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Having left most of Moby-Dick with a printer in 1851, Herman Melville lamented to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he would go down in history as a "man who lived among the cannibals!" Until his death in 1891, Melville was known as the author of Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847)—both semiautobiographical travel books, and literary sensations because of Melville's sensual description of Having left most of Moby-Dick with a printer in 1851, Herman Melville lamented to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he would go down in history as a "man who lived among the cannibals!" Until his death in 1891, Melville was known as the author of Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847)—both semiautobiographical travel books, and literary sensations because of Melville's sensual description of the South Sea islanders. (A transatlantic furor raged over whether the books were fact or fiction.) His most famous character was Fayaway—not Captain Ahab, not the White Whale, not Bartleby, and definitely not Billy Budd, whose story remained unpublished until 1924. Herman Melville, 1819-1851 is the first of a two-volume project constituting the fullest biography of Melville ever published. Hershel Parker, co-editor of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, reveals with extraordinary precision the twisted turmoil of Melville's life, beginning with his Manhattan boyhood where, surrounded by tokens of heroic ancestors, he witnessed his father's dissipation of two family fortunes. Having attended the best Manhattan boys' schools, Herman was withdrawn from classes at the Albany Academy at age 12, shortly after his father's death. Outwardly docile, inwardly rebellious, he worked where his family put him—in a bank, in his brother's fur store—until, at age 21, he escaped his responsibilities to his impoverished mother and his six siblings and sailed to the Pacific as a whaleman. A year and a half after his return, Melville was a famous author, thanks to the efforts of his older brother in finding publishers. Three years later he was married, the man of the family, a New Yorker—and still not equipped to do the responsible thing: write more books in the vein that had proven so popular. After the disappointing failure of Mardi, which he had hoped would prove him a literary genius, Melville wrote two more saleable books in four months—Redburn and White-Jacket. Early in 1850 he began work on Moby-Dick. Moving to a farmhouse in the Berkshires, he finished the book with majestic companions—Hawthorne a few miles to the south, and Mount Greylock looming to the north. Before he completed the book he made the most reckless gamble of his life, borrowing left and right (like his wastrel patrician father), sure that a book so great would outsell even Typee. Melville lovers have known Hershel Parker as a newsbringer—from the shocking false report headlined "Herman Melville Crazy" to the tantalizing title of Melville's lost novel, The Isle of the Cross. Carrying on the late Jay Leyda's The Melville Log, Parker in the last decade has transcribed thousands of new documents into what will be published as the multi-volume Leyda-Parker The New Melville Log. Now, exploring the psychological narrative implicit in that mass of documents, Parker recreates episode after episode that will prove stunningly new, even to Melvilleans.


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Having left most of Moby-Dick with a printer in 1851, Herman Melville lamented to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he would go down in history as a "man who lived among the cannibals!" Until his death in 1891, Melville was known as the author of Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847)—both semiautobiographical travel books, and literary sensations because of Melville's sensual description of Having left most of Moby-Dick with a printer in 1851, Herman Melville lamented to Nathaniel Hawthorne that he would go down in history as a "man who lived among the cannibals!" Until his death in 1891, Melville was known as the author of Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847)—both semiautobiographical travel books, and literary sensations because of Melville's sensual description of the South Sea islanders. (A transatlantic furor raged over whether the books were fact or fiction.) His most famous character was Fayaway—not Captain Ahab, not the White Whale, not Bartleby, and definitely not Billy Budd, whose story remained unpublished until 1924. Herman Melville, 1819-1851 is the first of a two-volume project constituting the fullest biography of Melville ever published. Hershel Parker, co-editor of the Northwestern-Newberry Edition of The Writings of Herman Melville, reveals with extraordinary precision the twisted turmoil of Melville's life, beginning with his Manhattan boyhood where, surrounded by tokens of heroic ancestors, he witnessed his father's dissipation of two family fortunes. Having attended the best Manhattan boys' schools, Herman was withdrawn from classes at the Albany Academy at age 12, shortly after his father's death. Outwardly docile, inwardly rebellious, he worked where his family put him—in a bank, in his brother's fur store—until, at age 21, he escaped his responsibilities to his impoverished mother and his six siblings and sailed to the Pacific as a whaleman. A year and a half after his return, Melville was a famous author, thanks to the efforts of his older brother in finding publishers. Three years later he was married, the man of the family, a New Yorker—and still not equipped to do the responsible thing: write more books in the vein that had proven so popular. After the disappointing failure of Mardi, which he had hoped would prove him a literary genius, Melville wrote two more saleable books in four months—Redburn and White-Jacket. Early in 1850 he began work on Moby-Dick. Moving to a farmhouse in the Berkshires, he finished the book with majestic companions—Hawthorne a few miles to the south, and Mount Greylock looming to the north. Before he completed the book he made the most reckless gamble of his life, borrowing left and right (like his wastrel patrician father), sure that a book so great would outsell even Typee. Melville lovers have known Hershel Parker as a newsbringer—from the shocking false report headlined "Herman Melville Crazy" to the tantalizing title of Melville's lost novel, The Isle of the Cross. Carrying on the late Jay Leyda's The Melville Log, Parker in the last decade has transcribed thousands of new documents into what will be published as the multi-volume Leyda-Parker The New Melville Log. Now, exploring the psychological narrative implicit in that mass of documents, Parker recreates episode after episode that will prove stunningly new, even to Melvilleans.

30 review for Herman Melville: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    John

    After p. 250 I'm experimenting. Reading Robin-Laurant's and Parker's biographies of Melville concurrently. I finished about a third of RL's bio, which brings Melville up to the publication of Mardi, which must be a most peculiar novel. Never mind. I've now read about 250 pages of Parker's biography, which derives entirely - or so he says - from the "Melville Log." I'm not entirely sure what that is, but my impression is that the log is a database of every document, printed source that pertains ev After p. 250 I'm experimenting. Reading Robin-Laurant's and Parker's biographies of Melville concurrently. I finished about a third of RL's bio, which brings Melville up to the publication of Mardi, which must be a most peculiar novel. Never mind. I've now read about 250 pages of Parker's biography, which derives entirely - or so he says - from the "Melville Log." I'm not entirely sure what that is, but my impression is that the log is a database of every document, printed source that pertains even remotely to the life and work of Herman Melville. Parker has devoted much of his career, it seems, to maintaining and enhancing this database, since he assumed responsibility from his predecessor. So my expectations of his biography weren't particularly high, let us say. What I expected was a biographical narrative that reads like nothing so much as a sequence of notecards knitted together by a very thin connective tissue of prose - transition statements and parargraphs that linked one notecard to the next. I am entirely disappointed in that expectation. Parker writes quite gracefully. His prose is entirely clear and uncluttered. His pacing is quite effective. Etc., etc. There is abundant detail - after all the biographer's business is evocative detail as Henry James reminds us, and I don't find very much of it annoying. I will note, as a counter-example, that Parker provides the entire list of crew members on board ship during HM's first and only whaling voyage, complete with their ages, places of birth, height (in fractions of inches), skin tone, etc. For all 30 or 35 of them - and he informs us of the inclination of each to abuse one substance or another. That seems a bit excessive. I can't imagine why he devoted hundreds of words to material of that kind, but, of course, I'm under no obligation to read it. The turning of pages is my prerogative. Parker's characterizations of persons are well drawn, and they convey effectively Melville's personality and peculiarities as well as those of the principle actors in HM's life. His renderings are remarkably similar to Robin-Laurant's. I'm wondering if she had access to the same "log," but the notes aren't particularly clear in either volume. Odd - which gives me pause, but I don't plan to expend much energy in pursuing answers to that question. After p. 400 It seems clear that RL's biography and Parker's biography aren't directly comparable. RL focuses on Herman M. with characterizations of ancillary figures (mother, father, uncles, the usual suspects). Parker should have entitled his book "The Melville Family: A Collective Biography, much in the style (but much more voluminous) than Matheissen's "The James Family." At this point, I would say that Parker's account of Herman's adventures occupy perhaps one quarter to one third of the pages I've read. Not that I object, of course, because I very much enjoy Parker's work, now that I've decided to skip over pages such as those pages that give lists of names of ships' crews and lists of persons who recommended Herman's brother for a job in the Polk administration. Parker's characterizations and portraits of HM and all his connection are wonderfully clear and the product of sharply perceptive mind and thoughtful interpretation. With biographies of this scope, of which there aren't many, by persons who have devoted much of their lives to their subjects, of whom there aren't many, I often wonder when I read page after page, all of which is plausible and seamless - written as if there were no gap in the evidenciary record whatever - exactly now much of the narrative derives directly from the record and how much derives from their author's thoughts about the content of the record. I wonder particularly about "interpolation," as it were, plausible and reasonable inferrence from evidence to fill gaps in the record, to be sure, but matters of interpretation rather than evidence, which the author normally doesn't identify in his notes. Quite as if his thoughts must represent fact by virtue of being his thoughts. But in this case, because I don't intend to immerse myself in the Melville Log, I'll not even begin to investigate that question. So far - I would say that I would recommend RL's biography rather than Parker's for those who want to devote time and energy to only one biography rather than any and all accounts of HM's life. After p. 600. At this point I'm thinking that Parker should have given his biography the title: "The Melvilles and Their World: A Family Biography." I have to believe that Parker never encountered the least little detail regarding any of their comings, goings and doings, their relations, connection and nodding acquaintances out to the sixth degree of separation, and all their comings, goings and doings, that he didn't revere and hadn't ingested into his hoard, the inimitable Melville Log. [What could that hoard hold now that 20 years have passed since Parker published vol. 1 of his biography?] So if you're curious to know exactly who attended HM's marriage to Elizabeth Shaw, and the names of those whom the Shaws invited to remain for the wedding lunch, look no farther than Chapter 27. But, by example, Parker does raise the perfectly legitimate question of the boundaries of the life of an individual - where does biography begin and end? Some of us tend to think of ourselves as autonomous individuals, with "strong boundaries," as the self-help gurus of the 1980s preached. Parker would respond - no such person ever lived or could live in this world. Nonetheless, after granting all that, I'm still thinking that the insights of the pop-psychologist/therapist, might serve more appropriately as the foundation of the biographer's practice than Parker's premise. One note: Parker provides a wonderfully detailed (of course), precise and vivid mini-biography of HM's older brother, Gansevoort Melville, who deserves a biography of his own, devoted entirely to his life as first-born, eldest some, head-of-household, following his father's death, autodidact, minor politican aligned with Tammany Hall in its early days, political journalist, and apparently extraordinarily eloquent and effective stump orator. I'd say that Parker devotes at least one-quarter of his first 500 pages to Gansevoort, but I have to believe that had he mined other archives he could have dredged up much more material. Then again he might already have read every extant page of any relevance whatsoever. At End. I've finished Volume 1. Now on to Volume 2. I have adjusted to Parker's project (of some 40 years) and am accepting of it. The product of his life's work is an extraordinarily fine work of biography - the biography of a family and its world. I do have one objection - and that relates to the abuse of plausibility in biography. I'll illustrate by example. The last line of volume one reads: "Taken all in all, this was the happiest day in Herman Melville's life." Parker is referring to the dinner to which he had invited his neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne on the day Melville's copies of Moby-Dick arrived in Pittsfield. During that dinner, when the two of them dined alone, Melville presented the first copy of his book, which he had dedicated to NH. Apparently the two talked for hours - well after all other guests had departed the hotel's dining room. Hawthorne, whose opinion of his work mattered more to HM than the opinion of any other human, held MD in very high esteem, and his achievement in MD above all of Melville's other five books that preceded it, and said so apparently - although neither Hawthorne nor Melville nor any eavesdropper left a memoir of their conversation that is known. And it is entirely plausible that this dinner afforded a peak experience for Melville. I wouldn't quibble with that conclusion. But there is absolutely no foundation in evidence for Parker's final sentence. Had Melville committed that assessment to paper later in life, Parker would have found it. I understand and I can accept a writer's need for a powerful conclusion to a work of some 850 pages, especially if that writer hoped that his readers would open volume two - longer by 100 pages than the first. That does not justify a biographer's substitution of the plausible for the factual - nor the biographer's substitution of his own response - or imagined response - to a similar circumstance for his subject's experience - which in this case will ever remain unknowable with the certainty that Parker expresses in his last sentence. I can understand that after 40 years' intense research and writing on Melville that Parker may well have appropriated Melville entirely as his own, or, conversely, transported himself into an existence that Parker constructed in his imagination and identified with Melville's life in the past. But let us be clear. Melville was not and could never have been an extension of Parker's mind and will. And because Melville died some 70 years before Parker completed his dissertation of Melville's politics, Parker could not possibly have been Melville. Biographers sometime forget these distinctions, unless they believe in transmigration of souls or reincarnation without announcing the fact. But it is also true that Parker rarely departs from his evidence. When he does, however, it annoys - for a moment. Then again, Parker has taught me that I am completely at liberty to turn pages without so much as a second glance at the words printed on them.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Joyce

    the moment at which it crystallises that parker is completely the wrong man for the job comes fairly far into this volume, up until which one is willing to at least tolerate his longeurs. the moment is the realisation that the strongest words parker applies to any of melville's individual works come for white-jacket, a dull exercise in playing to populism which is was a stepping stone to the whale, which he stringently defends as being critically mistreated (including by melville himself). parke the moment at which it crystallises that parker is completely the wrong man for the job comes fairly far into this volume, up until which one is willing to at least tolerate his longeurs. the moment is the realisation that the strongest words parker applies to any of melville's individual works come for white-jacket, a dull exercise in playing to populism which is was a stepping stone to the whale, which he stringently defends as being critically mistreated (including by melville himself). parker hardly glances at the works themselves and says little that isn't obvious or a factual statement about sources or references, he seems resistant to writing about these reasons that melville is worth such a long biography. the decades working on the melville log have clearly driven parker deranged, if not at least impaired his judgement; in that presumably monstrous compilation every single item of information about anyone tangentially linked to melville is relevant. this is fine in that context due to the nature of the work, but here it is only infuriating, i am clearly fine with reading a 1700 page biography of melville as i have embarked on it, but such huge swathes of this book are not even about melville i spent an astonishing amount of time passing my eyes blankly over stretches of pages about inconsequential things and events. the two tasks of the biographer are to research their subject and then put that research to use, parker is clearly exemplary at the first but stunningly incompetent at the second, perhaps he is trying to justify his lifelong devotion to this task by putting as much of his work in front of the reader (this is the kind of interpretive leap of reasoning parker often makes) but the biographer should compile the scattered information of a life into a form usable by others, the biographer undertakes the work so the rest of us can taste the fruits, only the essentials rather than the trees, roots, fertiliser, bees and pesticides used in the fruits production. at first i appreciated the depth of effort in relaying the melville family history and the repercussions this later had for herman, but parker puts in too much entirely, accreting useless information about long passed entirely futile political events and family drama where an at least briefer summa would have been much better. despite the long introductory section of a long family history branching out ever more as it reached closer to herman himself parker does not actually say anything about all the drama of this, or the possible effects on herman's thinking and work, which is an odd omission considering his willingness to sometimes assert the motivations of his subjects. the mind boggles to conceive of how parker thought any of this could hold any interest, the constant stream of biographical excess about practically anyone who so much as touches on melville's life, while leaving some historical events that would have provided a little context completely unexplained (impairing to an englander like me, although its possible many american readers wouldnt recognise these events either). the problem with all this boredom is that this is still the most comprehensive biography of melville going when it actually focuses on him, and when parker does in fact hone in on his ostensible subject and jettison the just drainingly boring 19th century social antics of his contemporaries it almost becomes thrilling once melville becomes a great writer and engages in mental battle. but parker neglects melville at some points in a completely stumping way; the few weeks in polynesia that became typee are passed over in a handful of sentences but pages and pages fall to his family's daily lives, when the whole reason herman is so exciting as a writer is that he escaped the deathly dull strictures of his century in which everyone else he knew was trapped, and this carries over to his life. a common problem with biographers is getting too close to their subjects and allowing their devotion to justify their failings, however incontestable (salient examples are pound and lovecraft, whose biographers are rabid in blind defence of these figures theyve devoted so much to, leading to idiocies like spending hundreds of pages acclaiming pound's genius in every field and then claiming the fascist's fooled him into supporting them, or that a man whose entire corpus is an allegory for the evils of racial integration wasn't a racist), the problem with parker is that he isn't close enough to melville, he hasn't been blinded by the light to the obscuring of all else, a light that was visible at points here, but largely obscured by the just incessant smothering amount of information about people who are completely inconsequential here. parker also seems to be comfortable making stretches of interpretation about thoughts and feelings, which is a bad trait in a biographer (and especially unnecessary here where there is already so much detrimental to the book) he refers back to past events that he believes will have affected feelings, including for example the almost constant mention of gansevoort's memory, meaning that even after he dies parker doesn't stop devoting pages and pages to him, which is draining because of how boring gansevoort was, a minor political figure in long passed intrigues whose major players have even passed into obscurity. the mention of gansevoort brings in another issue, that of parker's large cast of constantly present relatives no matter how distant in blood or geography drawing from such a small pool of names and living in places named from this pool too. even had the names been unique and noteworthy i wouldn't have cared enough to keep track of the web of relation, and this certainly didn't help. parker was seemingly sometimes as bored as i was, as there are repetitions scattered throughout where he goes over the same information (which shocked me with its dullness the first time around) as if despite his long years of work he was still hurried to the finish and not engaged enough with what he was writing to keep track of it. what is needed is someone with some sense to come along, who has no relation to the melville log, and gut parker's biography, extracting the information actually about melville and actually writing something about his books (one could read this biography and hardly have any impression about why melville was so important that he deserved this project, so little does parker touch on his work) someone who will leave melville's light undimmed and be carried along intoxicated by his endeavour (how could a biographer of the man who wrote mardi not descend into ecstatic thrills while describing the writing of that vast broiling masterpiece?) and will write something worthy of this great man, and not exemplary of the kind of empty lifeless academicism that melville so deftly parodies in moby dick.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    Loving Herman Melville as I do, I found parts of this gigantic biography simply sublime and was able to slog through the intolerably long bits. In the sublime column, an anecdote about a Berkshires hike whose company included Nathaniel Hawthorne. A surprise downpour drove the party to seek shelter wherein Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes delighted everyone by removing a cold bottle of champagne from his doctor's bag along with a single silver cup for all to drink out of. That story was a reward for the Loving Herman Melville as I do, I found parts of this gigantic biography simply sublime and was able to slog through the intolerably long bits. In the sublime column, an anecdote about a Berkshires hike whose company included Nathaniel Hawthorne. A surprise downpour drove the party to seek shelter wherein Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes delighted everyone by removing a cold bottle of champagne from his doctor's bag along with a single silver cup for all to drink out of. That story was a reward for the doze-inducing first chapters of the book where over and over we get it, Melville's mother Maria was super strapped for cash and had to sell important furniture from her house, leave New York and live upstate, evade creditors, etc. The political parts about Melville's older brother Gansevoort were slightly more interesting because G was a famous orator in his day. I guess it's good at the age of forty to be able to distinguish the difference between James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson? But really I was interested in the description of an amazing banner that the ladies of Nashville made for G with an eagle on it. Anyway, see, this biography drifts off-topic quite a bit. At the end though, any book that brings me closer to one of my literary favorites is a good book. Melville has a way of being like 'hey, what's up Ann?' in every book. His ability to reach through the ages and rap atcha is his most charming quality and I see how his affability was shaped by his adventures and also by his many "failures" which really just make his contemporaries look close-minded. He kept at it though, he never gave up, thank God. But the failures are so sad just the same, so I don't think I'll be able to do Volume II.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Devin Curtis

    Yes, most people would not care enough to read through all of this and even for those who really care there is a lot of eminently skippable material, but it's meant to be comprehensive and it very much is. Yes, most people would not care enough to read through all of this and even for those who really care there is a lot of eminently skippable material, but it's meant to be comprehensive and it very much is.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    An exhaustive and extensive work, but the insights speak more to Melville's family than Melville himself. I've visited Arrowhead and spoke with the guides about my impression of the work and they agreed. An exhaustive and extensive work, but the insights speak more to Melville's family than Melville himself. I've visited Arrowhead and spoke with the guides about my impression of the work and they agreed.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Joke

    I haven't entirely finished Parker's biography of Melville mainly because I was very disappointed with his so-called 'Kraken' edition of Melville's 'Pierre, or the Ambiguities' (which I was reading at the same time), because he basically cuts out all the parts of the book that make it a Romantic novel. However I did enjoy reading about Melville's family history in relation to his writing. I haven't entirely finished Parker's biography of Melville mainly because I was very disappointed with his so-called 'Kraken' edition of Melville's 'Pierre, or the Ambiguities' (which I was reading at the same time), because he basically cuts out all the parts of the book that make it a Romantic novel. However I did enjoy reading about Melville's family history in relation to his writing.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    Scrupulously documented, careful and comprehensive, this biography sometimes gets lost in tedious everyday details, making it wonderfully useful as research but somewhat slow going as leisure reading.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jesús

  9. 5 out of 5

    Amy

  10. 4 out of 5

    Ramon de Santiago

  11. 4 out of 5

    Tobias

  12. 4 out of 5

    Winey Mommy

  13. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  14. 5 out of 5

    Michael Morow

  15. 5 out of 5

    melvilliana

  16. 4 out of 5

    Pprr

  17. 4 out of 5

    Paul Maher

  18. 4 out of 5

    Book-it Repertory Theatre

  19. 4 out of 5

    G.K. Belliveau

  20. 4 out of 5

    Caron

  21. 5 out of 5

    Helloroya

  22. 4 out of 5

    Cort McMeel

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ash

  24. 4 out of 5

    Corbett

  25. 5 out of 5

    Geoff

  26. 4 out of 5

    Nick Mat

  27. 5 out of 5

    Michael Sapunor

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ron McColl

  29. 4 out of 5

    Charles

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jonathan Patterson

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