Herman Melville discussion

Melville Biographies

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message 1: by Frederick (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:15PM) (new)

Frederick Hey, Abigail,

Not only am I very happy you've posted only two minutes after joining the group, but I'm very pleased that you, and others, have joined at all.

Herman needs champions!

Yes, read Hershel Parker. He's a master biographer.
I've read parts of the Parker books, but what little I read showed me he is absolutely unrivalled in Melvillian biography. He understands our man. He also edited an edition of PIERRE in which he did something which, with almost any other novel, would be objectionable: Making clear in his introduction he was going to do this, Parker eliminated chapters Melville inserted after the manuscript was accepted by the publisher. Melville did it on the sly. The inserted chapters were satirical (and great in themselves) but almost blunted his tragic novel's purpose.
I love the CONFIDENCE-MAN. It is crisp, soaring prose and it anticipates Mark Twain and Eugene O'Neill.
The PENGUIN LIVES series is really pretty bad. The idea is great, but I've read a few of these and the problem is this: Famous authors don't necessarily know how to write about other authors.
I really liked Elizabeth Hardwick's novel SLEEPLESS NIGHTS. It's one of the most haunting books I've ever read. (I have not read her PENGUIN LIVES book on Melville, but the series so turned me off in other cases I simply didn't read her book. I should give it a chance.)
But Hershel Parker's books on Melville have a special feature which makes me especially love them. His PIERRE has it, too: Dust jackets by Maurice Sendak! (Ironically, Sendak wrote and illustrated a children's book called PIERRE in the early sixties. I believe I read once that he did name the character after Melville's character.)

message 2: by Robert (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:15PM) (new)

Robert | 2 comments I'm glad to hear an endorsement of the Parker books, as I was thinking about picking them up. I read the Hardwick book. Like most of the Penguin Lives series, it's pretty slight - part of the whole new trend of encouraging people to learn how to name-drop subjects rather than actually understand them. I also have the Laurie Robertson-Lorant bio, which I gave up about 1/3 of the way through because of the irritating 'ideologically correct" writing.
A longstanding prejudice against abridgments kept me from getting Parker's revised "Pierre", but I agree that the Sendak illustrations were a brilliant touch.

message 3: by Hershel (new)

Hershel Parker | 11 comments Hi, folks. Just a clarification. The Kraken PIERRE was not not meant as an abridgment and it was not meant as a standard reading text. On one level it was simply a nonce text for Sendak to illustrate. On another level, it was a (highly controversial!) attempt to help people think about what it was that Melville took to New York City about 1 January 1852 and accepted a really devastating contract for a few days later. That is, it was an attempt to see what Melville described as his Kraken book, when he told Hawthorne he had heard of Krakens, bigger than whales. It took years for me to lay out the chronology of work on PIERRE. We were way off in what we thought we knew in the 1970s, even. But it is documented now that Melville finished PIERRE at the very end of 1851 and took it to the Harpers and it is documented that by the start of the third week of January he had greatly enlarged it, after it was grudgingly accepted. Everyone has always known the obvious--that the Pierre as author chapters were an afterthought. We had NOT known when the expansion started and had not known just why. Anyhow, the Kraken edition was meant to allow us to read something quite close to what HM thought was a great book, or what he finished after having thought early in its composition that it was a great book, or going to be a great book. The Kraken edition was just meant to help people to think freshly about a complicated situation. It did drive some people into rages! I guess they thought it was meant to replace what they had always read. Not at all--though if you want to think about Melville you would want to know what he finished, as close as you could get to that, before knowing what in his suicidal rage he added to it, knowing that 20 cents on the dollar instead of 50 cents on the dollar meant that his career might be all but over. And it was a great chance to work with Sendak, who turned 80 last month.

message 4: by Hershel (new)

Hershel Parker | 11 comments And, yes, Sendak and his late brother Jack had been lovers of Melville's PIERRE long before Maurice drew the boy who did not care.

message 5: by Frederick (new)

Frederick I notice Lewis Mumford's biography of Melville does not show up when one searches in Goodreads for Lewis Mumford. Granted, Mumford seems to have based his biography almost entirely on the pre-MOBY-DICK novels of Melville, but his book was extremely important in popularizing Melville. I first heard of Mumford in the context of Melville. He crops up in the index of many books about American writers of the 20th century; almost as often as Edmund Wilson. But his book about Herman Melville is not on Goodreads!

message 6: by Frederick (new)

Frederick Thanks, Abigail. Finding that edition is like finding the white whale!

message 7: by Michael (last edited Sep 04, 2008 07:54AM) (new)

Michael Has anyone read Andrew Delbanco's recent bio of Melville ("Melville: His World and Work")? I've heard Delbanco is pretty well known in academic circles, and since I'm not in that circle I wouldn't know for sure what his credibility is. I got his bio as a Christmas present a couple of years ago and really enjoyed it.


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