Herman Melville: A Biography

Herman Melville: A Biography

by Hershel Parker

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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

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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 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was Fayaway — not Captain Ahab, not the White Whale, not Bartleby, and definitely not Billy Budd, whose story remained unpublished until 1924.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 Having attended the best Manhattan boys' schools, Herman was withdrawn from classes at the Albany Academy at age 12, shortly after his father's death.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 manof 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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Editorial Reviews

Andrew Delbanco
Will be an immensely valuable resource for generations to come. —New York Review of Books
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
If sheer bulk were enough to make a book definitive, respected Melville scholar Parker's encyclopedic but rather unwieldy biography would certainly be the one to beat. Covering Melville's life up to the completion (but not the actual publication) of Moby Dick, Parker presents an extensive look Melville's early years. His patrician family having been left destitute by an irresponsible father, the young Melville had to flee Manhattan with his family to avoid creditors. Naturally adventurous, and unable to finish his education due to lack of funds, Melville spent some five years at sea and abroad, experiences that yielded materials for nearly all of his writings. Parker does a very thorough job of delineating the realities of the literary marketplace of Melville's time, as well as Melville's public image as a licentious sexual outlaw for his portrayal of South Sea Islanders and the controversy over his unsympathetic portrayal of missionaries. He also explores the liberating influence of Hawthorne on Melville's sense of the possibilities for a national American literature. But Parker's thoroughness can be exhausting. In the absence of endnotes or footnotes, his text is stuffed with asides and trivial details that will be of interest only to the most dedicated of scholars. While Parker's literary insights are superior to those of Laurie Robertson-Lorant, whose biography of Melville was published in June of this year, Lorant's much more compact biography offers many of the same general insights on a vastly more accessible scale.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Parker's first magisterial volume of his projected two-volume work casts every earlier biography into shadows. Parker, who claims that Robertson-Lorant's use of the thousands of recently discovered Melville family documents was 'sporadic rather than exhaustive,' has used them to let us see a writer rather different from the one we thought we knew. Focusing less on Melville's social and intellectual milieu than does Robertson-Lorant, Parker uses the volumes of new information to give us a highly detailed, beautifully written, and moving portrait of a great writer, last seen in this volume presenting Hawthorne with Moby-Dick, the 1851 novel Melville dedicated to his friend. Parker speculates on how events in Melville's life work their way into his fiction. -- Charles C. Nash, Cottey College, Nevada, Missouri
The first of two volumes comprising the most comprehensive bibliography to date on the American novelist. Parker is also preparing a third edition of 'The Melville Log,' his chronological record of all known information about Melville. Volume I concludes on the eve of the publication of Moby Dick and hopes that it would restore the author's reputation and pocketbook.
Andrew Delbanco
Will be an immensely valuable resource for generations to come. -- New York Review of Books
Kirkus Reviews
This leviathan of a biography—the first half of a two-volume set—meticulously charts the early life and career of an erratic literary genius. Melville was born in 1819, a scion of new American gentry. Both of his grandfathers were revered Revolutionary War heroes, and both were wealthy. But in 1830 Melville's father went bankrupt and—in an episode that provides Parker (English/Univ. of Delaware) with a dramatic opening vignette—fled New York City in disgrace, soon to die a broken man. The remaining Melvilles spent the next 20 years pursuing financial and social redemption. Through a painstaking collation of letters, diaries, newspaper accounts, and other evidence, Parker sets their struggle amid a vivid panorama of the young commercial republic, with its unprecedented opportunities and huge risks. Parker concentrates on Melville's adventures as a sailor and his subsequent transformation of his experiences into prose: first, the popular South Sea adventure tales Typee and Omoo, then the novels through Moby-Dick, published in 1851. But Parker also devotes significant space to Melville's family. A particular focus is older brother Gansevoort, whose peregrinations as a Democratic party rhetorician culminated in a government position in London, whence he helped launch Herman's career. Parker closes this volume with an examination of Melville's famous friendship with Hawthorne, to whom Moby-Dick was dedicated. Parker's lifetime of Melville scholarship has eventuated in his complete mastery of detail here, a mastery that shows to great effect. His portrait of Melville lets intricacies shine like a newly cleaned painting. But while Parkeroutlines the passions that characterized both Melville and his times, his generally reserved tone can take the edge off of them. Indispensable for all serious Melvillians, whether professional or amateur, but given its measured approach and its heft, not a likely avenue for the uninitiated.

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Product Details

Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.41(w) x 9.52(h) x 2.10(d)

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