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Fifty Shades of Moby-Dick

Did an illicit love affair give birth to the Great American Novel?

Think of Herman Melville and you don’t think lothario. But in 1847, after the publication of his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, Melville was considered something of a venereal adventurer by the antsy prudes who controlled literary comment. The erotic episodes he’d had with girls on the Marquesas Islands as a young sailor helped inform the narrative contours of Typee, and puritanical readers eagerly squinted between the lines to spot evidence of their own obsessions. The greatest living authority on Melville, Hershel Parker, in his matchless two-volume monument to the author’s life and work, writes that Typee and Omoo saddled Melville with the erroneous reputation for “being sexually dangerous, and even depraved.” You didn’t have to sin very earnestly in antebellum America to be branded a libertine: Writing temperate books of the flesh did the trick. So Melville had to listen to the drivel of censorious critics such as Horace Greeley, who charged his novels with being “positively diseased in moral tone.” Melville was many things—a husband for 44 years, the father of four children, an artist of impetuous virtuosity—but a diseased promoter of eroticism wasn’t exactly one of them. You close Parker’s 2,000-page excavation of Melville’s world not much wiser about his love life but certain of his life’s loves: books, ideas, art.

It’s always a touch suspicious when the biographer of a hyper-scrutinized figure such as Melville comes along with a new, catchall detail that everyone else miraculously missed. Michael Shelden’s made-for-daytime biography, Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick, lets you know up front what new detail Shelden believes he’s disinterred: Melville’s mistress. Biographers have long known about Sarah Morewood, the Melvilles’ bewitching neighbor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—an indefatigable thrower of parties and the Berkshires’ top literary hanger-on—but Shelden wants you to know her in the Biblical sense. “Sexy beyond measure,” Morewood is “one of the great unsung figures in literary history,” a woman who “didn’t like to take no for an answer.” Shelden describes her as Melville’s “goddess in his Berkshire paradise,” the “powerful key to unlocking his secrets,” an “untamed spirit” whose “seductive powers worked their wonders on more than a few men.” Her supposed years-long affair with Melville was “so intimate and revealing that it colored every aspect of his life.” Shelden’s panting, cliché-choked style soon has you reaching for the light switch and candle, then the cigarette and bonbons.

Four years younger than Melville, Morewood was an aspiring poet who was allergic to boredom and married to a wealthy, English-born stiff. She became the nucleus of Melville’s set in Pittsfield. Previous biographers haven’t considered her important in comprehending Melville, but Shelden believes that she “will prove the most enduring influence on Melville’s life, a muse as well as a lover.”

Proof, however, is precisely what he does not have. When you navigate by the premise that the married Melville was made dizzy by a married lover, and that such dizziness had central effects on an American masterwork, you’ll spot support for that premise wherever you glance. Shelden proceeds, page upon page, with the dauntless pluck of a conspiracy theorist out to show that Elvis killed Kennedy. The tenet that bold claims require bold evidence? Shelden is having none of it. He arrives with chatty letters between Melville and Morewood, first- and secondhand accounts of soirees and countryside frolics, and inscribed books they gave to one another as gifts. He arrives, too, with a schoonerful of extrapolation and conjecture.

Ecco, 288 pp., $25.99

Where other biographers see friends, he sees fornicators; instead of affection, he sees infatuation. And since he can’t shake his romance-novel mood, you’ll have to endure sentences such as, “She would always be restless and dreamy, a bright woman with endless curiosity searching for an elusive happiness,” and the faux-suspenseful query: “She may have been eager to cross the line into adultery, but was he?” You’ll have to hear of Melville’s lust for a “dreamy realm of lovesick heroes and heroines,” but it should be tormentingly clear by this point that Shelden himself is the one salivating for such sickness. He believes that Moby-Dick was written for Morewood, “to amaze her, amuse her, and to conquer the world for her,” and it’s hard to overstate how hokey that is. Worse, he’s consistently inept at handling Melville’s language; the best he can do with Moby-Dick is to say that it has “passages of prose like the best poetry,” a nonstatement. The writer who won’t be bothered with the integrity of his sentences won’t be bothered with much of anything else either, proof included.

Melville might have been charmed by the attractive Morewood, and he might have referred to her as “Thou Lady of All Delight” and other pet sobriquets, but flirting is not fucking, and is very often an indication of its absence. Imagine the Ahabian effort it would have taken to keep such an affair from their families and the prying citizens of Pittsfield. As Shelden himself admits, Hershel Parker “dismisses any chance of a romance” between Melville and Morewood. Andrew Delbanco allots Morewood only four unmemorable sentences in his 400-page biography of Melville. Newton Arvin, in his 1950 Herman Melville, a bio-critical beauty of uncommon acuteness, mentions her only three times in passing. The 16 scholars in The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville mention her not at all. It didn’t seem to occur to Shelden that those scholars and writers don’t mention her because there’s nothing of substance to mention, no there there. Whatever might have happened between Melville and Morewood is the province of gossip, and that’s what Shelden has whipped up here: an extended gossip column for those voyeurs who believe that every Melville needs an inamorata.

By all accounts, Melville was a beautiful man: tall, built, blue-eyed, with a seductive voice and that virile beard—he had an unignorable presence. It’s impossible to deny his melancholic and hermetic bent, his pessimism in the scowling face of life’s pointlessness—and just as impossible to deny his charisma. His wife, Elizabeth Shaw, was neither literary nor alluring compared to someone such as Morewood, though, as the daughter of a rich and influential Boston judge, she was elegant in her way, what used to be called “well-bred.” It’s true that Melville and Elizabeth were perhaps ill-matched—she had scant appreciation for his one-off genius and, later in life, didn’t mind his giving up literature to take a spirit-stabbing job as a clerk—but that doesn’t even come close to meaning that Melville wasn’t dedicated to her, that he would barrel into such a volcanic affair. Shelden’s Melville is a giddy, lust-smacked swain, a reckless wooer in thrall to his pushy heart, though the proof on hand in Parker, and in Laurie Robertson-Lorant’s excellent Melville: A Biography, shows that he was an essentially conscientious family man, if always broke. As a father, he seems to have been in the vicinity of nineteenth-century average; he’d win no awards for over-doting.           

For Melville, passionate love meant mostly literary love, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in his relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, though “relationship” won’t quite do when you consider the woeful one-sidedness of it. The Melville-Hawthorne dyad has since been hyper-romanticized in the mold of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, but Hawthorne, though he esteemed Melville, wanted very little to do with him. The uxorious Hawthorne wanted very little to do with anybody who wasn’t his wife: Parker writes that he went to “grotesque lengths … in his efforts to avoid company,” and you wince at Melville’s scribbled pleas for the great man’s brotherhood, unrequited admissions of his “infinite fraternity of feeling.” The Hawthornes lived in Lenox, Massachusetts, six miles from the Melvilles in Pittsfield, but the novelist who Melville says “dropped germinous seeds into [his] soul,” and to whom Melville dedicated Moby-Dick, “In Token of My Admiration for His Genius,” could not be coerced to visit. When the men did manage to convene, it was always an overdue tonic for Melville, who passed his days without much literary companionship in a semi-isolated arcadia, living with his wife, children, mother, and what Delbanco horrifyingly calls “a rotating delegation of sisters.”

Melville’s young-man hankering for male camaraderie on whalers was necessary for his survival; his philia for Hawthorne was something else. Hawthorne was the grave embodiment of literary sensibility; he’d harnessed the ethos of the visionary artist, the sublime quester after darkness and light—what Melville dubbed Hawthorne’s “mystical blackness”—and so Melville’s passion for the man was really a passion for literature, for linguistic communion, for a tapping of the requisite reserves within himself. About Melville’s correspondence with Hawthorne, Robertson-Lorant writes: “More narcissistic than erotic, these passionate letters express Melville’s infatuation with the new self-image and artistic self-confidence Hawthorne aroused in him.” That’s no doubt true of most writers who alter how we apprehend our existence: Their most abiding love is for the Word.

To Somerset Maugham’s question, “What turned the commonplace, undistinguished writer of Typee into the darkly imaginative, powerful, inspired, and eloquent author of Moby-Dick?” Shelden writes: “The short answer is falling in love.” Short and wrong. Even if Melville and Morewood had the energetic affair that Shelden everywhere suspects but nowhere substantiates, that affair would have in no major way made her “the muse of Moby-Dick.” Melville’s novel, he thinks, resulted from “the author’s own extended dive into the depths of his life. It allowed him to explore the mysteries of his identity, his dreams, and his experiences in new and complex ways.” To believe such cant is to misunderstand, by an enormous margin, how a literary masterwork gets made—the fallacious notion of writing as therapy, writing as mere self-expression, as the heartfelt sharing of “identity” and “dreams” and “experiences.” Dilettantes write that way; Melvilles do not. Here’s critic Northrop Frye: “Many people think that the original writer is always directly inspired by life. … That’s nonsense: The only inspiration worth having is an inspiration that clarifies the form of what’s being written, and that’s more likely to come from something that already has a literary form.”

In the summer of 1850, while in the jaws of composing Moby-Dick, Melville reread Milton’s Paradise Lost. No imaginative writer of English in the nineteenth century would have succeeded in blocking the muscled presence of Milton, and no major American writer co-opted Milton more than Melville did. His two-volume edition of Milton, with his tantalizing marginalia, now sits in Princeton University’s rare books collection, a testament not only to how many times he read it, but to how intimately he engaged it. Prior to Melville’s rereading of Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick showed every sign of being not much different from his first five novels, another at-sea bildungsroman. Henry Pommer’s crucial 1950 study, Milton and Melville, in no way exhausts the parallels between Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost. Melville might have been overall more indebted to the King James Version and to Shakespeare—“I have swam through libraries,” says Ishmael—but Milton’s work, according to Pommer, was “trenched in Melville’s mind.” Captain Ahab could not have been birthed without Milton’s Satan, and if you take away Ahab you have no Moby-Dick.

Both are would-be Promethean insurgents, brassy avengers engined by an outsized hubris, battling the unkillable, self-determined yet shackled to fate: Satan’s “obdurate pride” becomes Ahab’s “fatal pride.” With “heaven-insulting purpose” and “proud as Lucifer,” Ahab is “more a demon than a man” and “damned in the midst of Paradise!” The fallen angel Abdiel describes Satan as “Thyself not free, but to thyself enthrall’d”—that is Ahab, daemonic seeker, Ego incarnate, yet in vassalage to his own heroic fury, his unswerving lust for self-slaughter. “Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines,” says Ahab with Satanic tenacity. Both are orators who deliver operatic sermons to their crews. (In Redburn, written just two years before Moby-Dick, Melville’s narrator calls Milton’s Satan “our high-priest of poetry.”) Reluctant solipsists, both feel that the wrath of the cosmos falls directly upon their own heads, feel personally assaulted by cosmic autocracy, by a malefic deity unworthy of his reign, and both then rebel in ways that exact steep costs, not only on themselves but on their loyal crews. Satan’s pledge of “revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield” is exactly the pledge Ahab makes in his quest against the faceless leviathan: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.” His war with the whale resembles nothing so much as Lucifer’s war with Heaven in Book VI of Paradise Lost (they both last three days). In a June 1851 letter to Hawthorne, Melville speaks of “the hell-fire in which [Moby-Dick] is broiled.”

Milton’s touch thrives not only in the epical sweep of the tale and in Ahab’s transgressive grandeur, but in the very lineaments of Melville’s prose, in its syntactical tremors and intensity of perception, a language so present on the page it’s practically brocaded. No lone factor builds a masterwork, but rereading Paradise Lost was decisive in the novel’s final assertive potency. Melville’s traipsing through Berkshire glades with someone who might have been his paramour is paltry in comparison: A love affair would not have supplied the grim soul-struggle with the cosmic order—a cosmos “formed in fright,” as Ishmael says—that permeates Moby-Dick, its single-minded mythos and mystical undertow. No other American novel matches its nourishing peril and world-smashing iconoclasm. Simultaneously Genesis and Job and Revelation, the offspring of American ardor and Calvinist terror, the book not only gathers all of life into its hold—it is itself life, a ceaseless living creation of tremendous magnitude, an energy that invents itself as it advances, refusing to sit still for our attempts at taming it. To reduce its empyrean quarrel to an adolescent expression of forbidden love is to blaspheme it and its maker.

Moby-Dick remains the Great American Novel not only because it couldn’t have been written by anyone other than an American, but because it alone wields the capaciousness to include the whole of American individualism, the Richter-scale collision of American mind and soul, the sacred grasp of the profane, that barbarous striving toward both a rumored heaven and a welcoming hell. We are interested in Melville’s life chiefly because we are interested in the violence of his art, because art is not enough. Our curiosity craves backstory, craves the life that created the book. The problem is that a writer’s life never adequately explains a writer’s art, though the art does help explain pertinent aspects of the life. For Melville the artist, whom he loved must be ancillary to what he loved, to the literature and the art that fired the roaring furnace of his vision.