"Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume I, 1819-1851," by Hershel Parker. Johns Hopkins University Press. 941 pages. $39.95 Herman Melville is one of those major literary figures who is no longer read, only studied. The same fate seems likely to overtake Hershel Parker's monumental biography.
Is there anything left to say about this difficult, obscure, ultimately philosophical writer who began with adventure tales of the South Seas (his editor called him "the Defoe of the ocean") and ended with such sardonic works as "The Confidence Man" " or the moral ambiguity of "Billy Budd"?
Ever since Raymond Weaver's l921 biography rescued Melville from obscurity, biographers have alternated between the deeply psychological and the rigorously objective, with recent judgment attempting to redefine the author in the light of political and social realities.
Much of this was fueled by the discovery of some 500 letters suggesting that Melville physically and emotionally abused his wife.
In the first of two volumes, Parker does not significantly alter the record but anchors his study in Melville's relations with an extended family and circle of friends, breaking off with the publication at 32 years of age of his masterpiece, "Moby Dick."
Parker quotes extensively from letters and provides, often in numbing detail, summaries of reviews of Melville's novels and even catalogs of books contained in the ships on which he sailed.
While such scrupulous scholarship often clogs the narrative, it does bring to life minor characters who are allowed to speak in their own voices. Yet Melville, the man, does not emerge from this sea of documentation but seems submerged beneath it.
Parker avoids the temptation to see Melville's life not only informing his writing but revealed by it. What he dramatizes is the process of composition. The reader is allowed to enter the writer's workshop and witness the craftsmanship through which Melville imaginatively shaped his sources - both in literature and in life - to meet the demands of fiction.
A pervasive theme is Melville's anxiety about money, starting with his father's flight from New York with his ll-year-old son to escape creditors, and continuing through Melville's lifelong struggle to be free of economic worries.
The resulting struggle involved Melville's ambition to be a significant writer while generating enough sales from his work to make a living.
"Dollars damn me," Melville wrote to his friend Hawthorne in whose Calvinistic sense of innate depravity, he felt, "no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free."
A noted Melville scholar and past president of the Melville Society, Parker has helped to edit several volumes in the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Melville's writing that has been the subject of critical attack.
Parker is somewhat defensive about these charges, streamlining his documentation and acknowledging Melville's mistreatment of women but measuring it against the tension between the writer's artistic needs and family obligations.
Despite Parker's advocacy, perhaps because of it, this bid for a definitive biography is unlikely to settle the question.
Stanley Trachtenberg, a professor of American literature at Texas Christian University and former senior editor at McMillian and Crown publishers, is the editor of the Postmodern Moment.
Pub Date: 12/15/96