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The kraken in the computer.

HERSHEL PARKER. Herman Melville: A Biography: Volume I, 1819-1851. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. xx + 941 pp.

HERSHEL PARKER. Herman Melville: A Biography: Volume II, 1851-1891. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xvii + 997 pp.

Two volumes, nearly a thousand pages each, Hershel Parker's biography of Herman Melville is a massive compilation of documentation and detail. A work of exhaustive thoroughness, this leviathanic life of Melville merits the description. Volume II completes the narrative biography that Parker undertook two decades ago and that is based, he assures us, on a complete examination of relevant sources and documents. Much of this material has only recently surfaced, certain key items discovered by the author himself, and thus has been unavailable to other biographers. Maintaining that "[m]any episodes (some previously unknown) emerge from the shadows when documents are brought together from various old and new sources" (1: xii), Parker claims to tell "a new story about a writer we thought we had known" (1: xvi). Parker initially projected his life of Melville as a collaborative project keyed to "a new revision" (1: xvi) of Jay Leyda's Melville Log, just as Leon Howard undertook his 1951 biography as "a cooperative venture" with Leyda's original "cinematic experiment in biography" (Howard vii). After Leyda's death in 1988, Parker took over both projects, what he entitles "The New Melville Log" and the biography. He states that as he worked on the narrative biography, "the Log ... was also the burgeoning creature in my computer ... an engorged working archive" (1: xvi), and therein it thus far remains although much of this cybernetic archive is quoted in the two volumes of the biography.

Parker professes to follow Howard in purpose as well as method. Howard asserted that his biography had "no other intent than to understand the author of Moby Dick [sic] and other books as a human being living in nineteenth-century America" (ix). Parker similarly describes his intention "to see Herman Melville as a human being living in nineteenth-century America. In my case, that meant seeing Melville as a member of his family and a member of literary circles more complexly and intensely than Howard had done" (1: xv). Disavowing any particular thesis or agenda and "abjur[ing] the role of retained attorney" (1: xvii), Parker proposes to let the documents speak for the man. Becoming his "own Leyda & Company," he rarely cites modern Melville scholarship (2: 932-33). He claims that relying upon archival evidence enabled him to "have a chance of recognizing causality and significance ... to catch elusive tones of voice.... Never setting myself to prove one point or another, I simply listened ... as I transcribed Melville family letters ... all of which resonate in my mind" (2: 933). Connection, motive, and purpose emerge unbidden, unimposed: "If in this biography I re-create some sense of what was grand in Melville, if he and the other characters act out explicable motivations, if a cumulative, implacable force propels any of the chapters, that success derives from the years I spent listening to the members of the family talk to each other while I created a chronological archive" (1:xvii). Parker justifies the length of the work by explaining, "The biography is long because ... in the process of expanding Jay Leyda's The Melville Log I discovered documents that threw crosslights on dozens of old stories," and "I discovered dozens of new episodes" (2: xiv). The two volumes provide abundant detail concerning numerous family members and lierary acquaintances who figured in Melville's life. The biography proceeds, more or less, year by year, chapter by chapter, Volume II quite literally being "forty years of human life, forty chapters" (2: xiv).

Like the mighty leviathan, Parker's biography is "both ponderous and profound." Reading the entire two volumes will exhaust the energy and patience of all but the most avid Melvillians. Although the volumes contain isolated, memorable instances of recreated drama and revealing insight, this is not the Moby-Dick of Melville biographies. It is more comparable to the meandering voyage of Mardi, containing lengthy digressions on political and social events, family members, and literary figures; it includes a plethora of quotidian details with Melville himself appearing and disappearing throughout the pages, elusive, mysterious, Yillah-like. At certain points, the befuddled reader may suspect that Parker was driven by some insidious, flabby devil of a rapacious and pitiless accumulation of documented fact and detail who clouded perspective and blunted purpose. Instances of dubiously relevant, if not excessive, detail in this overweight biography include a list of the Acushnet crew with a physical description and birth date of each (1: 188-89), an account of the Frederick "Shadrach" Wilkins fugitive slave case in Boston (1:817-19), a catalogue of paintings displayed at the 1857 Albany "Art Exhibition" Melville attended (2:560-61), the officiants at Stephen Van Rensselaer's funeral (2: 658), and the members of Tom and Katie Melville's wedding party (2: 659). The biography recounts at length the doings of Melville's consanguineous relations as well as the activities of his in-laws and extended family--including John Hoadley, Richard Lathers, and the Morewoods. Parker includes accounts of Sarah Morewood's infatuations with Alexander Gardiner and Evert Duyckinck (2: 42-49), details of Guert Gansevoort's court martial (2: 518-20), and page after seemingly interminable page describing Gansevoort Melville's political activities. Much of this family matter also holds, at best, tangential relevance. Upon being informed in the Preface that the thousand-page second volume was "rigorously, strenuously condensed" from "the original manuscript" (2: xiv), the reader is grateful that Parker was at least somewhat successful in withstanding the sway of the flabby devil.

Parker has certainly "enlarged" the picture of Melville's activities, family, and milieu, but he might have done more to "subtilize" it; he elaborately details the context, to be sure, but many readers will want more focus on the mind and work of the man whose inner life and created art transcend the quotidian details of family and routine. The reader needs more guidance through the maze of document and fact and more explanation of the significance of the biographical data. Parker should have stated explicitly how his biography enables one to see Melville "more complexly and intensely"; one wishes that he had specifically identified what is "new" in this story of Melville's life, emerging from the vast welter of detail and description recreating Melville's life year by year. The biography's innovations apparently include several features: Parker's depiction of Melville as "the first American literary sex symbol" (2:1); accounts of the lost Isle of the Cross manuscript and a rejected, unpublished first volume of poems; the nature of Melville's relationships with Hawthorne, Evert Duyckinck, Richard Henry Dana, Thomas Powell, and other literary figures; Melville's dubious and devious mortgaging and re-mortgaging of Arrowhead; the ecstatic, transformative experience of writing Moby-Dick; the process of making himself into a poet and the heroic achievement of Clarel.

While Parker claims that he has no particular thesis to promote and disavows a role as Melville's advocate, there are compelling reasons for such a protracted, meticulous presentation of archival material: the magnitude of Melville's literary achievement; the relationship between the life and the writing; and the sheer interest, drama, and tragedy of the life itself. Lewis Mumford and Edwin H. Miller relied upon the writings to disclose Melville's mind and inner life; their more speculative, interpretative biographies sometimes confuse fact with fiction. Parker's approach, relying upon documented fact, emphasizes the external events of the recreated life. Taking into account both the new and the familiar biographical data that Parker presents, one looks to his biography to provide enhanced perspectives and fresh revelations concerning Melville's personality, mind, and writing--to show how external events shaped the imagination of the artist, how circumstances and key experiences influenced his fiction and poetry. There is much to be gleaned from this biography, but the crucial, valuable insights are more implicit than explicit; the reader must derive such insights rather than expect Parker to supply them. In order to piece together the "new story" about Melville, the reader can only imitate the method Parker followed in writing the biography: one must simply listen patiently as the story unfolds in order to recognize what was "grand" in Melville as well as what "explicable motivations" and "implacable forces" drove him. Perhaps this was Parker's intention. The two volumes detail an epic voyage that includes protracted doldrums as well as the exciting moments of the chase. The reader who is willing to stay the course will encounter new discoveries and unexpected marvels emerging from the depths--instances of "causality and significance" if not drama and heroism.

I. Family

Very much a biography of the family of Herman Melville, the two volumes devote considerable attention to the lives of his grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, cousins, and in-laws. Parker indefatigably catalogues the family holiday dinners--Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's--at Pittsfield, Boston, and Staten Island. The recurring names and complexities of familial relationships repeatedly send the reader to the genealogical charts to unravel the various Hermans, Catherines, Van Schaicks, and Gansevoorts and to identify relatives in New York, Albany, and Boston. Even near the end of the second volume, for example, the reference to Stanwix Melville's "step-grandmother's house" (2: 702) may momentarily puzzle the most attentive of readers.

Parker depicts Allan Melvill, the "patrician wastrel," as an elusive, enigmatic figure. In many respects, he was a cultivated man of irresistible charm: "the father in Herman's memory was a cosmopolitan gentleman in whose veins coursed the blood of the earl of Melville House and the blood of remoter noble and even royal ancestors." He was "one of the great travelers of the world.... With his amazing stories of adventures on sea and land Allan Melvill had made himself heroic in Herman's eyes" (1:59). Wielding "elegantly structured words of the English language," Allan "wrote and spoke like an eloquent eighteenth-century English gentleman" (1: 60). However, as the son later wrote with the eloquence of a nineteenth-century American genius, "warmest climes but nurse the cruellest fangs." Allan Melvill succeeded in securing huge sums of money from his father and his wife's family, much of it drawn against future inheritances, sums that quickly and mysteriously vanished. Even though he was an inept business manager, these loans and advances should have been more than ample to cover his losses; apparently, he was not making investments, good or bad, in securities or property. "No one knows what he was doing with the money" (1: 19) becomes a refrain, and one wishes that Parker had provided a theory, however speculative, as to how Allan dissipated the fortunes intended for himself, his wife, and his children. Parker writes that years later "Melville came to sense, if not yet to articulate to himself, that his father, Allan Melvill, by wasting his children's inheritances, had been eating their futures, eating them--even eating them alive" like Chronos (2: 11). How did Herman "sense" and eventually "articulate" this recognition? This question is left open. There are indications of such disillusionment, to be sure, in Pierre and perhaps shades of it in Moby-Dick. But there is little evidence that Herman determined to be a more responsible, more provident father himself. In fact, in his own impulsive, imprudent, and sometimes legally dubious financial dealings, Herman followed in his father's footsteps. Allan Melvill's financial irresponsibility certainly limited Herman's development insofar as his educational opportunities and vocational prospects were concerned, but did poverty--ironically--compel him to become the writer? Would there have been such an unfolding had the desperate, prospectless young man not shipped out to the South Seas in 1840? Would the artist have emerged had the young Melville attended Yale College or Harvard instead of spending four years at sea? Whatever the alternative, Herman also emulated his father in becoming an elusive, enigmatic figure.

Parker devotes considerable attention to Melville's brothers, Gansevoort, Allan, and Tom. Years after his death, Gansevoort continued to be "a vital presence in the family"; for his mother Maria he was always "the noblest and dearest" of her eight children (1: 428). Becoming head of the family and his father's hat business at seventeen, he assumed terrific responsibilities and financial burdens, particularly after the hat warehouse burned, a total loss. Parker shows that Gansevoort was ambitious and officious, given to purple prose and moralistic pontification in his writing and political speeches, and that he was also a bit prissy. But he did provide an inestimable service to Herman by securing the publication of Typee through his contacts in London with Washington Irving and George P. Putnam. Upon Gansevoort's death, Herman became the reluctant and ineffectual "man of the family," but was supplanted in this role by his real estate-obsessed, lawyer brother Allan. Allan was done in by poor health and, one suspects, by his supercilious, insensitive, second wife Jane Dempsey (Parker cannot mention her without a dig concerning her shrewishness). By 1858, able to provide "the family hearthstone," a grand location for holiday and other gatherings at Sailors' Snug Harbor where he served as governor, Tom had become "the man of the family, superseding his two surviving older brothers, Herman and Allan" (2: 663).

Unlike his father, Herman did not continually besiege family members for monetary advances. Yet he was acutely conscious of his own impecuniosity relative to those around him, including his brothers Allan and Tom as well as John Hoadley, the husband of his sister Catherine, and Richard Lathers, the husband of Allan's sister-in-law, Abby Thurston. In 1850, the Morewoods' purchase of the old Melvill place in Pittsfield, formerly owned by his uncle Thomas, stirred up in Herman feelings of "jealously and envy" (1: 735). In 1853, despite his enormous literary productivity, comparing himself with the increasingly successful industrialist Hoadley, "Melville had to feel stabs of jealously, now that he ... knew his literary career had crumbled from under him" (2: 181). By 1859, Melville's decision to voyage with his brother Tom on the Meteor, leaving his family to subsist on the modest trust fund Lemuel Shaw had set up for his daughter Elizabeth, represented "a clear renunciation of the role of breadwinner" (2: 416). By 1868, working in a mundane post as deputy customs inspector, the author of Moby-Dick found himself "reenacting the early 1830s in a strange, sad way--stuck in a menial job, while around him other members of the family were rich" (2: 667).

His wife "Lizzie" and sisters, Helen and Augusta, devoted considerable hours to making fair copies of Herman's works, and his literary efforts were subsidized by family members--including Lemuel Shaw and his uncle Peter Gansevoort. Sadly, however, "[n]o member of the family was capable of the independent act of aesthetic and historical judgment that would allow him or her to appreciate Herman's achievement" (2: 163). Only Hoadley evinced a thoughtful appreciation of Melville's work. He had a bound collection of Melville's works in his library, and--based on the annotations in Hoadley's copy of the poem--Parker asserts that he was "the best nineteenth-century critic of Clarel" (2: 811). It was not until 1885, when she ran across W. Clark Russell's article extolling the author of Moby-Dick, that Lizzie began to be convinced of her husband's genius and to become the devoted "archivist" of his fame (2: 897).

II. Hawthorne

According to Parker, the ambition to achieve literary renown and the realization of his creative potency coalesced in Melville in August 1850 when he met Hawthorne. The encounter with Hawthorne worked as a powerful catalyst at a critical juncture in Melville's life, influencing both his conception of Moby-Dick and, Parker argues, his decision to purchase Arrowhead. Meeting Hawthorne enabled Melville to realize the wholeness, poise, and purpose he had long sought: "That week [at Pittsfield in August 1850] he had united the parts of his life.... [H]e was drawing a magic circle, freehand, around the fragmented parts of his life" (1:744). He immediately identified the older writer as the long-sought "miraculous companion ... the most fascinating American he had ever met" who could "validate his exalted new self-estimate" (1: 748-49). In "Hawthorne and His Mosses," a review written without reading much of Hawthorne's book, "Melville had spent hours expressing the deepest hopes for his own book" in "a passionate private message to his new friend" (1: 760). He thus found Hawthorne irresistable and necessary, for his encounter with the older writer "created an incommunicable need in Melville--the need to find a way to continue writing the book within reach of this other American writer already proclaimed [in Melville's review] as one who had approached Shakespere in greatness" (1: 777). The native genius exemplified by Hawthorne opened the possibility that Melville himself could become the American Shakespere. Consequently, Melville bought Arrowhead "impulsively and extravagantly, even recklessly" because "he was not willing to tear himself away from the vicinity where Hawthorne lived" (1: 779). Proximity to Hawthorne may have been a factor in Melville's decision but, in the larger context Parker evokes, certainly not the only motive: there were the family and youthful connections with the Pittsfield neighborhood; there was the allure of rural life, romantically evoked in "Hawthorne and His Mosses", away from the oppressive, "babylonish brick-kiln of New York"; there was his "fantasy" (1: 780) of erecting a tower, his own literary Ehrenbreitstein, on the property.

Parker argues that Hawthorne recognized "the magnitude of Melville's efforts at shaping out his gigantic conception of his White Whale" (1: 827) when the work was in manuscript. He ends Volume I and begins Volume II with an "imaginative reconstruction" (1: 898) of their meeting at the Little Red Inn at Lenox, Massachusetts, in November 1851. The scene is based on a contemporary newspaper account that Parker tracked down. He describes this as "a sacred occasion in American literary life" on which Hawthorne was "profoundly moved" by the dedication in the presentation copy of Moby-Dick (1: 882). It was, Parker infers, "the happiest day of Melville's life" (1: 883). However, this triumphal experience for Melville at the zenith of his confidence and accomplishment ironically presaged his inexorable decline into literary oblivion. Despite "the astounding dedication" (2:1) and his appreciation of the novel's stupendous achievement, Hawthorne, like so many of Melville's supposed friends, did little to promote Moby-Dick through his writing and literary contacts. Melville soon experienced what became "a recurrent phenomenon for the rest of his life ... being eclipsed by Hawthorne" (2: 119), even years after Hawthorne's death. The man who had initially inspired Melville, who had embodied the highest possibilities of both art and friendship, ultimately became a haunting presence, an inescapable reminder of his literary failure.

III. The Works

Emphasizing the documented details of Melville's life, the portion of the biography devoted to analysis and interpretation of individual works is relatively small. In the last third of Volume I, Parker's methodical, detailed description of the circumstances of writing each novel, the negotiations for publication, and the responses of reviewers becomes mechanical. Volume II provides expanded interpretation and commentary with a defter touch; the treatment of Melville's works here, including Pierre and The Confidence Man, is more interesting and illuminating.

Parker provides an insightful discussion of how Melville's "mature style" begins to appear in Omoo. Later identified as a process of "homospatial thinking," in this novel the "powerful portrayal of images from different times and places which alternate rapidly in the mind, merge with each other, and ... disentangle again" to reveal the emergence of "a unique sensibility" and the writer's development as "'a pondering man'" (1: 454). Beginning with Omoo and continuing in subsequent works, Parker writes, "what is special about homospatial thinking in Melville is his becoming highly conscious of it and his exploiting it as a tool for the intense, prolonged self-psychoanalysis he put himself through after writing Redburn" (2: 10). (1) Along with Omoo, Parker makes large claims for the significance of the "minor" novel Redburn in Melville's development. He states that the work "was good writing, for he was now the master of precise detail as well as the master, for many pages, of technical control of a dual narrative perspective" (1: 639). Although Melville "disparaged it repeatedly" and "probably never admitted to himself how interesting a book he had written" (1: 650), the novel exacted a "psychic price" in forcing Melville to confront "the early loss of a beloved father and the loss of a fine home and education in fine schools" (1: 693); "that seemingly innocuous book had laid open the floodgates to his unconscious" (2: 12). However, Parker does not explain how such tensions are reflected in the text of the novel; and here again the reader must infer exactly how this "psychic price" cost Melville personally and how access to his unconscious shaped Moby-Dick and Pierre.

Most of the biography's readership will turn to the pages describing the writing, reception, and meaning of Moby-Dick. However, the relevant information is scattered piecemeal throughout the end of the first and the beginning of the second volume, interspersed with information on Hawthorne, family activities, social events, the purchase of Arrowhead, and numerous quotidian matters. Consequently, Parker dilutes his discussion of this tremendous literary achievement with extraneous detail, and, inconveniently, one will need to consult both volumes in order to get the full discussion of Moby-Dick.

Nonetheless, Parker's depiction of the making of Moby-Dick is illuminating and sometimes dramatic. As a whaleman aboard the Acushnet, "Melville had participated in one of the most extraordinary physical experiences then available" (1: 693). Converting this experience into literary art was a uniquely "American" process: "one of the most remarkable literary phenomena of his time, the frontier training of untutored writers, in which ordinary Americans ... confronted natural horrors and wonders, far from home, and came back, when they were lucky, to tell tall tales about their experiences" (1: 694). Parker shows how a combination of forces and circumstances--meeting Hawthorne, purchasing Arrowhead--exerted an invigorating, transforming influence on Melville as he was writing Moby-Dick, just after meeting Hawthorne and purchasing Arrowhead: "The excitement of being there, near Hawthorne, was infinitely compounded by the physical and mental arousals, the anxieties, agitations, frustrations, and temporary triumphs of the philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic struggle he was intermittantly waging in his manuscript as he sat at his uncle's old desk, before that little embrasure of a window which commanded so noble a view of Saddleback" (1: 781). Melville's creative "high" fueled the irrational hope "that he could have everything--earthly felicity with Lizzie and Malcolm and the rest of the family, and the ecstasy that comes only from the highest exercise of the intellect and imagination" (1: 795). The experience wrought profound transformations in Melville: "The writing of the whaling book was changing him, convincing him of his great powers, but making him reckless of his best interests, and the best interests of his family" (1: 823). Parker writes that "Melville had dealt with modern day-to-day encounters with monstrous life-forms--those encountered in the oceans of the world and those encountered in his own mind.... Abandoned, he felt, by his own father and by the heavenly Father his mother believed in, he, like Ahab, battered his imagination against natural and supernatural hieroglyphics, physical and psychological mysteries, against the puzzles he compulsively identified and compulsively brooded upon.... He was obsessed with his own need to finish his book and obsessed with what he was learning, hour by hour, about human psychology from observing the growth of his own mind" (1: 832). Parker demonstrates that the creation of the novel was itself an "adventure," surpassing Melville's "extraordinary" physical adventures of hunting whales and living among the cannibals: Melville now decided that the adventure of writing Moby Dick was itself one of the great American adventures. It was, after all, the most daring and prolonged aesthetic adventure that had ever been conducted in the hemisphere in the English language"; there was also "the astonishing adventure he had been witnessing for many months, the psychological development that had followed hard upon the intellectual development he recorded in Mardi" (1: 843).

Parker also provides an expansive discussion of the genesis of Clarel, detailing Melville's diligent preparation, the circumstances of creation, and his grandiose expectations for the poem. As with Moby-Dick, Parker emphasizes the inner development that occurred during the writing of Clarel, the heroic effort of creation, and originality of achievement it represents. Parker's depiction of Melville's work on the poem contains some of the most eloquent, powerful passages in the biography, representing Melville as the indefatigable artist doggedly laboring in solitude without appreciation or support.

Parker shows that by 1858 "Melville was in the process of remaking himself as a poet" (2: 385). "[S]erious the way only a passionate autodidact with time on his hands could be serious" (2: 407), Melville undertook a program of what he termed "'methodical reading' ... giving himself an intense course in the interconnections between earlier and later Western poetry, and especially English poetry" (2: 436). His "purpose in reading epics of Western civilization was to learn how to write great poetry in his own time, perhaps even to write epic poems of his own" (2: 437). As Parker points out, at mid-century general literary opinion expected "the great American masterpiece" to appear in the form of an epic poem rather than a novel (2: 437), and "in the 1860s most Americans still considered poetry the highest literary form" (2: 685). Melville himself "had not lost faith in the power of a great book to assert its own superiority" (2: 385). Thus, "[i]n planning and pursuing the composition of Clarel he was aiming for poetic greatness with a Browninglike ambitiousness" (2: 685). Parker depicts the creation of the poem as a herculean task, equaling if not surpassing that involved in the making of his greatest novel (2: 688); he hoped that his epic poem would earn him the acclaim and literary eminence that he had deserved, but failed to receive, for Moby-Dick. Working outside of the literary establishment, solitarily, secretively, "Melville was making his rounds as a deputy inspector of customs and he was writing epic poetry" (2: 688); "after the loss of [his son] Malcolm and so much else, he found that he still possessed reserves of emotional commitment, intellectual rigor, aesthetic complexity, psychological insight, and the requisite physical strength.... He would write his own Paradise Lost" (2: 689). By 1871 Melville was leading "a hidden life ... a buried life" as a poet (II. 710), and it was "a steady, poised life" (2: 733). Parker presents this meek, modest, minor bureaucrat as a writer much different from the bronzed, muscular young man, soon to become a literary "sex symbol," recently returned from four years at sea, skillfully narrating compelling, racy accounts of his adventures among ferocious cannibals and naked island nymphs; nor was he the exuberant creator of Moby-Dick, charging about Pittsfield "like Jehu" (2: 510) in his horse-drawn wagon, quaffing champagne with Hawthorne and Duyckinck, a dynamo of physical, sexual and intellectual energy. With the completion of Clarel in 1876, Melville was "brimming with secret triumph" and "at an equilibrium for the first time in many years" (2:784). However, Melville's dream of achieving "poetic greatness" with his epic never materialized: "Melville had hoped for recognition that he, all surprisingly, had written the great American Centennial poem. He wanted to be popular again for a while.... Instead, once the reviews of Clarel ceased, Melville found himself declining toward the nadir of his reputation" (2: 813). Parker speculates that the pulping of Clarel in 1879 "must have been bitterer for Melville than many of the human deaths he had witnessed" and that the event bespoke "a willingness to be annihilated rather than to be hacked to pieces" (2: 840).

Parker powerfully evokes Melville's heroic achievement in composing Clarel, but he disappoints by not providing a clearer commentary on the text, however knotty this "intellectually complex" (2: 685) poem might be. Parker recommends his own "strategy" for reading Clarel: "to haul myself along the twisted cord of Melville's treatment of Vine" to find "some still perturbing and some newly perturbing aspects of his long-past relationship with Hawthorne, the most intense personal involvement he ever had with a living writer" (2: 696). He maintains that "anyone who has not yet read Clarel will find that having followed Vine through the poem has removed most real or imaginary obstacles to enjoying it" (2: 696). However, reading Parker's dense discussion of the poem may be likened to pulling oneself laboriously along a forbiddingly twisted guide rope to an uncertain destination. Nonetheless, he does provide compelling motivation for one to (re)read the great, unread American epic poem.

IV. The Shape of a Career

The biography recreates the voyages and travels that so profoundly influenced Melville's writing. More documentary evidence than narrative, the depiction of his years in the South Seas is surprisingly bland, lacking the color and intensity one associates with this period of his life. However, the biography provides a vivid recreation of Melville's 1849-50 trip to London and the Continent as he explored interesting places and absorbed new experiences: literary and historical sites; bookstores and reading rooms; lanes, closes, and byways; galleries, theatres, and public executions; and numerous taverns, especially those with literary associations. All of these experiences nurtured "an accelerated unfolding within himself' that lead to Moby-Dick (1: 693). Melville's trip to the East, 1856-57, is similarly well recreated; Parker writes that the Pyramids "overwhelmed him, physically and psychically" propelling "him toward new aesthetic formulations as well as theological insights" (2: 313) that would find expression in Clarel.

Melville's literary career began as a narrator of marvelous adventures and exotic tales. Elizabeth Shaw heard "from the bearded lips of a brilliant, dark, muscular, handsome young man enthralling accounts of his adventures, foremost of which was a wondrous tale of his indulgent captivity among a cannibal tribe in the Marquesas" (1: 311). The exotic and the erotic endowed him with a dangerous attraction: "Typee had made Melville the first American author to become a sex symbol. Herman was a man whose experiences fueled diverse sexual fantasies of many men and some women.... [Critics] charged Melville not merely with sexual license but with a strange sexual perversity that was not recognizable at first reading but that wormed its way into the reader's consciousness insidiously, as time passed" (1: 530). Obviously pleased with the epithet he coins here, Parker later refers to Melville as "the first American literary sex symbol" (2: 1). Such allure derived not only from his physical appearance, but also from what he had seen and done, from what was implied as well as described.

Parker is also fond of describing Melville as a "pondering autodidact" (2: 6) who never ceased to read, to write, and to speculate. Melville's youthful "piratical forays into books" later became a disciplined regimen of "systematic reading" (2: 433); throughout his life, he "read, obsessively, despite the weakness of his eyes" (2: 164). In his writing as in his life, the external, physical adventures of youth were succeeded by the intellectual and imaginative adventures of maturity. According to Parker, Melville viewed Shakespeare as "the profound thinker, the deep psychologist, not primarily the master of the English language and master of poetic and dramatic techniques," and he "thought of himself the same way, as thinker first, rather than artist" (1: 617). Echoing Lewis Mumford's view that Melville "was a thinker, in the sense that Dante was a thinker, who clothed his thoughts in poetic vision" (107), Parker asserts that Melville valued "intellectual dating" in others and came to see himself as a "thought-diver" (1: 617-618).

Despite his ambitions to become the preeminent figure of his national literature, Melville, by 1855, had to confront "his rapidly fading reputation" (2: 249). Unsuccessful as a writer of both novels and short stories, "Melville had tried, year after year, to sell his wares to a public ever less interested in buying them.... He had no way of making a living, in short--torture" for him (2: 400). According to Parker, he abandoned his projected world cruise with his brother Tom in San Francisco because of the publisher's rejection of Poems, "a violent psychological blow" (2: 445). Resorting to a form of self-annihilation, he left Arrowhead for Manhattan and sought to "disappear into the city" as Hawthorne's fictional Wakefield does in London; unable to support himself and his family as a writer, in New York he might even "be offered some job he could bear to accept" (2: 532).

In 1866 and 1867, "Elizabeth seemed convinced her husband was insane" (2: 599-600) and "thought that her husband had ill treated her" (2: 631). Her brothers concurred and advised her to leave him. However, no specific charges were made against Melville, and no evidence exists to document Elizabeth's concerns. Parker has little tolerance for theories of mental instability and domestic abuse, which other biographers such as Robertson-Lorant have been willing to accept. Parker suggests that the unfounded suspicions concerning Melville's insanity stemmed from his indisputable financial irresponsibility, scandalous reviews that labeled his books and their author as "crazy" (charges that Lizzie's brothers uncritically accepted), and what his family viewed as Melville's deluded notion that he could succeed as a poet (2: 630-33). Melville himself was apparently unaware of such suspicions and the machinations against him. In fact, a few months after Elizabeth's brothers encouraged her to separate from him, Melville began work as a deputy customs inspector, whose duties he performed with scrupulous diligence for nineteen years. For many of these years, he moved among the wharves of Manhattan by day and labored on an intellectual epic by night--hardly the routine of a madman guilty of verbally abusing his family, pushing his wife down the stairs (2: 630-32), or more shockingly, as Lewis Mumford suspected, cutting off her fingers in a violent fit of rage. (2)

Few bright spots appeared during the last forty years of Melville's life as far as public acclaim was concerned. His pleasures were the private ones of collecting books, intellectual discovery, and writing (for himself, not "the other way"). Working on Pierre in January 1852, Melville sensed that he was "writing his own apologia for a career that might have ended a few days into the year ... a career in which his most amateurish book was accounted his best and in which his greatest originality, genius, and his ferocious industry had gone unappreciated" (2: 85). He eventually became unacknowledged even within his own family. By the 1880s, "[i]ncreasingly as he became older, quieter, easier at last to ignore, Herman Melville ceased to be mentioned in family letters ... in a pattern strangely analogous to the way he had dropped out of the lists of American authors in the late 1850s and the 1860s" (2: 849). As he aged, working as a customs inspector for "fifty or fifty-one weeks a year, six days a week," Lizzie "neglected him badly," leaving him for "weeks at a time, longer and longer as she got older and had more money to escape with" (2: 795). Depicting the quiet, "obscure life" (2: 864) of a mute, inglorious Melville, Parker's second volume unfolds a tragic tale about the fate of the artist in America. Despite neglect by his family and lack of recognition by the public, the untimely death of his son Malcolm, and the tedious routine of a demeaning job, Melville exhibited a stoical acceptance of his condition. His was an unceasing devotion to the life of the mind and an unyielding affirmation of "NO! in thunder." Here, if anywhere, Parker does "re-create some sense of what was grand in Melville" (1: xvii). The biography suggests that, like Ahab, Melville's response to devastating "heart woes" conferred upon him a measure of heroism, if not an "archangelic grandeur."

Parker has expansively recreated the milieu in which Melville lived and wrote "as a member of his family and a member of literary circles." The biography is a masterful achievement in its accumulation and presentation of archival material. Parker's thoughtful judgments and conclusions show tact and restraint. Yet, arguably, publication of the radically expanded "New Melville Log," lurking Kraken-like in Parker's computer, would better serve the scholarly community. General readers would appreciate a tighter, less documentary, one-volume abridgement. Until that appears, Robertson-Lorant's biography will remain as the preferred one-volume life of Melville; although more speculative and interpretative than Parker's, hers is a well-balanced treatment of the life, the works, and the cultural context.

Upon the publication of Lewis Mumford's biography of Melville in 1929, Henry A. Murray effusively praised his friend's achievement: "you have found your way into the beating heart of a complex myth-creating man and by a supreme alchemy you have recreated him." (3) One is not tempted to provide a similar estimation of Parker's biography. After two thousand pages, Melville remains an elusive, puzzling figure. The heart of this "complex myth-creating man" is still "an everlasting terra incognita." His family and milieu are massively documented, but, as with the meaning of Queequeeg's tattoos for Ahab, the inner Melville remains inscrutable, "a devilish tantalization of the gods." By the end of the first volume, the young Melville assumes clarity and palpability; the reader looks through the eyes and imagination of the author of Moby-Dick as "the great flood-gates of the wonder-world" swing open before him. However, despite the immense detail in Volume II depicting his last forty years, the obscure, aging poet gradually slips out of focus; he becomes a shy, shadowy figure. As one approaches the end of the biography, the reclusive, enigmatic Melville eventually vanishes, Bartleby-like, into the midnight darkness of lower Manhattan's sinuous streets. Like the whale, the Melville of this biography surfaces and sounds: one is awed by the spout of up-rushing thought and poetic expression, but such moments give way to the eerie silence of his secret meditations in the viewless depths. Amid the dense Sargasso Sea of fact and detail, the form of a beautiful yet terrible imaginative life occasionally emerges from the depths, a life that is mysterious and elusive but also huge and marvelous. Yes, we have heard of Krakens.



(1) Parker's discussion of Omoo and "homospatial thinking" includes a sly dig at one of his own earlier critics. In a sharply critical review of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Moby-Dick, Julian Markels accused Parker of "vulgar misogyny" in the treatment of women in his historical note to the edition (119). Markels suggested that Parker might have drawn upon Albert Rothenberg's The Emerging Goddess (which contains no mention of Melville) to illuminate "the place of sexual arousal in literary creativity" rather than resorting to a crude misogyny (which, incidentally, is difficult to detect in Parker's historical note). Interestingly, without citing Rothenberg (or Markels), Parker's biography claims that "sexual arousal [was] for Melville an integral part of such intensely creative phases" (1: 760) as those that produced the Hawthorne review and Moby-Dick. To explain the technique Melville first employs in Omoo, Parker employs Rothenberg's concept of "'homospatial thinking,' in which two disparate images become superimposed and fused, 'a conception leading to the articulation of new identities'" (2: 10). Perhaps Markels's criticism directed Parker to Rothenberg where, instead of obtaining insight into the connection between sexual arousal and creativity, he discovered "homospatial thinking" as a way of explaining one of Melville's trademark techniques. Alternatively, perhaps Parker is suggesting that, in fact, he was familiar with Rothenberg's work and that the charge of "vulgar misogyny" is unfounded.

(2) Letters from Lewis Mumford to Henry A. Murray, 21 April 1929 and 14 August 1962, in The Papers of Henry A. Murray, 1925-88. Mumford's suspicion was prompted by the imperfect recollection of Frank Jewett Mather, a would-be biographer of Melville.

(3) Letter from Murray to Mumford, March 1929. Henry A. Murray was one of the great, pioneering Melville scholars of the past century as well as a distinguished Harvard psychologist who developed the field of "personology." Throughout his life, Murray intermittently labored on a biography of Melville that he never completed. Perhaps this incomplete work indicates the difficulty of extracting the essential Melville, his mind and personality, from his writings and the facts of his life. The 1000-page manuscript of Murray's unfinished biography is in the Harvard University Archives.


Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley: U of California P, 1951.

Markels, Julian. "The Moby-Dick White Elephant." American Literature 66 (1994): 105-22.

Miller, Edwin Havilland. Melville. New York: George Braziller, 1975.

Mumford, Lewis. Herman Melville. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929.

Murray, Henry A. The Papers of Henry A. Murray, 1925-1988. Harvard University Archives.

Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkston Potter, 1996.

Rothenberg, Albert. The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science, and Other Fields. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.
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Author:Novak, Frank G., Jr.
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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