Saturday, March 27, 2004
With a little help from some gastro-intestinal distress, I plowed through Volume 1 of Hershel Parker's biography of Melville. This is not a book for the faint of heart, though not (as I feared it might)for densely meaningless academic writing. In fact, I was surprised by the consistent clarity of Parker's writing--given the volume of information and materials, and the potential for disastrous overwriting, it was gracefully literate and clear. The not-for-the-faint element lies in the sheer volume of information, especially in the interconnections of the social lives of the Melville clan and their movements. It was far more than I needed to know, but brought me into thinking about what it is that I seek from literary biography and how Parker's book delivered and did not against what I was looking for.

I do not have the mental constitution of a historian, of maintaining the ordered flow of facts in their dizzying complexity--I tend to read for the threads of thoughts there are meaningful for me--especially for clues about the intellectual development of writers I admire--what forces and ideas moved them, what alchemical processes brought them to their beliefs and ideas and expressions? I found this focus strong in both Richardson's bio of Emerson and in Holmes' biography of Coleridge; less of in Andrew Motion's Keats.

There is a great deal of that exploration within Parker (as there is a great deal of nearly everything). The sections, for example, on the failure of Mardi and Melville's rebounding to write Redburn and White-jacket in four months, I thought were terrific. The weight of Parker's detail does accumulate (even in my dense brain), into a sense of the forces around Melville, of the texture of the time--of what it felt like for him to be trying to write ambitious books while the world around him rewarded some elements of his work and denigrated others.

And it was interesting to see Moby-Dick emerge as a part of the succession of his writings. I have only read a little of Melville-- Moby-Dick and some of his shorter work--Billy Budd and Bartleby, so I didn't have the context of Typee or Omoo. Parker also does a good job of drawing in Melville's relationship with Hawthorne as Moby-Dick comes into focus--their relationship is an intense one--fueled by only a few meetings but drawing out significant resonance for both writers.

Parker leaves us, after 880 pages, on a real cliff ("Take it all in all, this was the happiest day of Melville's life."). I can feel the waves of schadenfreude building, even as I let this thud to the table. This is an exhaustive book, and you can feel Parker's relish in drawing its thousands of threads together. For my own interests, I needed less range and more focus, though I don't feel I can fault the book for that (Please make the writers do more of my work for me so I don't need to be as careful a reader....), and I have not decided whether to press through the other 900 odd pages of Volume Two, though leaving Melville happy seems both cruel and wrong. I am awed by the work of pulling this behemoth together (though I have resisted whale jokes and puns throughout) and have found the end product rich and heavy, though more historical than I have the appetite to absorb: 3.5 stars


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