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.
Anyone wanting to know Herman Melville the poet and how much poetry meant to him all of his life would do well to start with Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet. This book will surely prove foundational in the coming years and decades as Melville enthusiasts and scholars come to enjoy easy access to Melville’s poetry — many for the first time — as it becomes readily available in the forthcoming final two volumes of the Northwestern-Newberry series, The Writings of Herman Melville. Parker intentionally does not excerpt or quote much of Melville’s poetry, nor does he offer extended discussions concerning Melville’s status as a poet. However he does suggest that Melville’s poetry might be favorably ranked with the poetry of Dickinson, Whitman, the Brownings, and Tennyson. Parker is not alone in suggesting and arguing for the worth of Melville’s poetry. Many poets, readers, and critics have praised Melville’s poetic writings — Robert Penn Warren, Muriel Rukeyser (The Life of Poetry), and, more recently, Helen Vendler (Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology), to name just a few.
What Parker does do in Melville: The Making of the Poet is cite, document, and discuss thoroughly the evidence related to Melville’s reading and study of poetry from his earliest years that renders obsolete and unsustainable the unfounded, inaccurate view that poetry for Melville was a sideline, an afterthought, a way to escape the disappointing contemporary reception and poor sales of prose masterworks like Moby-Dick. In following Melville’s reading and book buying, Parker shows us glimpses of him finding, reading, and purchasing works (e.g., purchasing on October 27, 1861 Henry Taylor’s Notes from Life in Seven Essays that encouraged him to assume the identity of a poet and pursue the sort of life best suited to the writing of poetry.
Finally, perhaps not the least of the facts you will learn when reading Melville: The Making of the Poet, are those related to Parker’s re-telling and re-documenting (the evidence has been lying in plain site for decades) Melville’s failed, but very real, attempt to publish in 1860 what would have been his first published volume of poetry, titled simply, by Melville himself, Poems.
If you want to understand and appreciate Melville the poet and the poetry he wrote, this is an essential, foundational book to add to your reading library.