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Life Arts    H4'ed 10/10/21

Hershel Parker Is the King of Melville Biography (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) October 10, 2021: In Melville Biography: An Inside Story (Northwestern University Press, 2012), the prolific scholar Hershel Parker (born in 1935; Ph.D. in English, Northwestern University, 1963) includes a certain amount of autobiographical information about himself. For example, Parker shares with Melville a deep familiarity with Shakespeare's plays and with the 1611 King James Bible.

Parker says, "In high school [before he dropped out after the eleventh grade], I had memorized the purple passages from Shakespeare" (page 21). "Starting the first day of 1956, for five months I read only Shakespeare, over and over, every day" (page 21). "[M]y lying in bed five months in 1956 reading only Shakespeare during convalescence from tuberculosis, before reading Moby-Dick, then having had a seminar on Milton in 1957, and having the next year read Spenser and then Wordsworth on my own, as did Melville [the autodidactic]" (page 18).

However, even though Parker's 2012 book comes equipped with a well-developed "Index" (pages 563-587), the "Index" contains only one subheading under Parker's name (pages 580-582) about certain aspects of his life that are scattered throughout the book - the subheading "sacrifice of alcohol for" on page 581, under "The New Melville Log" (which evidently has not yet appeared as printed volumes). However, when we turn to the "Index" entry on Shakespeare (pages 583-584), we find the subheading "five months' bed-rest with Shakespeare" (page 584) - which, in my estimate, should also be a subheading under Parker's name in the "Index" as should a subheading about his formal education (he was a high school dropout at sixteen, but he later pursued his formal education further). In addition, under Melville's name in the "Index" (pages 576-577), there is no subheading for Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative).

Now, Parker is also the author of a massive two-volume biography of Herman Melville (1819-1891) published by Johns Hopkins University Press:

(1) Herman Melville: A Biography: Volume 1, 1819-1851 (1996);

(2) Herman Melville: A Biography: Volume 2, 1851-1891 (2002).

In addition, Parker has written the sharply focused intellectual biography of Melville titled Melville: The Making of the Poet (Northwestern University Press, 2008).

With his 2012 book Melville Biography: An Inside Story, Parker celebrates being the King of Melville Biography. (As Parker indicates, the title of his book involves a play on the title of Melville's unfinished story that was published posthumously as Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative) [Parker, page xiii].)

But why is Parker King of Melville Biography? What makes him King? In my estimate, Parker himself tells us what makes him King of Melville Biography when he tells us that "the real dangers I had confronted in following Melville's mental processes, discovering his greatest joys, sharing his high literary ambitions, suffering his greatest sorrows, calculating his financial misery, seeing him as a human being who always, always, ignored my sagest warnings that the footpaths he was taking were disastrous" (page 18).

In addition, Parker elsewhere says, "A problem for me [he has repeatedly described himself as shy] as a biographer was that Melville [a successful oral storyteller before he turned to writing Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847)], unlike me, did tell sexual stories, and to this hour I cannot determine what language he would use, say among male literary friends in New York City. I simply cannot tell how explicit he could be in entertaining the pious Evert Duyckinck with stories of Hawaii or years later with recounting the goings-on in Sing Sing, that 'orgie of indecency and blasphemy' ([as quoted in Leyda's Melville Log, page 523]). I have no way of knowing how he adapted his stories to various male audiences. What stories did he tell when he was warmed-up at Dr. Francis' on a Sunday evening, 'capitally racy and pungent' (as discussed later in this chapter)?" (page 516, note 2; my square brackets, but Parker's italics).

Because Melville was an experienced oral storyteller (in the tall-tale tradition?) before he turned to writing Type (1846) and Omoo (1847), something else Parker says in a later discussion note is worth noting here: "In Cannibal Old Me (2009), Mary K. Bercaw Edwards played Devil's advocate with the suggestion that Melville may not have stayed with the Typees at all" (page 530, note 6). But if her suggestion is correct, then Melville's 1846 and 1847 books are works of imaginative fiction, not works of nonfiction. Moreover, if they are works of sexy imaginative fiction, then young Melville deliberately made himself into a sex symbol, to borrow Parker's characterization of him. No wonder Parker describes her as playing Devil's advocate!

Now, even though Parker finds an abundance of other authors to criticize in his 2012 book, I would point out to him and to others that even statements and claims that we come to reject force us to articulate the basis or bases for our rejection - in effect, they serve as prompts prompting us to reply to them to the best of our ability. Thus, even literary critics, and other critics, can force us to become a bit more articulate - as Parker himself demonstrates abundantly in his 2012 book.

Ah, but what about those supportive souls whose appreciation and praise we may have welcomed at a time when we, in effect, needed appreciation and praise to encourage us and our work? If at a later time, we have acquired enough distance from our younger self, can we look back on the welcome appreciation and praise and perhaps come to a somewhat different assessment of our earlier benefactor than the one we had formulated at the earlier time? Did something like this happen to Melville later in his life as he looked back on Hawthorne's private appreciation of his ambitious experimental novel Moby-Dick (1851)?

In any event, I also want to start the present review essay with some personal information about myself. My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) of Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA).

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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