It is finally unclear exactly what audience Hershel Parker had in mind in writing Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative. Parker is a distinguished academic scholar, but while a great deal of the book is preoccupied with laying out Parker's side of an academic quarrel, the tone of his exposition of the controversy doesn't suggest he expects the other side to respond--certainly not as part of an ongoing scholarly debate. On the other hand, the nature of this dispute is sufficiently arcane that it probably would not really be of interest to general readers, although Parker's animus against his various detractors is expressed trenchantly (and often) enough that these readers might find his demonstrations of malfeasance occasionally entertaining.
Presumably, admirers of Herman Melville would be potential readers of Melville Biography, but unfortunately most of the discussion in the book requires some prior familiarity not just with Melville's life and work but specifically with Hershel Parker's own previous writing about Melville, most obviously his two-volume biography, published in 1996 and 2002, respectively. At best this book serves as a supplement of sorts to the biography, as we do learn about the assumptions behind Parker's practice as a biographer, and the final section of the book, "The Biographer in the Workshop," does focus on material not included in the biography, and does provide interesting information about such things as the influence of copyright law on Melville's short-lived career as novelist and his relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Still, it would seem that readers who might be interested in such information about Herman Melville would have gone to the biography first before taking up this postscript.
Melville Biography is most interesting as a continuation of a quarrel Parker has been conducting for years--arguably throughout his whole career as a scholar--with academic criticism. The terms of this quarrel roughly correspond to the opposition between "criticism" and "scholarship," with Parker's own work exemplifying the latter and what Parker perceives to be the academic establishment predominantly practicing the former. As the title of this new book suggests, Parker's scholarly work has mostly been biographical (as well as mostly focused on Herman Melville), culminating in the two-volume biography but even before that concentrating on biographical and historical context as the indispensable foundation of serious literary study. Since the death of Jay Leyda, creator of The Melville Log, literally the day by day documentation of Melville's life, Parker has taken over as the proprietor/editor of the Log (and to his credit has expanded it substantially), just one indication of the way Parker has devoted his academic career to retrieving as much concrete information about Herman Melville as possible.
Parker is not interested in accumulating this information just to know more about Melville the historical figure or human personality. He believes that literary criticism cannot proceed at all unless it arises first from reliable knowledge of the writer's circumstances, especially the circumstances related to the work's composition and publication. Parker has frequently expressed his disdain for criticism and interpretation that ignores possible problems with the status of the text itself and blithely comes to conclusions based on corrupted or uncertain texts. His most thorough examination of this issue is his 1984 book, Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons, in which he discusses such textual problems not just in Melville but also Henry James, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, and, bringing the subject farther into the present, Norman Mailer."It seems that treating the author as an abstracted, olympian power," Parker writes at the end of the first chapter, "frees critics to celebrate nonsensical texts and adventitious meanings in texts where the words, but not all the meanings, are the author's; and treating the text the author created as if it were merely a hypothetical concept, frees them to identify 'the text itself' as the published text or the revised and republished text."
Parker's point is that too much academic criticism, in the form of "close reading," which focuses its attention solely on "the text," carelessly assumes the reliability and authenticity of the text being read. Before venturing an interpretation or asserting the historical or cultural forces the work allegedly makes visible, Parker asks, shouldn't we have some confidence that the text we're citing is the text the author wanted us to read? Even if, as in the case of Crane, the author acquiesced to revisions in order to get the work published, should we accept a palpably inferior text because the author didn't or wasn't able to signal a preference for another version (in Crane's case because of his early death)? Aren't the conclusions a critic might reach about a literary work questionable if the text of that work is itself questionable?
These are entirely relevant questions, ones that academic critics should take seriously, that raise issues transcending the stale debate about the role of the scholar vs. the role of the critic. Surely the critic venturing to claim an authoritative interpretation or close reading of a particular work should have some sense of the text's own authority. Although the most radical implication of Parker's detailed explication of the messy textual histories of these books by Crane, Twain, and Melville is that there might be some works for which a final, definitive text isn't possible, even that finally no such text is really possible for any work of literature, literary criticism that simply ignores the problems Parker identifies is either willfully negligent or shows little respect not just for those scholars who work at providing conscientiously edited texts but also for the process of literary creation, the essential messiness of which is reflected in the realities of publication, even when the latter don't actively mutilate the writer's intended text.
Parker weakens his case, however, by his inclination to blur all disinctions and label anyone who favors interpretation or close analysis a "New Critic." This is made evident directly in the title of Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons in its explicit evocation of the "verbal icon," W.K. Winsatt's notion of the literary text as an aesthetic object made of words, to be approached and appreciated as such by the critic conscious of the work's aesthetic integrity. Parker believes that the original New Crtics' dogmatic rejection of "extrinsic evidence," evidence not directly to be found in the verbal disposition of the text at hand, was so influential that their "avoidance of 'textual bibliography' in all its aspects, including study of compositional evidence, has prevailed during all later fashions in criticism." Indeed, "even the deconstructionists in practice treated any text as a New Critical given, however thoroughly they would then proceed to deconstruct it," and the New Historicists, who would seem to have retrieved "extrinsic evidence" from opprobrium, unfortunately "proceeded to write history and literary history as if research had all been done before, once and for all, prior to, say around 1940." (The last quote from Melville Biography.) These postmodern historicists "were no such fools as to hope to tell the truth: there was no such thing as truth."
Parker is dedicated to the idea that there is truth to be applied to works of literature, and finally the influence of New Criticism has been to emphasize coherence of interpretation over truth, the integrity of close reading over scholarship that uncovers the truth. But while there is some plausibility to the notion that deconstruction (at least as practiced by Derrida) has affinities with New Critical close reading, to the extent that New Criticism was an attempt to place the study of literature at the center of the English curriculum, in effect to place literature itself at the center of this curriculum, deconstruction was less interested in close reading as a strategy for appreciating literature as a means for raising questions about the nature of human communication, ultimately about the nature of human thought. Although Derrida's reading strategies could certainly be used to examine a literary text in a way that would be compatible with New Criticism--emphasizing uncertainty, ambiguity, "gaps," etc,--the rise of deconstruction (of what is called "critical theory" more generally) most immediately signalled a move away from "appreciation" of literature to its more detached "interrogation." Both critical theory and new historicism, however much they avoided "textual bibliography," also unfortunately tended to avoid literature as well. In their shared goals of enhancing appreciation of literature as the actual subject of the discipline of literary study, Hershel Parker the scholar surely has much more in common with New Critics than with critical theorists, new historicists, and those academic critics now engaged in cultural studies, all of whom have done much more than the New Critics ever did to make Parker's kind of textual and biographical scholarship passe.
Even if you accept that there is a divide between "criticism" and "scholarship" of the kind Parker laments, and even if you accept that New Criticism may have helped to orient literary study away from biographical criticism, text editing, and historical investigation (all of which nevertheless remained visible scholarly approaches even during the heyday of New Criticism), it is a not a necessary conclusion that New Critical formalism was inherently hostile to traditional scholarship. For one thing, conscientious proponents of close reading would be foolish to dismiss attempts to establish reliable texts or to get historical information right for the very reason that Parker's own discussions in Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons provides: A reading of a flawed text is ultimately a flawed reading. For an approach that implicitly holds every word in a literary text to be potentially significant, perhaps crucial, to disdain a concern that all the words be justifiably in place would undermine the whole project. Moreover, New Criticism's skepticism about non-textual "evidence" came from a resistance to "readings" that, in drawing on history, biography, or politics, diverted attention from the experience of reading the work to these other subjects, not from a lack of respect for the accomplishments of literary scholarship.
In Melville Biography: An Inside Narrative, Parker's ire is primarily directed at such current academic critics as Andrew Delbanco and Richard Brodhead (currently President of Duke University), both of whom could be called "New Critics" only in the expanded, indeterminate definition Parker has given it in order to identify the source of these critics' disparagement of his work, especially the biography of Melville. I myself find Parker's defense of his biography against the criticisms made by Delbanco and Brodhead persuasive, but also don't understand why these criticisms can't simply be addressed in their own terms rather than generalizing them into a perpetual struggle between what in Parker's analysis are ancient enemies. Not only is this likely to seem to most potential readers of the book a rather musty characterization of the issues, belonging to an era now long superseded by one in which both criticism and scholarship have been radically transformed, but the terms of the debate seem to have become so personal for Hershel Parker that the book can at times be uncomfortable to read as well. It is clear enough that Parker feels his biography was unfairly treated (and indeed perhaps it was), but a grievance sustained over the length of a 500-page book can finally wear a little thin.
Flawed Texts and Verbal icons is an illuminating and important book, well worth reading even by those who might consider Parker's scholarly approach hopelessly old-fashioned, who might instead come to recognize that inaccurate or corrupted texts are just as threatening to "extrensic" historical and cultural generalizations using literary works as critical specimens as to "intrinsic" explication. As long as literary texts remain the ostensible focus of literary study (which of course is even now not always the case), their reliabilty will always be a relevant issue--not to mention its relevance simply to readers who want to feel confident the books they are reading adequately represent what their authors intended them to read. Melville Biography, unfortunately, is of much less interest, although perhaps it could persuade a few to give Parker's biography a try, or to pursue the underlying points of contention more directly through Flawed Texts and Verbal Icons instead.