Mark Beauregard has been a journalist, magazine editor, and, most recently, manager of nonprofit arts and community organizations. He currently resides in Tucson, Arizona. He is the author of The Whale, and he joins Signature to state the case for Herman Melville’s loving relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Scholars have long acknowledged the profound influence Nathaniel Hawthorne had on Herman Melville. The two lived near one another in western Massachusetts in 1850-51, while Melville was writing Moby-Dick, and they had many conversations during that time about literature, religion, and life. Both men were deep thinkers, subtle conversationalists, and ambitious writers who found, in each other, sympathetic conspirators against the Calvinist conventions of their time.
Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne — “In Token of My Admiration for His Genius” — and Hawthorne’s genius was not the only thing that Melville admired. Melville fell in love with the dashingly handsome older author the first time they met, and his forbidden passion drove him to create the symbol of impossible longing that now represents American literature to the rest of the world: the white whale.
Moby-Dick has never before been considered a work of romantic longing, but here are five reasons to believe that Melville’s masterpiece is a profound statement of love denied.
One: The Symbol
The idea that Moby-Dick expresses Melville’s impossible love for Hawthorne explains many otherwise perplexing features of the novel. Moby-Dick contains scores of homoerotic images and scenes, including the wedding of Ishmael and Queequeg in the Chapter called “A Bosom Friend.” Same-sex relationships were illegal at the time in the United States — punishable by exile, jail, or even death — and same-sex marriage was literally unthinkable to mainstream American society, so the marriage of Ishmael and Queequeg and the bawdy homoerotic puns throughout Moby-Dick would have been curious things to write, indeed, for a heterosexual married man.
For all of the interpretations of the white whale that critics have offered in the past, no one has ever really asked what it might have meant, personally, to the man who created it: what impossible thing might Melville have longed for, which he might have wished to express openly but could not? What desire might he have had that could destroy everything in his life, the way the white whale destroyed everything in his novel?
Two: The Letters
Most of the letters that Melville wrote to Hawthorne during this time were love letters. His affection was veiled, but very thinly so. Here are just a few of the romantic things he wrote to the older author:
“If the world was entirely made up of Magians, I’ll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand — a million — billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question — they are One.”
“Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine.”
In a letter inviting Hawthorne to visit his home for a few days, Melville wrote: “You may do what you please — say or say not what you please. And if you feel any inclination for that sort of thing — you may spend the period of your visit in bed, if you like — every hour of your visit.” (Melville’s emphasis)
We don’t have Hawthorne’s letters in response, because Melville “scrupulously destroyed them” (as he reported late in his life to Hawthorne’s son Julian) — an act that suggests the erasure of a painful memory and/or the destruction of implicating evidence.
Three: The ‘Review’
Immediately after meeting Hawthorne, at a picnic in 1850, Melville wrote a magazine review of Hawthorne’s short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse. The scholar David B. Kesterson has called the article “a letter in the form of a review,” and here are just a couple of the many excerpts that show why it’s Melville’s first love letter to Hawthorne — a public declaration whose secret meanings are hidden in plain sight:
“I have just returned from the hay mow, charged more and more with love and admiration of Hawthorne.”
“I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further, and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.”
Four: The Body of Work
Melville and Hawthorne wrote about each other in novels and poems after they parted. In Hawthorne’s novel The Blithedale Romance, which he wrote after he abruptly moved away from the Berkshires in 1851, the narrator Coverdale has an erotically charged relationship with a character named Hollingsworth, whose physical appearance resembles Melville’s. When Hollingsworth asks Coverdale to run away with him, Coverdale rejects him but reports that “the heart-pang was not merely figurative, but an absolute torture of the breast.”
Hawthorne-like figures would appear in Melville’s writing for the rest of his life, most notably in the characters of Charlie Noble in The Confidence Man and Vine in the book-length poem Clarel, a sustained meditation on the intersection of erotic and spiritual longing.
Five: The Dirge
On the occasion of Hawthorne’s death in 1864, Melville wrote the following poem. The poem was not published until after Melville’s own death, in 1891:
To have known him, to have loved him
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal—
Ease me, a little ease, my song!
By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-trees’ crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.
By channeling his forbidden longing for Hawthorne into Moby-Dick, Melville transformed a private tragedy into a strange, thrilling work of art. He would live another forty years with his love burning in his chest like one of Hawthorne’s scarlet letters; and in his lifetime Moby-Dick would be forgotten, so he could not have imagined that his greatest passion would outlive him. The white whale shook free of Ahab’s harpoon, but tens of millions of readers around the world continue to find the captain’s quest cathartic.
I doubt that even Melville could have dreamed a better tribute to the man he loved.