Herman Melville

Hershel Parker

Herman Melville

Hershel Parker

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Herman Melville Summary

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Herman Melville is a two-volume biography of the great nineteenth-century American author by Hershel Parker, an American Melville scholar and the co-editor of Norton’s Critical Edition of Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick. Parker’s biography draws on virtually all the surviving documentation relating to Melville’s life, painting a detailed picture not only of the author but of his extended family, whose history and values Hershel sees as deeply influential on Melville’s literary career. Volume One, published in 1997, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, while Volume Two (2003) won the Association of American Publishers’ Award for Biography.

Parker opens his account of Melville’s life with an anecdote from the author’s childhood. When Melville was eleven, his father, Allan Melvill (the “e” was a later addition) went bankrupt. The family had to flee their home in lower Manhattan by riverboat to escape creditors.

This incident was a turning point in the family’s history. Parker delves back into the Melville family tree to tell a story of decline. Both the author’s grandfathers, Thomas Melvill and Peter Gansevoort, were heroic figures of the Revolutionary Era: Thomas took part in the 1773 Boston Tea Party, while Peter led the defenders at the Siege of Fort Stanwyck. Both men were respected and wealthy, members of the new American upper class.

Allan Melvill was a “wastrel” who mismanaged his inheritance. Shortly after the flight from Manhattan, he died a broken man. His widow and children spent the next two decades trying to recover the honor of the family name. Parker devotes many pages to the family’s struggle and the context of the young American economy in which it took place. The central figure is Melville’s older brother, Gansevoort, who took charge of the family’s finances and helped his younger brother to a succession of jobs: at a New York bank and then teaching in several schools.

In 1839, Gansevoort secured Melville a position on a whaling ship. Using the ship’s log and other documents, Parker recreates Melville’s career in whaling in meticulous detail, noting where the future writer found inspiration for his novels. In 1842, Melville jumped ship and roamed the Pacific islands. Later he joined another whaling vessel only to take part in a mutiny; afterward, he lived for a time as a beach-comber in Tahiti.

Upon his return to the United States, Melville drew on these experiences for his first novel, Typee. Gansevoort maneuvered to ensure its publication, and Melville became an overnight literary success, following up his debut in 1847 with a sequel, Omoo. Gansevoort died shortly afterward. He had been their mother’s favorite, and she never forgave Melville for surviving Gansevoort and failing to take up his place as the head of the family.

Later that year, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw. Parker notes that the prejudices of Shaw’s patrician family (her father was Chief Justice of Massachusetts) intensified the values Melville had inherited from his own family.

By 1850, Melville was already at work on Moby-Dick, although as the work progressed, his plan for the novel became ever more ambitious. His ambition was stoked by the friendship he kindled with novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1851; the novel was dedicated to Hawthorne upon its publication in October 1851. Volume One of Parker’s biography ends with Melville presenting the finished manuscript to his friend.

Partly due to simple accidents—a printing error in the British edition; a fire at a publisher’s warehouse—and partly due to the fact that readers were expecting more South-Sea romances, Moby-Dick was a critical and commercial failure. Volume Two of Parker’s biography is a story of failure and decline. Melville’s next novel, Pierre, fared even worse than Moby-Dick. Both his own family and his wife’s agreed with the general consensus that Melville was a failure as an artist, and his marriage suffered.

Realizing that writing was not going to make his fortune, Melville was persuaded to take a government job. He continued to write, producing short stories, including “Bartleby the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” which are regarded as major works today, but went unappreciated in his own time. In the 1860s and 70s, Melville abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Parker traces the process of self-education by which Melville made himself into a poet by studying poetry and essays on the form. However, his major poetic work, Clarel, was a dismal failure with the public.

Melville died in 1891, aged seventy-two, of cardiac failure. He was almost unknown at his death, although his reputation began to pick up in the decades afterward.

Parker’s biography has been recognized as a work of heavyweight scholarship and has become the standard text on Melville’s life, although some critics suggest that excessive detail bogs the narrative down and distracts from Melville’s literary achievement. Kirkus Reviews summarizes the reviewers’ consensus, “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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