Herman Melville: A Biography

Herman Melville: A Biography

by Hershel Parker

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The first of a two-volume project, this book by a life-long scholar of Melville's life, works, and milieu pinpoints the facts of Melville's life with great accuracy and completeness. Melville here appears amid the all-too-human hopes and anxieties that inspired and ensnared him during his early career, when he passed from the status of America's first literary symbol


The first of a two-volume project, this book by a life-long scholar of Melville's life, works, and milieu pinpoints the facts of Melville's life with great accuracy and completeness. Melville here appears amid the all-too-human hopes and anxieties that inspired and ensnared him during his early career, when he passed from the status of America's first literary symbol to that of a still-young man who dared to write Shakespearean prose.

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
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.

New York Observer - Philip Weiss
Unquestionably the most searching biography ever written on Herman Melville.

Atlantic Monthly - Phoebe-Lou Adams
Professor Parker... is a sound, sensible biographer and so thorough that he will probably be accused of monumentality— translation: unnecessary detail, such as which cousins attended whose wedding. The charge is not deserved. The detail matters... Professor Parker has had a vast amount of material to work with and has made good use of it. His life of Melville, which hurried readers may find over-inclusive, becomes a history of manners, amusements, business methods, politics, American whaling and international maneuverings in the South Seas, literary cliques, publishing practices, copyright law, and the erratic eccentricities of reviewers. When possible—and it frequently is—such information is presented with sly, deadpan humor. Melville emerges from this background as a man living and working in a real world full of real, amusing, brilliant, and sometimes rascally people. Well-chosen quotations establish that Melville himself was a charmer, a grand yarn-spinner, a wild driver, and a man who could describe a winter gale in the Berkshires as indicating 'too much sail on the house' and a need to 'go on the roof & rig in the chimney.' He was also, of course, a serious writer, steadily expanding his range and his thinking, and on the way to becoming the great writer who deserves all of Professor Parker's admirable work and all of a reader's attention.

Times Higher Education Supplement - Scott Bradfield
One of the most complete and staggeringly researched biographies of an American novelist ever published; it will certainly remain the undisputed standard Melville biography for many years to come... Parker's book does a fine job of bringing Melville's life up to date in the light of recent scholarship, as well as reinvigorating modern interest in a true American original.

Times Literary Supplement - Harold Beaver
A magnificent achievement... Hershel Parker's magnum opus is a magisterial work of retrieval and unflagging scholarship.

Los Angeles Times Book Review - Robert Faggen
An awesome achievement, indispensable for all serious Melvillians, with the vividness of a great Victorian novel and the precision of the finest historical scholarship.

Dallas Morning News - Lee Milazzo
Magisterial is the only word that adequately describes Hershel Parker's huge 940-page biography of Herman Melville... This detailed first installment incorporates many recently discovered manuscripts that allow the author to expand some events in Melville's life and offer several new episodes. Mr. Parker's investigation of Melville's complicated personality, his explanation of Melville's development as an artist, and his account of Melville's time are so complete that it would be impossible even to suggest the themes that run through this closely printed book. Certain to become the standard, and probably a classic.

American Literature - R. Bruce Bickley
Monumental and meticulous, anchored in three decades of exhaustive research... Parker details how Melville lived and behaved as a complex human being, by turns flawed and brilliant, restless and focused... Parker's benchmark biography is also fascinating social history... The high point of Parker's first volume is his reconstruction of the Berkshire events of 1850-1851: Melville's meeting with Hawthorne, his impulsive buying of the 160-acre Brewster farm in Pittsfield, and the powerful letters and impressions shared by Melville and Sophia and Nathaniel Hawthorne... Parker discovered that the two authors had a private dinner at a Lenox hotel, where Melville proudly handed his mentor a personal copy of the new novel, famously dedicated to Hawthorne's American 'genius.' It was the happiest event in Melville's life—and one of the most meaningful moments in American literary history. Parker makes it ours.

Literary Review
As this first of a projected two-volume biography makes abundantly clear, Melville's life is above all else an enthralling tale of literary genius in the act of self-creation. Hershel Parker is a scholar of notable fastidiousness, and his achievement here is to establish Herman Melville's life as one of the great literary family sagas of the nineteenth century—a narrative at least as colorful and incident-rich as anything published by Melville himself.

Journal of American History - David S. Reynolds
[Parker's] exhaustive research yields a wealth of fresh information about Melville's life... We see in rich detail the comings and goings of Melville and his family, the vagaries of his literary reputation, and his shifting moods.

David Laskin, Washington Post Book World - John T. Irwin
This biography will be definitive. Impeccable in its scholarship, Herman Melville reads like a good novel. Parker moves across the material with an ease born of absolute mastery of the facts and a storyteller's sense of dramatic detail.

Wall Street Journal - Carl Rollyson
Mr. Parker is the author of the most thorough and authoritative account of Melville's life ("Herman Melville: A Biography," published in two volumes, in 1996 and 2002). The capstone of five decades of research, textual editing and literary analysis, the work is a masterpiece of the biographer's art.

The Year's Work in English Studies
As much as it is a critique of Melville studies and more specifically biographical study of Melville, this is a book about biography as a genre. Whilst it is not a manual for the budding biographer, this collection of insights, which explores the difficulties of taking on such an enormous, theoretically fraught task, will serve as a useful case study to anyone wishing to engage themselves as a chronicler of literary lives.

Los Angeles Times Book Review - Douglas Brinkley
Parker's impressive scholarship and a vigorous analysis are cause for celebration. Too often reviewers misuse the word 'definitive'; not so in this case. The meticulous Parker has practically reconstructed Melville's DNA and in doing so has rendered American literature a signal service. Parker recounts Melville's chronic bad luck, epic writing binges, failed lectures, surreal visions and troubled marriage. It's a saga of genius refusing to be derailed. But Parker unearths a plethora of new material, including previously unknown family correspondence and even the title and plot of Melville's long-lost novel, The Isle of the Cross.

Literary Review - Richard Gray
Through prodigious archival research, Parker creates a compelling narrative out of the last forty years of Melville's life, as he struggled with the spectre of failure... It is unlikely that a more searching or truthful biography of Melville will appear in the foreseeable future; the two volumes Parker has now published on one of America's finest writers are not only the fullest account we have of him but, quite probably, the final word.

New York Times Book Review - Richard H. Brodhead
Hershel Parker set out to write the biography to end all biographies of Herman Melville, a book in which everything that could be known about the writer would be pieced out and put on record... Parker's first volume ends with Melville relishing the fruit of his impetuousness; the second shows him learning its price... Parker tells this story with a thoroughness that is scarcely to be believed... On tour de force is his reconstruction of the composition of Pierre... Equally interesting are Parker's surmises about works Melville never published that did not survive... Parker's other achievement is his reconstruction of Melville's family life... Parker's book has much to teach. In addition to the many episodes that he fills in or sets straight, he reminds us just how problematic writing was for Melville, how shrouded it was in personal risk and cost—and how stubbornly he kept at this work, even late in life, when he did it almost wholly in private... Parker also deserves credit for filling in the darker half of Melville's life without making it a melodrama of misunderstood genius... What we cannot know, but the main thing this book makes us wonder, is what different life Melville might have led and what different work he might have done if his talents had met with a different reception.

Times Literary Supplement - Christopher Bigsby
Melville's is a familiar story, but never before has it been told in such detailed complexity. An author praised initially for all the wrong reasons ( Typee is far more than the adventure story and travel book it was taken to be), and then rejected for still worse ones, now emerges with a new clarity... His was, indeed, a posthumous life, but, thanks to Hershel Parker, one now more completely revealed in its personal triumphs and disasters.

New Republic - Andrew Delbanco
The massive biography of Melville by Hershel Parker is an astonishing achievement. In two volumes of some two thousand large and tightly printed pages, Parker has overcome many of the obstacles that have stood, until now, in the way of a full-scale life... Parker has given every student of Melville a great gift—an incomparable sourcebook that will be plundered for years... This [the second volume] is a more powerful book than its predecessor—and sometimes it is downright gripping... An enormously illuminating account of... the context in which Herman Melville lived and worked... One is grateful for Parker's 'more than several pages.'.

Cleveland Plain Dealer - Daniel Dyer
For 40 years, Parker has been charting the seas of Melville's life, chasing down allusions and illusions... His quest yields some important discoveries... This is a biographical masterwork about a rare literary genius.

San Francisco Chronicle - Martin Rubin
Parker has constructed from his sources a painstaking chronology of Melville's life, practically on a day-by-day basis. To this, he adds a passion for Melville—both the brilliant works and the beleaguered man. And there are flashes of humor... Not all biographical subjects merit this level of attention. There's no disputing that Melville, one of America's greatest writers, does. Clearly, this monumental biography will prove indispensable to scholars and serious students of Melville. It contains much that may prove fascinating to the general reader as well.

London Review of Books - Danny Karlin
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.

Comparative American Studies - David Seed
Parker’s biography represents the ultimate achievement in Melville scholarship and offers the reader a mine of information on one of the formative American writers of the 19th century.

[A] matchless two-volume monument to the author's life and work...the greatest living authority on Melville [is] Hershel Parker.

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)

What People are saying about this

Victor Strandberg
A miracle of scholarship regarding Melville... a lifetime of research, but what a monument of otherwise irretrievable scholarship [Hershel has] left to posterity.

Harrison Hayford
A stunningly magnificent biography that displays the finest kind of sympathetic imagination. With this first volume, Hershel Parker has become, quite simply, the most important Melville scholar of all time. Beyond any doubt, this will be the standard biography of Melville for many decades to come.

Tony Kushner
The highest possible praise one can bestow on Hershel Parker's biography is that it is, in scope and in loving detail, Melvillian: a great, irresistible whale of a book, a crowning moment and a culmination—not simply of one worthy scholar's dedication and career, but of a whole century's efforts to reconstruct the life of a man possessed of a uniquely American kind of genius.

Meet the Author

Hershel Parker is the author of Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons and Reading "Billy Budd"; co-editor, with Harrison Hayford, of the landmark 1967 Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick, wholly revised in 2001; and Associate General Editor of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville. He lives in Morro Bay, California.

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