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.
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.
NYRB Review: Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet and Robert Milder’s Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine
Both Hershel Parker and Robert Milder have written in-depth studies of the last three decades of Melville’s life when he concentrated on writing and publishing poetry. Parker does so in the second volume of his Herman Melville: A Biography as well as in his recent Melville: The Making of the Poet. Milder has written of the second half of Melville’s career in various works, most notably for his anthology, Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales, and, more recently, in several of his essays collected in Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine. Generally speaking Parker and Milder take different critical approaches in their studies of the older Melville, his poetry, and the 30 years during which it occupied most of his creative energy and time. But read together Parker and Milder complement one another and give us a comprehensive appreciation and understanding of not only Melville the poet but of his poems as well.
In the June 26, 2008 issue of the New York Review of Books, Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, reviews both Hershel Parker’s Melville: The Making of the Poet and Robert Milder’s Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine. The opening of Benfey’s review, “Melville’s Second Act,” excerpted on the NYRB website, shows us Melville on a voyage in the summer of 1860, the summer he unsuccessfully attempted to publish his first volume of poetry:
On August 1, 1860, Herman Melville’s forty-first birthday, he was aboard the clipper ship Meteor, captained by his younger brother Thomas, as it made the hazardous passage around Cape Horn bound for San Francisco. A gale arose that day and lasted, as Melville noted in his diary, for three brutal days of ‘snow, rain, hail, sleet, mist, fog, squalls, head-winds, refractory stove, smoky cabin, drunken ship &c &c &c.’ A week later, as strong winds continued unabated, a young sailor from Nantucket was blown from the rigging to the deck and was killed instantly. After the funeral service, presided over by Tom, the body was tipped into the ocean and the blood washed from the deck. ‘All goes on as usual,’ Melville reported, ‘as if nothing had happened—as if I did not know that death is indeed the King of Terrors.’
If you can not find the June 26, 2008 NYRB Review at your bookstore or library, you can click here to read an online version.