Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2

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JHU Press, 1996 - Literary Criticism - 997 pages

The first volume of Hershel Parker's definitive biography of Herman Melville—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—closed on a mid-November day in 1851. In the dining room of the Little Red Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, Melville had just presented an inscribed copy of his new novel, Moby-Dick, to his intimate friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the man to whom the work was dedicated. "Take it all in all," Parker concluded, "this was the happiest day of Melville's life."

Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891 chronicles Melville's life in rich detail, from this ecstatic moment to his death, in obscurity, forty years later. Parker describes the malignity of reviewers and sheer bad luck that doomed Moby-Dick to failure (and its author to prolonged indebtedness), the savage reviews he received for his next book Pierre, and his inability to have the novel The Isle of the Cross—now lost—published at all. Melville turned to magazine fiction, writing the now-classic "Bartleby" and "Benito Cereno," and produced a final novel, The Confidence Man, a mordant satire of American optimism. Over his last three decades, while working as a customs inspector in Manhattan, Melville painstakingly remade himself as a poet, crafting the centennial epic Clarel, in which he sorted out his complex feelings for Hawthorne, and the masterful story "Billy Budd," originally written as a prose headnote to an unfinished poem.

Through prodigious archival research into hundreds of family letters and diary entries, newly discovered newspaper articles, and marginalia from books that Melville owned, Parker vividly recreates the last four decades of Melville's life, episode after episode unknown to previous biographers. The concluding volume of Herman Melville: A Biography confirms Hershel Parker's position as the world's leading Melville scholar, demonstrating his unrivaled biographical, literary, and historical imagination and providing a rich new portrait of a great—and profoundly American—artist.


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There is no question that Herschel Parker is the preeminent expert on the life of Herman Melville. His research is incomparable. If there is anything to be known about Herman Melville and his extended family, Parker knows it. That knowledge is at once the strength and the disastrous undoing of this biography. With volume 1 Parker has given us Melville in 1,796 pages of text which might in the hands of a better writer have been 1,000-1,200 pages or even less with no loss to our knowledge and great benefit to our appreciation of Melville. The fact is that Parker is so committed to noticing every trivial tree about Melville and his family that he no longer sees the forest that is Herman Melville the man. At some point in Parker's past something about Melville spoke powerfully to him and made the study of the man Parker's life's work. Unfortunately Parker knows everything Melville and his family down to the tiniest detail but knows nothing of the man. He consistently glosses over significant facts to rush into detailed accounts of such pointless nitpicking as who did or did not ride with Herman to Lenox, MA to pick up the mail on some given date. Parker is an academic in all the worst senses of that term and a terrible a pedant as I can remember encountering in any work of non-fiction. His writing style may charitably be called infelicitous. This work may have been considered for a Pulitzer Prize it did not win and shouldn't have. He refuses to use footnotes which requires that very random thought and cross-reference ends up in the text forming a rock against which Parker's narrative founders often and repeatedly. Parker also tells us the same information ad nauseam, often in the space of a page or two. Nothing in any letter by a Melville family member seems too trivial to warrant mention. No fact is ever stated so clearly that it doesn't bear repetition several times. Simply removing the gratuitous references to Herman's brother, Gansevoort, following his death in 1846 would shorten the biography by 10-20 pages. As for Parker's inability to understand his subject one example will suffice. In Chapter 18 of this volume Parker discusses Melville's "becoming a poet" in the late 1850s. The fact is that one can only understand Moby-Dick as an epic poem written as prose. Melville was always a poet. In the late 1850s he began putting his writing into verse forms rather than writing margin to margin (the definition of "prose"). Should you decide to wade through this 2 volume biography you will find occasional insights and interesting trivia. More frequently you will be frustrated by Parker's incompetent writing. Ultimately this is an incomparably sad book on two counts. First, as noted earlier, because Parker has devoted his life to Herman Melville and has learned everything about his subject but really knows nothing about him. Second is that Parker obviously loves Melville but has generated such an annoying, bumbling, pedantic and opaque biography that he's insulted his subject. If you would know Herman Melville, buy his books and read them but don't pick up this biography with the expectation that you will learn anything that you can't find from better writers. 


Crowned and Blindsided NovemberDecember 1851
Mad Christmas December 1851
The Kraken Version of Pierre NovemberDecember 1851
Melville Crosses the Rubicon January 1852
Richard Bentley The Whale and Pierre JanuaryMay 1852
Fools Paradise and the Furies Unleashed JuneSeptember 1852
The Isle of the Cross September 1852June 1853
The Magazinist Idealist Turned WouldBe Stoic July 1853January 1854
Displacements JanuaryJune 1863
Wartime Second Honeymoon and Manhattan SummerFall 1863
The War Poets Scout toward Aldie 1864
Two Years of War and Dubious Peace 18651866
BattlePieces Poet Poems Reviewers 1866
The Deputy Inspector amid Domestic Maelstroms 1867
A Snug Harbor for the Melvilles Late 18671868
The Man Who Had Known Hawthorne 1869

The Shift Away from Herman and Arrowhead JanuaryMarch 1854
Tortoises and Israel Potter 1854
Benito Cereno Early 1855
The Confidence Mans Masquerade Melville as National Satirist June 1855January 1856
Foreclosing on Friendship Confession and Shame FebruaryOctober 1856
Liverpool and the Levant Late 1856February 1857
Rome to Liverpool and Home FebruaryApril 1857
Statues in Rome May 1857February 1858
The South Seas March 1858Spring 1859
The Poet and the Last Lecture Travel Summer 1859Early 1860
An Epic Poet on the Meteor MayOctober 1860
The Dream of Florence a State Funeral and War November 1860December 1861
A Humble Quest for an Aesthetic Credo JanuaryApril 1862
Farewell to Arrowhead and the Overthrow of Jehu AprilDecember 1862
West Street and Jerusalem 1870
The Last Mustering of the Clan and The Wilderness 1871
Death Death and Flight to a Snug Harbor 1872
A Family in Disarray and Mar Saba 1873
The New Generation and Bethlehem 18741875
Clarel Melvilles Centennial Epic 1876
Old Fogy and Imaginary Companions 18771879
The Shadow at the Feasts 18801885
Fragments in a Writing Desk 18861891
In and Out of the House of the Tragic Poet 18861891

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About the author (1996)

Hershel Parker is the author of Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons and Reading "Billy Budd"; co-editor, with Harrison Hayford, of the landmark 1967 Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick, wholly revised in 2001; and Associate General Editor of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville. He lives in Morro Bay, California.

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