable Herman Melville: ‘Nothing else to do’ but Sign on a Whaleship,” Hershel Parker offers up a detailed biographical narrative analysis of the years surrounding Melville’s decision on 3 January 1841 – at the young age of 21 – to sign on to the Acushnet. Mary K. Edwards provides a historical discussion of the publishing history of Moby-Dick that focuses on selected important editions – especially those featuring illustrations, including the famous 1930 Lakeside Press, Rockwell Kent edition. Both essays are richly illustrated with reproductions of contemporary portraits, contemporary art works, pages from selected illustrated editions of Moby-Dick, and a manuscript page of a 6 October 1840 letter written by Gansevoort Melville, Herman’s brother.
Inserted into Bercaw’s essay is a sidebar by Julie H. B. Stackpole, “A Special Container for the Lakeside Press Moby-Dick” – an account of Rockwell Kent’s involvement in the Lakeside Edition concluding with a description of the “slipcase” she created for the three-volume Lakeside edition she inherited from her patenal grandfather.
To visit the Nantucket Historical Association’s website, click here.