Volume 6, Number 2, 1997

Hershel Parker's 'Melville' a whale
of a biography

Writing the first volume of what has been called the definitive biography of Herman Melville involved a five-year paper chase for Hershel Parker, H. Fletcher Brown Professor of English at UD.

Before he even began to write the book, Herman Melville:, A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, Parker undertook the task of continuing a detailed, daily log of Melville's life. His involvement in the project began when his friend and colleague, Melville scholar Jay Leyda, became ill and was no longer able to continue with the chronology.

It was an overwhelming but exciting task, Parker said. New material was constantly being discovered or made available, and Parker spent days, months and years at his computer, with a magnifier and perpetual calendar, transcribing into the log letters, reviews, newspaper articles, old records and annotations and marginalia Melville had written in his books. Much of the material was difficult to decipher.

"I was reluctant to take this on at first, but I could not have written the biography without continuing to compile the work that Jay Leyda began," he says.

One of the recent major discoveries was the Augusta Papers, belonging to Melville's sister, which were found by an Albany school teacher in an antiques and junk barn, run by an eccentric, elderly woman in upper state New York. The papers, now housed in the New York Public Library, are a treasure-trove and give intimate portraits of the Melville family to scholars, changing much that had previously been written about Melville.

Parker also tracked down additional information from family members and other sources, fitting together the pieces to the puzzle of Melville's life. From these clues, he developed his true "stories" about Melville based on the minutiae and facts that he pursued, such as old shipping records to trace Melville's voyages as a seaman or the food that his mother ordered shortly after Melville was married that indicated she had a party for him and his bride.

Melville's life was as colorful as many of his writings. The biography begins when young Melville and his father, who was heavily in debt, were surreptitiously leaving New York City by boat at night to join his mother and the rest of his brothers and sisters to begin life anew in Albany.

Although the Melvilles on both sides were descended from highly respected families, their finances were precarious, and after his father's death, Melville was forced to leave school at the age of 12 and work for a bank, in his brother's store and at other jobs, including a stint of teaching.

Melville eventually decided to become a sailor and made a voyage to Liverpool, which Parker recreates from descriptions of the city in those days.

Melville later boarded Acushnet, a whaler. On a voyage to the South Pacific, he deserted ship and lived with natives in the Marquesas Islands. Parker recreates this period from Melville's own writings, records of his fellow shipmates and ship records and other accounts of whaling and voyages of the day.

In particular, Parker discusses an account of a whale's destruction of the ship Essex, written by a survivor, the first mate Owen Chase. Melville had read this and called the narrative "wondrous." Chase wrote that the whale was "enveloped in the foam of the sea that his continual and violent thrashing about in the water had created around him, and I could distinctly see him smite his jaws together, as if distracted with rage and fury."

After four years at sea, Melville returned home, but those years and experiences were pivotal to his novels. During those long watches and voyages, he had become something of a story teller, and his family encouraged him to write down the tales of his adventures. The results were Typee, followed by Omoo, both of which were successful, followed by Mardi, Redburn and lesser-known works.

Then, he wrote Moby-Dick, which he considered his best work and believed would be a great success. The book, however, was savagely attacked by American critics of the day, particularly the conservative religious press, Parker says.

This volume, however, which concludes on the day of the publication of Moby-Dick, ends on a happy note. At this time in his life, Melville, by then married and a father, had formed a close friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Thanks to an article in a small Vermont newspaper, written by a reporter who happened to be in Lenox, Mass., at the time, Parker discovered that the two well-known authors had a lengthy dinner and evening at the Curtis Hotel about the publication date of Moby-Dick.

Hawthorne, who was moving away, wrote a glowing letter to Melville about the book a few days after the dinner. Parker points out that Melville must have given him a copy of the book, which he had dedicated to Hawthorne, that evening, because there was no other way Hawthorne could have received it and written to Melville so quickly.

As Parker wrote of that memorable occasion, "Take it all in all, this was the happiest day of Melville's life."

Although he had been a successful author with his early books, from that time on, Melville was attacked and his works were harshly received in this country, particularly by the evangelical press, Parker says. "In fact," he says, " I first had to write a draft of the second part of the biography of his later years because they were so full of pain and grief, I was not sure I could take on the task later."

But, as Parker writes in the introduction to this volume, he found the years after l851 until Melville's death in 1891, "infused with the sort of valor (physical, psychological, intellectual and aesthetic) that makes for compelling narrative.... More than once, I would have warned him away from a precipice, but I depict him as I see him."

The biography has received widespread critical acclaim, and recently won the Association of American Publishers' award for Literature and Language.

Calling Parker "the acknowledged dean of Melville studies," The Washington Post reviewer writes that the book's "scholarship is impeccable, its prose clear and swift, its scope awe-inspiring."

In London, The Times Literary Supplement reviewer writes "The linking of so much material into a continually engaging narrative is a magnificent achievement, and it is fitting that the author of a whale of a Whale should be the subject of a whale of a biography. Hershel Parker's magnum opus is a magisterial work of retrieval and unflagging scholarship...."

London's December Literary Review calls Parker a "scholar of notable fastidiousness, a achievement here is to establish Herman Melville's life as one of the great literary family sagas of the 19th century--a narrative at least as colorful and incident-rich as anything published by Melville himself."

Featured as the cover review in the Jan. 5 Philadelphia Inquirer books section, the reviewer writes of "the authority, sweep and detail of this magisterial biography...."

A Dec. 15 article in The New York Times Magazine refers to the UD English professor as the "dean of Melville scholars, legendary for his staggering precision and his devotion to his hero." The article, featuring a full-page photograph of Parker, examines controversy about Melville's marriage and his treatment of his wife, Elizabeth.

The New York Times also reviewed the book and listed it in its "And Bear In Mind" selection-editors' choices of recent books of particular interest. The reviewer says "Melville's career obliges Mr. Parker to tell a number of dramatic stories, and this he does well.... I wonder how Volume 2 will begin and what other tiny jewels of research will sparkle...."

The Boston Sunday Globe reviewer writes that Parker is "meticulous, systematic and comprehensive.... Every page of this new book attests that Parker is a consummate professional who has hunted down every scrap of evidence and inspected each item rigorously. His book will be indispensable....Parker has dedicated himself to getting sequence of facts right, and he has accomplished this demanding job with the highest distinction."

The Los Angeles Times says of the biography, "Parker's study is an awesome achievement, indispensable for all serious Melvilleans, with the vividness of a great Victorian novel and the precision of the finest historical scholarship."

The book also was selected by Chapters bookstore in Washington, D.C., as one of its 12 "Books of the Year."

-Sue Swyers Moncure