Paperback / softback
August 15, 2005
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v2.1 Reference

Herman Melville, Volume 2, 1851-1891

A Biography

The first volume of Hershel Parker's definitive biography of Herman Melville—a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize—closed on a mid-November day in 1851. In the dining room of the Little Red Inn in Lenox, Massachusetts, Melville had just presented an inscribed copy of his new novel, Moby-Dick, to his intimate friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne, the man to whom the work was dedicated. "Take it all in all," Parker concluded, "this was the happiest day of Melville's life."

Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891 chronicles Melville's life in rich detail, from this ecstatic moment to his death, in obscurity, forty years later. Parker describes the malignity of reviewers and sheer bad luck that doomed Moby-Dick to failure (and its author to prolonged indebtedness), the savage reviews he received for his next book Pierre, and his inability to have the novel The Isle of the Cross—now lost—published at all. Melville turned to magazine fiction, writing the now-classic "Bartleby" and "Benito Cereno," and produced a final novel, The Confidence Man, a mordant satire of American optimism. Over his last three decades, while working as a customs inspector in Manhattan, Melville painstakingly remade himself as a poet, crafting the centennial epic Clarel, in which he sorted out his complex feelings for Hawthorne, and the masterful story "Billy Budd," originally written as a prose headnote to an unfinished poem.

Through prodigious archival research into hundreds of family letters and diary entries, newly discovered newspaper articles, and marginalia from books that Melville owned, Parker vividly recreates the last four decades of Melville's life, episode after episode unknown to previous biographers. The concluding volume of Herman Melville: A Biography confirms Hershel Parker's position as the world's leading Melville scholar, demonstrating his unrivaled biographical, literary, and historical imagination and providing a rich new portrait of a great—and profoundly American—artist.

About 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.


"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."

- Douglas Brinkley - Los Angeles Times Book Review

"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."

- Richard Gray - Literary Review

"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."

- Richard H. Brodhead - New York Times Book Review

"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."

- Christopher Bigsby - Times Literary Supplement

"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.'."

- Andrew Delbanco - New Republic

"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."

- Daniel Dyer - Cleveland Plain Dealer

"With immense sympathy, Parker relates how Melville's intellectual growth resulted in his writing novels that were increasingly obscure to his ever-diminishing readership, and how, in his early 30s, as a husband and a father of four, his repeated failures curdled his spirit and caused him to withdraw into himself... Parker's telling makes a Greek tragedy of Melville's life after Moby-Dick, which included the suicide of his son Malcolm and the death of his young son Stanwix, his thankless work at the New York Custom House, his victimization at the hands of the Harper brothers, and his sinking into obscurity before his death... This definitive work, together with the first volume, is essential for every library."

- Library Journal (starred review)

"Such perseverance and painstaking historical detail surely make this biography the last word on Melville... For those who can't get enough of Melville—and they are a sizeable minority—this truly monumental achievement is the perfect book."

- Publishers Weekly

"The misery of [Melville's later] years is underscored by the most authoritative account of them ever: Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891, by Hershel Parker. The book is 1,000 pages long, a generous monument of research that lovingly details Melville's reading and his family's activities, and seeks to uplift his poetry."

- Philip Weiss - New York Observer

"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."

- Martin Rubin - San Francisco Chronicle

"[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 S. Reynolds - Journal of American History

"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."

- Danny Karlin - London Review of Books


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

- Victor Strandberg, Duke University

"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."

- David Seed - Comparative American Studies

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

- Clearer
Johns Hopkins University Press
Volume 2, 1851-1891
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9780801881862 : herman-melville-volume-2-1851-1891-parker
Paperback / softback
1056 Pages
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