When the narrator of A la recherche du temps perdu at last meets his idol, the great writer Bergotte, he gets a terrible shock: instead of the ‘white-haired, sweet Singer’ of his imagination, he sees ‘a young man, uncouth, short, thickset and myopic, with a red nose shaped like a snail-shell and a black goatee’. The fantasy Bergotte vanishes, but the caricature that replaces him is not intrinsically more ‘real’. Time radiates in two directions, or dimensions, from this encounter: as a mirage belonging to the past dissolves, knowledge from the future comes into play. The narrator, who will become Bergotte’s close friend, now tells us things about him which he only gradually learned, but which in turn correct the disillusioning swerve of that first physical impression. Among these things are Bergotte’s family history, his milieu. When the narrator meets some of Bergotte’s siblings, he realises that there is a family ‘voice’ from which Bergotte’s style has developed: ‘something brusque and rough in the final words of a lighthearted sentence, something faint and languishing at the close of a sad one’. These traits of spoken language belong to a vulgar household, filled with the clamour of a large family fond of coarse jokes and prone to sentimental effusions. Other households might be more refined, more elegant, but not, the narrator realises, necessarily more suited to the formation of a great artist. Bergotte does not simply transmit his inherited voice, he transposes it. ‘To wander the skies it is not necessary to have the most powerful automobile,’ Proust writes, ‘but an automobile which … is capable of converting its horizontal speed into the power of ascent.’ When Bergotte became a writer, the ‘simple machine’ bequeathed to him by his family acquired this power; wittier or more refined friends ‘might return home in their fine Rolls-Royces, showing a certain scorn for the vulgarity of the Bergottes; but he, in his simple machine which had at last “taken off”, he soared above them.’
Bergotte soars above not just family friends, but the family itself, whose conversation is transmuted into his style. It is easy to see how dangerous, how fallacious the practice of literary biography looks in this light. The significance of a writer’s background, his context, is that of a point of departure: art is an escape, a flight of speech to the printed page, where the reader’s imagination is free to encounter the writer’s; biography moves in the opposite direction, dissolving text back into conversation, returning the writer to his ‘household’, reincarnating his family, bringing him back to earth. The better the biography, the worse: the great smooth luxurious Rolls reconverts the energy of the writer’s ascent into mere horizontal force.
The publication of the second volume of Hershel Parker’s biography of Herman Melville brings to a close an enterprise of archival and critical scholarship that has lasted forty years – nearly as long as Melville’s writing career. The picture of Melville – its outlines were drawn in Volume I, which was published in 1996, and covered the years 1819 to 1851 – is enlarged, deepened, but substantially confirmed by Volume II. Volume I ends with what Parker suggests was ‘the happiest day of Melville’s life’: Friday, 14 November 1851, the day he presented Hawthorne with a copy of the novel dedicated to him, Moby-Dick, in the dining-room of Curtis’s Hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts. Volume II chronicles Melville’s long, painful decline, marked by misfortune and miscalculation: literary failure, marital conflict, the deaths of children (one of them almost certainly a suicide, though the family desperately tried to avoid the stigma), humiliating obscurity and drudgery; yet through it all the persistence of the toughest native wit America had ever produced, and the writing of ‘Bartleby’, and ‘Benito Cereno’, and Billy Budd. It is – it should be – a tremendous story, perhaps the greatest in American letters, but Parker has botched it.
Herman Melville is above all a family portrait. Melville is surrounded, at all times and in all places, by his relatives and relations; his co-ordinates are determined by genealogy, family history, social topography. Parker is fascinated by the ramifications of the Melvill(e) clan, by the places they lived in, the things they owned, their activities, journeys, opinions, feuds; his Melville is caught (revealed, trapped) in their mass. Parker knows perfectly well that Melville was not a mere product – however complex – of his milieu. He tells us again and again how exceptional, how peculiar Melville was, how stark a figure he cuts against the conventional backdrop of gender, class, family, nation; how radical were his renunciations (of piety, of success) and his desires (of friendship, and of freedom from tyranny – both the tyranny of the majority, which Tocqueville saw as the great danger of American democracy, and the tyranny of money). But Parker’s Melville is nonetheless helplessly, hopelessly entangled in his earthly travail, mired and clogged where he should be swift; our view of him is blurred just where it should be clearest and most vivid. Parker’s tremendous outlay on props, costumes and scenery very nearly results in distracting us altogether from the action of the drama.
Melville, the great ‘Isolato’, deserter from his kind and deserted by them, for whom the figure of man’s destiny was that of the castaway, is rescued by Parker and brought back to the bosom of his tribe. And what a bosom: the Melville family is a museum and theme park of post-Revolutionary America, in its military, political and economic connections, its exhibition of bourgeois manners and morals, its prosperities and terrible defeats. Parker is an incomparable guide and storyteller here, not just because he knows everything but because he is able to dramatise his knowledge. Volume I begins with the bankruptcy in 1830 of Melville’s father, Allan Melvill (the ‘e’ was added later, appearing first in the signatures of Melville’s mother and older brother, after Allan’s death in 1832); Parker evokes the flight by riverboat of this ‘patrician wastrel’ and his 11-year-old son from their house on Broadway in lower Manhattan to upstate Albany, and then traces the family back through the first decades of American Independence, to its rise in the Revolution. Both Melville’s grandfathers, Thomas Melvill and Peter Gansevoort, were Revolutionary heroes – Thomas for being among the Sons of Liberty who defied the colonial tax-gatherers in the Boston Tea Party in 1773, Peter for withstanding a British siege in 1777 (after which he was known as ‘the Hero of Fort Stanwyx’).
Besides these republican credentials, the Gansevoorts and Melvills both laid claim to aristocratic and colonial distinction. As Melville noted sardonically in Pierre, ‘the great genealogical and real-estate dignity of some families in America’ bore comparison with any European model. The Gansevoorts, as their name suggests, were Dutch settlers, who had come to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, and were connected by marriage to other great Dutch colonial families: the Douws, the Ten Eycks, the Van Schaicks, the Van Vechtens, the Van Renssalaers. The values of their world are enshrined, satirised and lamented in Washington Irving’s History of New York. The Melvills had come to America from Scotland a century after the Gansevoorts. What Hawthorne called the ‘diseased American appetite for English soil’ afflicted Thomas Melvill to the extent that he commissioned his son Allan to investigate the family’s claim to the Scottish estate of General Robert Melvill, a relation of the Earl of Leven and Melville. In 1818 Allan met the Earl, who enlightened him, as Mr Bennet failed to do with Mrs Bennet, as to the nature of an entail, but gave him an ‘engraved Portrait of the first Earl as a sacred Memento’ (as Allan put it in his obsequious letter of thanks), which had pride of place in the successive houses occupied by Allan in the course of his profligate downward spiral.
From the start, then, Melville’s family dominates his life – or, at any rate, Parker’s Life. I feel the tug of it, the temptation to pass on what I have learned of the intertwined fates of the Melvilles and the Gansevoorts, their careers, their marriages, their property transactions, their children, their deaths. And of course it is not all wasted, this Great American Saga. The social ambition and pretensions of Melville’s family, doubled by those of the family into which he married (his father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, was Chief Justice of Massachusetts and a Bostonian in the full meaning of the word), shaped his education, his attitudes to money and land, his ability to withstand the pressures of conformity and censorship. His literary decline, from the fame he had achieved with his exotic Pacific tales, through the twin failures of Moby-Dick and Pierre, to the absolute obscurity of his last years, was both hastened and embittered by his family’s ignorant incomprehension of his value, an ignorance which Parker shows with devastating clarity to be typical of the middlebrow culture whose laureate was Longfellow and whose critical arbiter was James Russell Lowell, and from which Melville, unlike Henry James or Whitman, could not escape. Melville’s doomed attempt, in the late 1840s, to make himself into a country squire at Arrowhead, his farm in the Berkshires, epitomises the family legacy of social aspiration and financial muddle: the property was mortgaged, but also pledged as security for another loan which Melville couldn’t repay; eventually he was bought out by his younger brother Allan, a selfish, social-climbing lawyer whom Parker deeply dislikes, but who was undeniably a more successful carrier of the family’s ‘fame’ (i.e. reputation, status, worth – the things that matter).
Parker is very good on all Melville’s siblings, those other Bergottes, especially his older brother Gansevoort, the family’s hero and standard-bearer after their father’s death, a driven, pushy political orator and operator on the radical wing of the Democratic Party, whose devoted and canny networking saw Melville’s first book, Typee, into print in London shortly before his own death at the age of 30. Gansevoort had been Maria Melville’s favourite; she never quite forgave Herman for surviving (and not flourishing), when Gansevoort had been so clearly destined to restore the family’s fortune and prestige. The role of favourite later devolved on the youngest brother, Tom, whose solid career in the Merchant Navy put Herman’s wanderings in the shade, and who ended up as governor of the Sailors’ Snug Harbor on Staten Island. Melville’s fiction is devoid of real brothers but filled with their surrogates, many based on real people (Toby in Typee, Jack Chase in White-Jacket, Queequeg in Moby-Dick); his attachment to Hawthorne is another example of displaced fraternity.
Parker occasionally, and ill-advisedly, uses his knowledge of Melville’s family as a foundation for critical interpretation: he admires Pierre, the sources of whose anguished family romance he traces with great tact and shrewdness, but his grasp of what makes the book interesting as a psychological document prevents him from acknowledging how badly it is written – it contains some of the 19th century’s shoddiest sentences, and dialogue that would make a snake-oil salesman blush. On the other hand, Parker excels at evoking the American literary scene: the hacks, toadies, prigs and knaves, the political and religious factions, the harsh economics of writing and publishing, the unpredictable transatlantic negotiations to which the copyright laws – or lack of them – gave rise. Melville’s literary fate hinged on absurd contingencies: a printer’s error by which the epilogue to Moby-Dick was omitted from the English edition, causing reviewers to make fun of a narrative blunder the author had not committed; a fire at the offices of Harpers in 1853 which destroyed all the unsold copies of his books (for which the piratical brothers charged his account). But his career was also warped by more fundamental pressures. The celebrity brought by Typee came at a price – the lucky dog who had dallied with Fayaway was dogged by the title, which became his unwanted nickname; conversely, his outspoken attacks on the soul-destroying Protestant missionaries in the Marquesas alienated a powerful group of evangelical reviewers, who never let the free-thinking libertine off the hook. For years Melville was beset by demands that he rewrite, or renounce, a book he had long outgrown. In fact, his readers wanted him not to grow; Parker’s finest critical perception is of the permanent, structural damage this did to Melville’s reception as a writer. It would have taken a publicity campaign of heroic strength and, more important, disinterestedness for the American public in 1851 to ‘get’ Moby-Dick: the conditions of the literary market made such a campaign virtually impossible.
Parker thus holds in his hands all the materials needed for a Life of Melville that really matters, his life as an author, the life of his books. But it all has to be sifted – by the reader, whose job it is not – from a mediocre mass of information and memorabilia. The circle of Melville’s life and writing intersects and overlaps with so many other circles that its boundaries are lost. Without perspective or sense of scale, the book’s most eloquent statement is that of its own confused immensity. What Melville wrote is only part of a landscape crowded with other texts: correspondence, journals, notebooks, memoranda, legal and business documents, newspapers, memoirs. Parker has conducted innumerable interviews with Melville descendants (direct and collateral) of whom he provides a family tree; he has visited houses, farms, offices, lodging houses, streets, squares, villages, towns, if not in person then by means of maps and surveys; he is master of the Melville Log, the documentary project begun by Jay Leyda in 1956 and now continued by Parker in electronic (and indefinitely expanding) form. Volume II of the biography, especially, is enlivened by cantankerous outbursts against long-dead Melvilles who failed to preserve letters, or librarians who neglected their collections; you get the impression that the really wicked feature of Sherman’s march through the towns of the defeated South was the destruction of newspaper files which might have contained mentions of Melville. If time-travel were possible, Parker would descend on a multitude of guilty men and women, such as the cousin who dined with Melville and wrote in his journal: ‘Many good things were said which I shall ever treasure in my memory and therefore need not transcribe to paper.’ Parker’s greatest wrath, of course, is reserved for those who actually destroyed documents, members of ‘the most loathsome school of archivists, the deaccessionists’. But he warms to Kate Gansevoort Lansing, ‘the great family archivist’; his prose purrs when he comes across a memory, or an item of furniture, scrupulously polished and handed down.
Hectic for all its ponderous size, relentless and disproportionate, the work has a mad (and maddening) grandeur of its own. Leaving aside faults of style which Parker shares with other academic writers (quotation followed by needless paraphrase, the intrusion of scholarly references into the main text, fussy repetition), there is an obsessive notation which is at first comic, then alarming. The members of the crew of the Acushnet, the whaleship on which Melville sailed in 1841, are listed several times, together with details of what happened to each of them on the voyage. The voyage itself gives rise to passages such as the following:
On 25 September (5° 14's, 105&°53'W) the log of the William Wirt reported its meeting the Acushnet and learning that it now had 600 barrels of oil. On 8 October the Acushnet ‘spoke’ the William Lee, fifteen months out of Newport, with 400 barrels. On 11 October (4&°27'S, 104&°37'W) the Joseph Maxwell recorded: ‘at 6 P.M. spoke the ship Cuishnet of Fair-haven 9 mos. 700 b[arre]ls.’ On 15 October the Alexander of New Bedford reported speaking the Acushnet, which then had 550 barrels, and on 23 October the United States of Westport spoke the Acushnet (‘720 bbls’). (The discrepancy in figures could mean that the Acushnet reported to the Joseph Maxwell the total she had taken since leaving home on 3 January 1841, not just the amount she then had on board.)
Those back-to-back parentheses are typical; so is the way a scrupulous factual account generates not accuracy but uncertainty. Indeed, you learn to dread the sight of an opening bracket, not knowing into what dark pathways it will lead. Here is a characteristic example, referring to the marriage of some very minor Melville cousins:
The tragic estrangement and its aftermath surfaced repeatedly in the letters of the next years, and reached one of its climaxes during the composition of Moby-Dick, a few months before Melville wrote the Patroons into Pierre. (Maggie and John’s marital distress eventuated, decades later, in family books and papers, including letters from Augusta, being inherited by a Van Rensselaer grandson, Walter Berry, remembered now as the consort of Edith Wharton. Some of the papers and books, taken to Paris, passed into the possession of a great-grandson of Augusta’s patron Stephen Van Renssalaer, mad Cousin Harry Crosby, the subject of Geoffrey Wolff’s Black Sun.)
Why is Parker telling us all this? Because he can, because he knows it, because he thinks we should know it; and no editor at Johns Hopkins dared tell him different. He is so extraordinarily learned, so indefatigable and cherishing of his material, that it seems brutal to protest. The book is shorter than Parker would like; he complains about how much he had to cut; he boasts, in the preface to the second volume, that it has been ‘rigorously, strenuously condensed into a mere thousand pages’. Among the distillations are accounts of Melville family parties. Again, you learn to spot them coming, introduced by ominously cheerful phrases such as ‘Pittsfield and Arrowhead were abuzz that summer,’ or ‘on Friday, 7 September 1855, a magnificent day, the Morewoods held a fancy dress picnic.’ It is not necessary for Melville – Herman Melville – to be present on such occasions; the remotest event, the smallest recorded detail, may have meaning: its inclusion is therefore self-justifying; in any case, Parker, like all great scholars, loves what he knows. He knows the topography of Boston and New York, the evolving social history of a neighbourhood or particular street; he knows the route of the Democratic Party parade through Manhattan on 1 November 1844, the itinerary of Melville’s travels through Palestine in the winter of 1856-57, and of his lecture tour the following spring; he knows that Melville’s mother-in-law, Hope Shaw, wrote to her husband, Judge Lemuel Shaw, on 7 October 1844, about the cleanliness of his pocket handkerchiefs. If you want to know the dimensions and specifications of the frigate United States on which Melville served in 1843-44, the full list of the newspapers and magazines from which extracts were printed in the publishers’ ‘Advertisement’ to the revised edition of Typee in 1846, or the furnishings of practically every house Melville inhabited, Parker can tell you. In one sublime (and, inevitably, parenthetical) aria, Parker considers a newspaper report which alludes to Melville’s moustache interfering with his enunciation while he lectured:
(This confirmation of the Auburn Advertiser as to Melville’s moustache interfering with his speech is curious. The fashion of wearing moustaches was not so new that reporters should have objected out of a dislike of moustaches; more likely, Melville left his unusually thick moustache untrimmed during his travels, so that it actually drooped over his upper lip in a way that bothered some people who had paid to hear him and could hardly do so.)
It is not clear whether Parker thinks that Melville’s moustache did interfere with his speech, or that audiences wrongly attributed his poor delivery to his moustache; the biographer’s utterance, too, is impeded. But Melville’s ‘unusually thick moustache’ flourishes notwithstanding, cultivated by Parker’s curiosity and relish.
It may be argued that Parker’s documentary impulse is apt for his subject. Moby-Dick, after all, begins not with the most famous sentence in American literature, ‘Call me Ishmael,’ but with an ‘Etymology (Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School)’, followed by ‘Extracts (Supplied by a Sub-Sub-Librarian)’: even Parker’s parentheses have a Melvillean flavour. The book belongs, in Stephen Fender’s words, to the ‘How to’ tradition of American writing – the tradition of the practical guide, the manual, the handbook, which sways the American imagination from Franklin to Thoreau, from Edgar Allan Poe (‘The Philosophy of Composition’) to Elizabeth Bishop (‘The USA School of Writing’). Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance descends (with a clunk) from Moby-Dick; so does Norman MacLean’s A River Runs through It; but so does Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. The facts and figures, mostly copied from other books, with which Melville’s seemingly artless narrator lards his adventures among the cannibals in Typee, the legal deposition which Parker rightly defends as an essential element of the rhetorical shock of ‘Benito Cereno’, the painstaking exposition of British Naval regulations in Billy Budd, are all instances of this documentary drive; Melville’s wildest and darkest fancies are not so much constrained by ‘facts’ as melded with them, fused in amazing compounds like the hieroglyphic tracery of the sperm whale’s forehead, or the body of Queequeg tattooed with ‘a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth’.
Parker might point out, too, that his attachment to documentary detail responds to something vital not just in Melville’s practice as a writer but (more important for biography, perhaps) in the roots of that practice. Where Parker’s pursuit of detail really pays off is in his charting of Melville as reader, researcher, annotator, self-teacher, especially in the listing of his books and their marginalia. The story of how Melville made himself a poet in the 1860s and 1870s by single-minded study of the poetry of the past, and of all the essays in aesthetics and criticism he could get hold of, is one of the best things in Volume II, as good as the more familiar, but just as well-told story in Volume I of the literary genesis of Moby-Dick.
Nevertheless, the parallel between Melville and Parker won’t hold beyond a certain point. Melville was a compulsive researcher, but his attitude to documents and records has a humane, if melancholy, aspect which Parker simply couldn’t countenance. In his meticulous account of Melville’s grinding stint as Deputy Inspector of Customs in New York – the post he took as a failed middle-aged author, and occupied for 19 years – Parker notes that he was ‘required to submit to the surveyor a filled-out discharging record for each ship’, and that ‘a great many such documents filled out and signed by Melville’ might still be extant. If Parker could have inspected these documents, you feel he would have done so, and catalogued them, and extracted from them their historical juices. And this is a biography of the author of ‘Bartleby’! The suggestion of the existence of these forms fills me with the horror which the narrator of that tale feels at the ‘rumour’, the ‘vague report’, that Bartleby, the law-scrivener who ‘preferred not to’ – not to copy, not to work, not to eat, not to live – had once worked in the Dead Letter Office in Washington. Bartleby’s soul might well have been blighted by ‘continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames’ – letters which were sent ‘on errands of life’ but which perversely ‘speed to death’. Melville’s Custom House is not Hawthorne’s. No Scarlet Letter, no ‘authentic’ manuscript is to be discovered there, only a signature, thousands of times repeated, scrawled in ironic counterpoint to the dwindling authority of the writer’s name.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.