Morro Bay man is a literary scholar

Hershel Parker is a published biographer of Herman Melville; now, he is writing of his journey on the sea of research and the harpoons he faced

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comJune 17, 2012 

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

It’s a long and twisty road between being “a Depression Okie” who was forced to drop out of high school and becoming the world’s leading biographer of the greatest of American authors, Herman Melville.

Hershel Parker has made that journey, and now, as he moves forward in “the final quarter of my century,” as he put it in an eloquent turn of phrase, the 76-year-old scholar is hard at work on another, complex book about Melville that mixes — among other ingredients — autobiography, scholarship and theory.

The tall, trim Parker does much of his cogitating on runs along the beach in Morro Bay and digests his ruminations in the “Melville room” in the hold of the airy hillside house overlooking the Pacific he shares with his wife, Heddy Richter.

His study, as you might imagine, is chock-a-block with books, some new, others musty. Atop a stand that looks as though it was salvaged from the Pequod sits a giant, dog-eared dictionary that Queequeg and Starbuck between them couldn’t hoist.

That’s not to say that Parker is buried in a previous century. A computer occupies a prominent place in his chamber, and indeed he is enthusiastic about modern technology — the rapid access it gives to new sources of information, as well as the new professional and personal relationships it helps to form.

Parker currently is “summing up,” to purloin the phrase W. Somerset Maugham used for his autobiography.

Parker’s new work, however, has broader aims. While it is in part an autobiography about how he became Melville’s biographer, it also deals with what he calls the sometimes “ferocious hostility” he and his more meticulous, original source-oriented approach to scholarship have received.

Much of it will be about how biography is done and the challenges biographers face — not just Melville scholars, but “cast(ing) the Melville problems against a bigger background.”

He has titled it “Melville: An Inside Narrative,” which he calls a “gift from Melville’s ‘Billy Budd, Sailor (An Inside Narrative).’ ”

This is an esoteric discussion that a newspaper column cannot begin to do justice to. But, as arcane as the subject matter may sound, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the book will be, in more everyday parlance, a good read.

Parker took an hour or two the other week to talk about scholarship, his legacy, his friendship with the late Maurice Sendak, author of “Where the Wild Things Are,” and other subjects, literary and otherwise.

A conversation with Parker is a wonderful way to spend time. He is full of thoughts and anecdotes, and expresses them uniquely. The only downside is that when he begins a tale, there is no guarantee he will get to the end because, as with any agile mind, a turn of phrase can send you tacking toward a new but equally entertaining destination.

He would have been a handy guy to have on board a becalmed whaling ship.

Starting at the beginning, Parker said his family “had it really, really bad” when he was a child.

They left Oklahoma and were on the move often. He developed tuberculosis and was in a sanatorium for a while. He dropped out of high school.

Over the years to come, he went from place to place and took various kinds of jobs, including telegraph operator.

To some extent, although he later completed a formal education, he was self-taught. He read constantly and methodically.

At some point he discovered Melville.

“I couldn’t believe an American could write that well,” he said. The psychology, Parker said, was profound.

Parker went on to immerse himself with Melville in particular and academia in general, forging a distinguished career. He is currently H. Fletcher Brown professor emeritus at the University of Delaware.

Today, he is still at it, finding new ways to challenge young scholars as well as himself, and employing new technology — even something as seemingly mundane as Google — to ferret out new facts about old writers and works of art.

“Literary detectives,” he writes, “will sit in dark rooms peering at their computer screens, doing their ultimately advanced searches. They will imaginatively misspell (Mellvill, Mellville, Hermann, and more) when accurate spellings turn up nothing.”

And they will find something that nobody found before.

Parker says these folks are “reach(ing) out their hands for lost treasures.” Some he says, are “ ‘divine amateurs’ who believe that the facts matters.”

And from his crow’s nest above Morro Bay, Parker, the nonamateur, watches, encourages and joins them.

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