This Week’s (or Month’s) Read: Herman Melville, by Hershel Parker

I have a certain fondness for 19th century American authors: Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Poe, and Herman Melville. A couple of years ago, I did a marathon reading of Melville’s fiction, along with a brief biography of him. At the time, I said, “The two-volume biography by Hershel Parker seemed a bit much at this stage.” But literary biographies are one of my favorite sub-genres, so I’m finally getting around to reading Parker’s massive work on Melville’s life.

Volume 1 is a bit over 900 pages (880 pages of text, the rest of indexes and bibliography), and I’ve started reading it now. (I’m surprised to find that there are no detailed notes, as I would expect in such a work; a glance at volume 2 on Google Books shows that there are only a few dozen pages of notes.) The second volume is more than 1,000 pages. So this is a big work, but Parker is recognized as the leading Melville scholar in the world, and I’m looking forward to the time it takes to read these books.

I’m sure that not many of the readers of my blog are interested in such works, but if you are, feel free to add a comment. What literary biographies have you read that you’ve liked?

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12 replies
  1. Dan O'Donnell says:

    Would it be cliché to say that I’ve got two biographies of Hemingway sitting on the shelf waiting for me to make time? But I’ve also got two bios of Beckett. (Moby Dick awaits also, but that’s not a bio – just on-topic for your post.)

  2. MichaelC says:

    You may be one of the few people who would understand why I named my first laser printer “Bartleby.”

  3. Shrader says:

    I love historical biographies and autobiographies, but have so far only read the political (American Lion about Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs, anything and everything by and about Theodore Roosevelt) or religious (In Search of Paul, James The Brother of Jesus, etc.) Although I love Moby Dick, I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to 2,000 pages on Melville! Please keep us updated on your thoughts. In the meantime, I just picked up Volume 1 of Mark Twain’s Autobiography. At a mere 700 pages, it’s a much easier introduction to the literary (auto)biography.

  4. Hershel Parker says:

    Kirk, thanks for picking up my first volume!
    On the notes:
    There are no notes about sources of letters because I give the dates and correspondents then in the back have a long chart of correspondents so you can see where a particular letter is. Sometimes almost all the letters from x to y are in one place but a few are elsewhere, so you do have to check the chart if you want to verify my transcription in the Berkshire Athenaeum or Houghton Library.
    The Documentation notes are mainly about problems of weighing evidence in complicated cases and giving credit to people for their discoveries. The forthcoming MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE has 40 or 50 pages of endnotes where I do engage dozens of other biographies, agreeing with them, and showing why, or disagreeing, and showing how what we are saying has to do with theories of biography and autobiography. These endnotes are discursive enough to satisfy even a glutton, Kirk. The 3 parts of the text of this book are about Melville biography and the endnotes might be said to be about Melville AND biography. This book runs fewer than 600 pages, so I hope you will rush to read it–and maybe review it in your blog. I have a chapter on the emerging importance of litblogs and individual bloggers just as the mainstream media reviewing sources are fading away.

    • kirk says:


      Thanks for your comment. “Fewer than 600 pages…” Well that’s a relief. ;-)

      Yes, blogs are becoming important, in part because bloggers often write because of their passions, and, in most cases, aren’t beholden to publishers. What bloggers may lack in critical baggage, many make up for in sincerity. After all, it’s the common reader, not the critic, who buys most books. (Though for scholarly books, that’s a different kettle of verdigris.)

  5. Hershel Parker says:

    Kirk, in the new book I say this:

    I expect that presses, more and more, will send review copies to litblogs and pre-tested bloggers (the “veteran” bloggers of the future), where the best reviewers consistently write more intelligently than the average New York Review of Books pontificator.
    Of course there is resistence to Internet reviewing. On his Reading Experience 2.0 site (October 23, 2007) Daniel Green hilariously surveys the motives of the blog-bashers: “The disdain for literary blogs and other ‘nontraditional’ sources of literary discussion that drips from the pens of Gail Pool and Richard Schickel and Michael Dirda must rise from a mounting fear that their sense of separation from mere ‘amateurs’ is at risk: If you can’t look down on bloggers, after all, who can you look down on?” The hacks and the occasional admirable mainstream media reviewers will not soon be driven out by “ragtag bloggers” (although newspaper book review sections are dying month by month), but authors may have multiple chances to be heard in the new Internet age. We will see what happens when Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative is ready for reviewing.

    Kirk, that’s the end of what I say in the book. Do you think I am too optimistic about Internet reviewing? This week we have the RJ Ellory scandal, which seems to me not worse than some reviewing my V2 received from people who said I made up POEMS (1860), which everyone had known about since 1922. In MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE I have a note on reviewing in Amazon where Richard Schwartz and I agree that as long as we are “REAL NAME” reviewers it’s great to review on the Internet.

    • kirk says:

      I don’t think you’re too optimistic, but there are two types of reviewers. As I said, many have a passion for what they review – that’s pretty much how I decide what to blog about (and what to review on Amazon, where I post some reviews). But there are others who do it just to get free books, or even for pay. If you look at the #1 reviewer on Amazon, her reviews are often little more than blurbs that any PR hack could have written.

      Yes, the “real name” bit on Amazon – as well as the “Amazon purchase” are good ways to validate reviews. But it’s easy to create bogus accounts and bogus reviews. I wrote about one such example here:

      Gaming the System with Bogus Amazon Reviews

      Since then there are a lot more reviews, so it’s hard to spot the bogus ones; when I wrote the above, there weren’t many.

  6. Hershel Parker says:

    Congratulations on “Gaming the System,” Kirk. It’s hard for me to believe that anyone connected to Bain would game any system. Can such things be?

  7. hershel Parker says:

    Kirk, MELVILLE BIOGRAPHY: AN INSIDE NARRATIVE is for sale now and has not been attacked by reviewers the way the biography was. In 2002 Andrew Delbanco and Richard Brodhead both suggested that I could not be trusted because I had made up the 1860 POEMS–something we had known all about since 1922. Now, no savage lies in the mainstream media yet, and even the NEW YORKER blog has the book up on Books to Watch Out for in January, and the first 4 Amazon reviews are 5-star, beginning with one by a New Englander, a man who reveals himself as Jack O’Connell, bless him. I begin to hope for a fair reception, but hope most of all for blogger and litblog attention. See, please Mark, how I use a young blogger as literary discoverer in a chapter on why Melville took Hawthorne along with him in CLAREL. I hope it’s a new world for reviewing.

  8. hershel Parker says:

    P.S. In this book I do not talk about kissing any part of the living body of Mae West but I do reveal that I am so old that the only time Dan Rather read my name aloud was on the radio.


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