Lovers of Human Flesh: Homosexuality and Cannibalism in Melville’s Novels

By Caleb Crain. Originally published in American Literature 66.1 (March 1994): 25–53.

In 1816, off the coast of Africa, the French frigate La Méduse, through the gross incompetence of its captain, was wrecked and sunk. The captain deserted the ship early, rowing his family away in a precious and nearly empty lifeboat. To save themselves, the crew and passengers lashed together a raft from lumber and twine pried from the sinking ship and its rigging. One hundred forty-nine people boarded the raft. Twelve days later, only fifteen survivors were picked up by the passing vessel Argus.

In its day, the wreck of the Medusa was infamous. It was a great scandal to the prestige of the newly restored French monarchy. The cowardice of the captain, who simply fled, and of the ship’s officers, who cut loose the raft instead of towing it from the lifeboats as they had promised to those who boarded it, outraged the public. But it was the survivors’ cannibalism that inflamed the popular imagination. Desperate from hunger, the survivors resorted to eating the bodies of the men on board who had already died from exposure. In a bestselling memoir, two survivors, Jean-Baptiste Henri Savigny and Alexandre Corréard, begged their readers for understanding:

…an extreme resource was necessary to preserve our wretched existence. We tremble with horror at being obliged to mention that which we made use of! we feel our pen drop from our hand; a deathlike chill pervades all our limbs; our hair stands erect on our heads! — Reader, we beseech you, do not feel indignation towards men who are already too unfortunate; but have compassion on them, and shed some tears of pity on their unhappy fate.1

The story inspired the young painter Théodore Géricault to attempt a work of epic scale on a modern topic, the first such in the history of French art. Le radeau de la Méduse is a dark painting. Under an apocalyptic sky, fifteen survivors huddle conspiratorially, are sprawled out in fatal exhaustion, or stare off into the ocean in deep melancholy. But however dark the painting may be, cannibalism is not even hinted. Despite a dozen days without food and water, there is no sign of inanition in the men. Their torsos are still perfectly — appetizingly — sculpted. Many of the men are nude, and they are draped over each other in affectionate stupor. On the actual raft of the Medusa, the survivors kept a pile of corpses on board for scavenging and hung flesh out to dry. That was too grotesque to be depicted, if Géricault was to accord the survivors a measure of heroism. Instead, the cannibalism was symbolized by physical intimacy between statuesque nude men.

A twentieth-century viewer of the painting cannot help but notice what a twentieth-century viewer would call homoeroticism. In fact, the twentieth-century viewer may see little else. The 1989 edition of the Guide des collections of the Louvre makes no mention of cannibalism in its commentary on the painting.2 But as a coded reference to homosexuality, the painting pops up in odd places. The Raft of the Medusa is the name of a play that ran in Greenwich Village last year about a support group for people with AIDS. And several years ago, the Irish folk-punk group The Pogues (“pogue” is early twentieth-century American slang for a passive homosexual) put the painting on the cover of their album Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash. Géricault and his audience must also have seen this homoeroticism, but they probably understood it differently, as a kind of symbolic thinking, where one violation of social norms stood for another. It was understood that men did not normally do this with their bodies. The unusual male-male intimacy was representing an extremity too grisly for canvas.

To represent cannibalism by homoeroticism is not, I hope, intuitive today. Our culture is different. The nineteenth-century reader read with a system of connotations and assumptions that is lost to us. This paper will try to reconstruct how the practices of cannibalism and homosexuality figured in that system. In particular, it will examine how Herman Melville struggled with these violations of the bodies of American citizens.

A discussion of parallels between the nineteenth-century ideas of cannibalism and homosexuality should begin by establishing an important difference between the two. There was a word for cannibalism, and a word for those who practiced it. In contrast, the word “homosexuality” did not appear in English until 1892.3 Until then, the only terms available were “friendship” and “sodomy,” and to a more limited extent, the psychological diagnosis of “inversion” and the phrenological category of “adhesiveness.” There is an enormous gulf of meaning between “friendship” and “sodomy.” In discussing what transpires in and across that gulf before 1892, scholars often use carefully neutral phrases like “male-male intimacy.” Often, these periphrases only substitute for the modern word “homosexuality;” they alert the reader to the epistemological anachronism, without removing it. I will not make any special effort to avoid the word “homosexual,” but I will try to avoid confusing a twentieth–century minority identity with what, in the mid-nineteenth century, was at most a sensibility.4

As an illustration of this unevenness of terms, consider Melville’s association with J. Bayard Taylor. Robert Martin has called Taylor “the most outspoken advocate of ‘the other love’ in mid-century America.”5 Nonetheless, although Taylor wrote an ode “To a Persian Boy” and in a novel called “manly love…as tender and true as the love of woman,” he was not known as a subversive. On the contrary, Taylor was a genteel writer, not a daring one. He wrote travelogues; a contemporary quipped that no one had travelled more and seen less. Melville purchased one of Taylor’s books, Views Afoot, from Wiley and Putnam in December 1846. Taylor may well have been the most outspoken advocate of the other love in mid-century America, but Views Afoot is an innocent, in fact, an insipid book. Aside from a bout drinking beer with German students with flashing and poetic eyes, the book is not the least bit suggestive. In an episode that offers more hope of incrimination, Taylor presented a Valentine’s poem to Melville in February 1848. The valentine, sadly, is also bland. The truth is, that although we know Melville met Taylor and read his work, homosexuality was so invisible in the 1840s that it is impossible to say for sure whether Melville, like Martin, could have recognized Taylor as his era’s advocate of “the other love.”6

On the other hand, in the early nineteenth century, cannibalism was available for discussion. Cannibalism at sea was often in the news; the Medusa was far from the only instance. There was cannibalism among the survivors of the Nautilus (1807), the Essex (1820), the George (1822), the Francis Mary (1826), the Granicus (1828), the Dalusia (1833), the Lucy (1834), the Francis Spaight (1835), the Elizabeth Rashleigh (1835), the Brig Caledonia (1836), the Home (1836), the Hannah (1836), and the Earl Moira (1838).7 Melville probably had read newspaper accounts of many of these. He clearly knew about the case of the Essex, stove by a sperm whale. Owen Chase’s Narratives of the Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex are quoted in the “Extracts” prefacing Moby Dick, and in memoranda bound in his own copy of the Narratives, Melville confirmed that “two of its crew had died delirious, & furnished food for the survivors” (MD 990).8

When Lieutenant Charles Wilkes returned from his exploring expedition in June 1842, he brought with him the Fijian chief Vendovi, who died shortly after they entered New York harbor. The New York Herald attributed the savage’s illness to being deprived of his regular diet of human flesh.9 In 1847, George Dibdin — whom Melville ironically calls “a man of genius” in White-Jacket (WJ 383) — wrote a play about cannibalism, “A String of Pearls, or the Field of Fleet Street,” revived in our century as Sweeney Todd.10 In the same year, newspapers across America carried accounts of the demise of the Donner-Reed Party, a group of emigrants on their way to California whom winter caught unprepared in the Sierra Nevada. The caravan disintegrated into bickering, starvation, cannibalism, and perhaps murder. The first book-length account by a survivor of the Donner-Reed Party was published as early as 1848.11 For homosexuality, this kind of visibility and debate would not come until the 1890s.

In the nineteenth century, cannibalism and homosexuality shared a rhetorical form. Both were represented as “the unspeakable.” Savigny and Corréard “tremble with horror” at the mere mention of “that which we made use of.” In the Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, Pym says of eating his fellow-traveler Parker, “Such things may be imagined, but words have no power to impress the mind with the exquisite horror of their reality.”12 Long before Alfred Douglas called it “the Love that dare not speak its name,” homosexuality too was figured by the trope of preterition. In Davis vs. Maryland, a case heard in Baltimore in 1810, a man named Davis was convicted of “that most horrid and detestable crime, (among Christians not to be named), called Sodomy,”13 according to a legal formula conventional since the Middle Ages.

A second similarity is not so much a congruence as a common ground. In Melville’s day, the savages of the South Pacific islands were infamous for their cannibalism and promiscuity. Melville probably heard tales of both long before he enlisted as a sailor himself. His cousin, Thomas Melville, sailed as a midshipman under Captain W. B. Finch on the U.S.S. Vincennes, which visited the Marquesas in the summer of 1829. His uncle, Captain John DeWolf II, was the companion and friend of Georg H. von Langsdorff, the German naturalist, who had visited the Marquesas in May of 1804. Even if his relatives had maintained an unseamanlike taciturnity, Melville would have found wild stories in written accounts of these men’s voyages. The chaplain of the U.S.S. Vincennes, C. S. Stewart, wrote up Melville’s cousin’s cruise; his book is mentioned in Typee. Langsdorff’s Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World has been identified as a source for both Typee and Omoo.14

As Melville puts it winkingly, “there is a vast deal of unintentional humbuggery in some of the accounts we have from scientific men” about Polynesia (T 170). In accounts of the Marquesas, for example, the first observation of many visitors is the beauty of the men. Captain David Porter wrote that, “The men of this island are remarkably handsome; of large stature and well-proportioned” and that the women “are far from being as handsome as the men.”15 The missionary William Ellis (also identified as a Melville source) agreed:

Physically considered, the Marquesans are described as among the most perfect of the human species. The men are said to be tall, strong-built, and many of them exhibit the finest symmetry of form: they are frequently upwards of six feet high, their limbs muscular and firm, but not heavy. Their movements are always agile, often easy and graceful.16

Like Porter, Ellis remarked that the women, though agreeable, were inferior to the men. But the praise of Porter and Ellis pales beside the wild claims of Georg H. von Langsdorff. “Many of [the Marquesan men],” records Langsdorff, “might very well have been placed by the side of the most celebrated chef-d’oeuvres of antiquity, and they would have lost nothing by the comparison.” Upon measuring a young Marquesan named Mufau Taputakava, Langsdorff discovered that his proportions exactly matched those of “the Apollo of Belvedere, … that master-piece of the finest ages of Grecian art, in which is combined every possible integer in the composition of manly beauty.” In conclusion, Langsdorff magisterially declares: “How much soever the navigators that have visited the South-Seas islands extol the beauty of the women, I am disposed to consider the men of Nukahiwa as far exceeding them.”17

Although the chaplain C. S. Stewart claims to be “particularly” impressed by the beauty of the Marquesan women, he too lingers over descriptions of beautiful Marquesan men. Piaroro is “a prince by nature as well as blood — one of the finest looking men I ever saw — tall and large, not very muscular, but of admirable proportions, with a general contour of figure and roundness and polish of limb that would do grace to an Apollo.” Stewart alludes again to Greek beauty when he describes an “uncommonly handsome” dancer who was “almost as fair as any one of our number, making his whole style more that of an Adonis than of an Apollo.18

Melville echoes these sources in Typee, quoting a similar passage from “a small volume entitled ‘Circumnavigation of the Globe'” about a Spanish pilot struck by two handsome boys, who regrets that he must leave them behind to be “lost” in the Marquesas. Melville then adds his own opinion. “The islanders are still the same,” he writes; “and I have seen boys in the Typee Valley of whose ‘beautiful faces’ and ‘promising animation of countenance’ no one who has not beheld them can form any adequate idea” (T 183-4).

There is something acid and knowing in the quotation marks Melville puts around the words he borrows from the starry-eyed Spanish pilot. Ferret a little further in the sources, and the reason emerges. Ellis is probably the most explicit, because he is the least. The unspeakability of his Marquesans is almost poetic:

Their common conversation, when engaged in their ordinary avocations, was often such as the ear could not listen to without pollution, presenting images, and conveying sentiments, whose most fleeting passage through the mind left contamination.[…] The veil of oblivion must be spread over this part of their charater, of which the appalling picture, drawn by the pen of inspiration in the hand of the apostle, in the first chapter of his epistle to the Romans, revolting and humiliating as it is, affords but too faithful a portraiture.19

According to Russell’s Polynesia, an early missionary fled the Marquesas for reasons whose “particulars are so utterly void of delicacy that we cannot enter upon the recital.” When Stewart witnessed a native dance, he saw “such open outrages on all decency, that I hurried away in a horror of disgust.”20

American observers were fascinated by the savage voluptuousness, and curious about the forms it took. Richard H. Dana described institutionalized male friendships in Polynesia, which he called aikane (Melville prefers the word tayo), in Two Years before the Mast.21 Stewart’s Visit to the South Seas provided an account of the peculiar system of polyandry Melville relates in Typee, where man, boy, and girl “live together as harmoniously as so many turtles” (T 191).22 Captain David Porter described the Marquesan custom of name exchange, wherein two men, having exchanged names, thenceforth share everything; Porter is bewildered when the newly christened “Tavee” insists on offering his wife, even though she was “the handsomest woman on the island, and he the fondest husband.”23

Recent anthropology has confirmed the homosexual activity of the Marquesans. Homosexual and autoerotic play is standard for Marquesan children and adolescents. If women are scarce on a particular island, homosexuality is considered a normal practice for adult men as well. Married men sometimes conduct homosexual liaisons. If homosexual activity is habitual in an adult and is combined with female mannerisms and a woman’s socio-economic role, the individual is labeled a mahu, but is not, by and large, stigmatized. These practices and attitudes were probably more or less the same when Melville lived among the Typee in the nineteenth century.24

There is an interesting twist here. To learn about the homosexual activity of the Marquesans, Melville had to decode veiled allusions and suggestions. What was certain was their cannibalism. In twentieth century anthropology, the status has been reversed. The homosexuality of the Marquesans is frankly and thoroughly documented. But as they are challenged to meet modern standards of evidence, reports of cannibalism recede into rumor and myth.

Melville’s sources were short on this kind of scholarly scepticism. Ellis states flatly, “The Marquesans are known to be cannibals.” He quotes Captain Krusenstern, who wrote that “in times of famine the men butcher their wives, and children, and aged parents.”25 Langsdorff relishes the anthropophagism of the islanders; his descriptions of cannibalism are positively erotic. For him, cannibalism is a tasty and addictive pleasure. “Human flesh is found so grateful, that those who have once eaten it can with difficulty abstain from it.” The fact of Marquesan cannibalism is patent to Langsdorff. He is fairly certain, for instance, that his informant, a Frenchman gone native named Cabri, has eaten human flesh. Langsdorff reasons that since Cabri had lived for years among the savages, he would have had many opportunities to eat men killed in battle, and Langsdorff rates Cabri’s intelligence far too highly to imagine he would not have availed himself of a few samplings.26

There were exceptions to this enthusiasm. Captain Porter doubted the cannibalism of the Marquesans, perhaps because he hoped to make American citizens of them. When he interrupted Marquesan funeral rites after a battle, everything he saw convinced him they were as respectful of the dead as any European. “[Their] delicacy in concealing the wounded body of an enemy, and their caution in avoiding the touch of the blood or the dead carcasses, greatly staggered my belief of their being cannibals.”27

By the time Melville sat down to write Typee — and probably much earlier, probably even before he embarked on his cruise to the Pacific — he was aware that the savages of the Marquesas were famous for two secret practices outrageous to Victorian civilization. The public already associated the South Seas with cannibalism and a peculiar voluptuousness. Melville was free to play with these associations. Among his innovations was to associate this cannibalism and voluptuousness with each other.

Cannibalism and homosexuality shared the trope of preterition and the topos of the South Seas in the culture at large. A third similarity — panic at discovery — is perhaps more Melville’s innovation than it is common intellectual property.

The discovery of cannibalism in Melville resembles the discovery of homosexuality in Gothic novels. An irresistible curiosity impels the hero. He is attracted to something repulsive; he is not in control of his own actions. In the Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, the young Robert Wringhim tries to shun his mysterious double Gil-Martin when they first meet, but he cannot. “I felt a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him, something like the force of enchantment, which I could not resist.”28 A similar invisible power forces Tommo to try to discover the secret of the Typees. He feels “forebodings of evil” and “an uncontrollable desire to penetrate the secret so jealously guarded” (T 232). His discovery of a human carcass is “prompted by a curiosity I could not repress” (T 238).

Tommo could have justified his curiosity about cannibalism rather easily: if the Typees were cannibals, he was in danger of being eaten, and therefore he needed to know. But instead Tommo tells us that he felt he ought to repress his desire to discover cannibalism. It doesn’t make sense for him to resist information that bears so directly on his survival, unless the information itself brings another danger. Tommo may have feared he would fall into the practice himself. When Tommo does lift the lid off the pot of bones, he does not take responsibility for his curiosity. He describes his curiosity as something alien to himself; Tommo’s “uncontrollable desire” is much like the “invisible power” that impelled Robert Wringhim.

This double bind of attraction and repulsion also paralyzes Wellingborough Redburn in Aladdin’s Palace. For Redburn, however, the horrible secret is not cannibalism. Robert K. Martin has assembled a convincing argument that Aladdin’s Palace is not just a gambling den, but also a “molly house,” or male brothel. As Martin explains, Melville had no idea what such a thing might look like, but he knew that his description should “provoke horror and a simultaneous attraction.”29 Poor Redburn claims he did not know what to make of Aladdin’s Palace. He is properly horrified by it. He feels “a terrible revulsion,” he “shuddered at every footfall,” and he “was mysteriously alive to a dreadful feeling” (R 233-234). But at the same time, its opulent evil seduces him. He “indulge[s] in foolish golden visions of the counts and countesses to whom Harry might introduce me,” he is “transported” by the luxurious hotel room to which Harry escorts him, he drinks the pale yellow wine, and he cannot, however appalled, bring himself to oppose Harry, or to leave (R 229, 231).

This emotional double bind — of horror and fascination, of attraction and revulsion, of delicious shudders — has been given a name. Eve Sedgwick calls it “homosexual panic,” a term she borrows from the Freudian lexicon. According to Sedgwick, homophobia is not just hatred directed against gay men. Systematic fear and distrust of male-male intimacy in Western Europe pre-dates the identification of a homosexual as a “species” by more than a century. Homophobia, she maintains, is social blackmail. It is an ideology that controls affections and relations between men — of any orientation — by obliging them to eternal vigilance lest they be labeled effeminate, inverted, or (later) gay. Homosexual panic is “the most private, psychologized form” of this blackmail.30 When a man becomes aware, however liminally, of attraction to another man, he resorts to paranoia and projection, of the sort Freud outlined in his analysis of Schreber. It is a desperate defense. The attraction becomes revulsion, horror, and even violence.

There are other instances in Melville of “cannibalistic panic.” In White-Jacket, Surgeon Cadwallader Cuticle is as horrified as he is eager to believe that a pudding eaten by a prankster is a human cancer (WJ 250-51). At the conclusion of Typee, Tommo throws a boathook at one of the men who had helped to clothe, feed, bathe, and shelter him for the past four months. As Melville writes the scene, Tommo had to. The man was swimming towards him furiously, tomahawk in teeth. But I think the violence also serves to relieve Tommo’s panic. It breaks a threateningly attractive sense of identity with the cannibals. The Typees relapse into a fierce but reassuring otherness; Tommo is not a cannibal, he is a man who kills cannibals.

Panic is a knot of conflicting emotions. It binds attraction and revulsion tightly together. To tease apart these desires and fears may loose some of the notions of cannibalism and homosexuality also caught in this knot.

What is attractive about cannibalism? What is repulsive? Ever since Montaigne, the Western European tradition has suspected that there was something irrational about the usual answers to these questions. What is disturbing about cannibals is not a matter of reason, but a matter of feeling. After all, as Melville explains, echoing Montaigne, Europeans mutilate the bodies of those they execute (T 125). Once revulsion at the particular act of cannibalism is overcome, it can be seen as a different, and no worse, social organization of violence (T 205). The defense is intriguingly similar to the contemporary rationale by which homosexuality is justified in public discourse. Once revulsion at the particular act of homosexuality is transcended, it can be seen as a different, and no worse, structure of affection. The sticky bit is always the peculiar act.

This leads to a provisional explanation for the congruence of cannibalism and homosexuality. The body is a convenient boundary for the definition of the self. In theory, a sort of social anthropology may rationalize cannibalism or homosexuality, but in practice, the peculiar act violates that boundary. The act offers an ecstatic union; it offers to relieve the self of the burden of selfhood; it offers a chance to surrender the body, to consume or be consumed by another. Melville’s hero, a solitary and self-reliant American of the nineteenth century, desperately wants to lose his self. Although his freedom and independence are precious to him, they bind him to responsibilities and isolate him in distrust; they weigh him down, and he dreams of laying them aside. But the penalty for this kind of transgression — for the violation of allowing himself to be violated — would be severe. Cannibals would tear his body to shreds, like Pentheus’; and intimacy with a man would threaten him with a mutilation only slightly more abstract. It would compromise both his spiritual and bodily integrity. He would not be his own man. He would no longer be free; he would be as subject as a woman; and he would therefore no longer be fit for the role of citizen in a democracy. Cannibalism and homosexuality violate the distinctions between identity and desire; between self and other; between what we want, what we want to be, and what we are. This is why they are appealing; this is why the nineteenth century American man is horrified to discover that they appeal to him.

So far, this paper has been fairly conservative in its methodology. It has sketched how cannibalism and male-male intimacy were represented in the discourse of the early nineteenth century. It has provided a specific point of congruence — both categories were “unspeakable” — and a specific common ground — both were associated with the South Seas. It has also suggested a similarity in Melville’s treatment of the two categories through the complex of “panic.” But to explore Melville’s treatment any further requires speculation. It requires guesswork about his assumptions, and the language of assumptions is exaggeration. I have found it useful to classify Melville’s assumptions about homosexuality and cannibalism according to two other categories: power and love. In the analysis that follows, I arrange the categories into an artificial symmetry, to see where Melville’s language works with the scheme and where it resists it.

Cannibalism as love

An account of the mingling of cannibalism and affection in Melville’s writing should probably start with less gory forms of eating.

…it should be remarked in general that Melville makes frequent use of food as a metaphor for love. Tom and Toby seem to be about to starve on the meager food they bring from the ship, until they reach the Typees. There is copious food, of course, that both nourishes but ultimately frightens Tom into his escape — fleeing as if from love itself.31

Martin also adduces the examples of Redburn going hungry because he doesn’t have a spoon for his burgoo; the mother and children starving to death in Launcelott’s-Hey; and Bartleby’s decision to prefer not to eat any more. To these could be added the further examples of the mess clubs in White-Jacket, fundamental units of society aboard the man-of-war; the abundant clam and cod chowder that graces Ishmael and Queequeg’s first sortie as a married couple; and the endless casual sociality and itinerant dinner-partying of Omoo. One must be careful not to make too much of this. After all, for Melville, sharing a smoke can be a stronger symbol of communion than eating. Furthermore, not every feast is a cannibal feast, and not every hunger is a hankering for human flesh. But a brief comparison to milder sorts of dining is instructive, if only because it reminds us that cannibalism has in extremes an ambivalence already present in more accepted manifestations of orality. The mouth is every child’s first erogenous zone. According to Freud, orality provides the child with his first set of defense mechanisms for resolving anxieties caused by his differences with the outside world. When something bothers him — and that “bothering” ranges from irritation to arousal — he eats it. Incorporating what you love is a sure way of seeing that it never escapes you again.

To say that cannibalism is a relation of love is not to say that it is warm, cuddly, and nurturing. It’s only to say that love and cannibalism can be confused. Cannibals and lovers both pay exceptional attention to the body of their desired. The Wicked Witch fattens up Hansel for the oven much the same way any mother frets about her son’s appetite, but the Wicked Witch monitors Hansel’s progress by feeling his finger every day to see if it’s grown big and thick enough. Instead of eating Hansel, the Wicked Witch might want to sleep with him. Fairy-tale cannibalism is a kind of exotic and forbidden act of sex. When Tommo worries, “For what conceivable purpose did they thus retain me as a captive?” (T 239), his explicit fear is that the Typees mean to eat him, but it is strange that he never considers the alternative — maybe they love him. Love can be as possessive and as irrational.

Cannibalism resembles exotic and taboo sex elsewhere in the nineteenth century. As mentioned above, the naturalist Langsdorff (a source for Typee and Omoo) saw cannibalism as overpoweringly erotic. One motive for the crime was “the unruly and inordinate desires to which man is too prone to give way.” His interest piqued by the example of Marquesan cannibalism, Langsdorff indulges a long ramble about this “height of gourmandise,” noting that Englishmen are tastier than Frenchmen, and that “the inside of the hand and the sole of the foot are the nicest parts of the human body.” Langsdorff is not afraid (in fact he seems eager) to make the connection for his own culture as well.

It may be made a question whether our German saying of “eating anybody through love,” may not have arisen from a tradition referring to those ancient times; since it is certain that our forefathers… followed this custom.32

The behavior of the Donner Party provides a corollary piece of evidence. When, during the winter of 1846-1847, they began to eat human flesh on a regular basis to survive, they developed a system for it. Part of that system was to strip the flesh off the bodies and dry it, presumably so it would not be recognizably human. But they also organized it so that “no person partook of kindred flesh.” In the moral imagination of the nineteenth century, cannibalism was not only very close to homosexuality; it was also very close to incest.33

Melville never describes a scene of bona fide cannibalism, but he does give several scenes that approach it. Among them are Stubb’s dinner of raw whale meat (discussed below) and the amputation Cuticle performs in Chapter 63 of White-Jacket.

Several aspects of “The Operation” chapter suggest that it is a cannibal feast. First, there is the general outline of the tableau: the wounded top-man is spread out upon a table, surrounded by men eager to carve him up. Second, several metaphors compare the preparations for surgery to preparations for a meal. One of the surgical instruments is “something like the dinner-table implement;” the steward bustles about “like an overconscientious butler fidgeting over a dinner-table just before the convivialists enter;” and Cuticle’s explanations of procedure are an indifferent discourse about “carving up his broken flesh,” words that could as well describe a holiday turkey (WJ 255, 256, 262). Third, Cuticle curses the clumsy surgical apprentice with “Away, butcher!” (WJ 262). And finally, there are references to hunger. After the surgery is over, when Cuticle perceives that his lecture is boring the other surgeons, he suggests that they are fidgety because “your dinners must be waiting you on board your respective ships” (WJ 264). He assumes they are eager to get home to their own meals. And Cuticle’s impatience for the preparations to be finished, his nostalgic memories of war when amputations were more abundant, and his wistful comment that “this is my first important case of surgery in a nearly three years’ cruise” (WJ 257) imply he has been suffering from the exquisite torture of a gourmet forced to diet.

Of course, Cuticle’s impatience and wistfulness also suggest that he takes erotic pleasure in the surgery. Before he operates, Cuticle removes his coat, his neckerchief, his false teeth, his wig, and his glass eye. This neurotic preparation is a monstrous version of a lover’s disrobing. It draws morbid attention to Cuticle’s body, and to the amputation as an operation performed by one man’s body on another’s. A few minutes later, when Cuticle surrenders the knife to an apprentice, the reader is puzzled. But the surender is brief; Cuticle snatches back the saw, which confirms our worst suspicions. “Away, butcher! you disgrace the profession. Look at me!” (WJ 262) The surgeon’s boast is excited and uncanny. The pleasure is too important to be surrendered. He is too refined a connoisseur to allow the opportunity to be bumbled away. After the operation, Cuticle disdains the clean towels — “For myself, I seldom use them” (WJ 264) — which could suggest a fetishistic pleasure in the filth of it all.

In White-Jacket, Cuticle’s cannibalism threatens his victims, but only his victims. Heavy irony protects the hero (and the reader) from any identification with Cuticle. In Typee, the irony is more delicate, and cannibalism threatens more ambiguously. Tommo and Toby are as afraid of eating as they are of being eaten. “I tell you you are bolting down mouthfuls from a dead Happar’s carcass, as sure as you live, and no mistake!” Toby worries (T 95). This danger could also be seen as a kind of affection, but not a personal, one-on-one affection: here, cannibalism threatens Tommo and Toby with the affection of the group. In Freud’s Totem and Taboo, the cannibal feast is the founding act of crime and sharing that binds society. Whether this cannibal feast ever actually took place or is merely a myth projected into prehistory, many societies tell stories about it. In myth and religion, cannibalism often marks the advent of civilization. Thyestes’ curse on the House of Atreus drives the Oresteia tragedy cycle; the crime of cannibalism is only a generation earlier than the stories sung by Homer, the mythic origin of Greek culture. Cannibalism is suggested in the Christian rite of communion. In one of his essays on Melville, D. H. Lawrence made this connection:

…if the savages [of Typee] liked to partake of their sacrament without raising the transubstantiation quibble, and if they liked to say, directly: ‘This is thy body, which I take from thee and eat. This is thy blood, which I sip in annihilation of thee’, why surely their sacred ceremony was as awe-inspiring as the one Jesus substituted. But Herman chose to be horrified.34

Cannibalism threatens to consume Tommo by inviting him to join the feast that would make him a Typee. By holy eating of the body, he would join in the love that unites people. There are paradoxes here. A myth or memory of cannibalism may found civilization, but only the uncivilized are cannibals. Cannibalism marks the beginning but also the end of civilization. The Typees are savages. One side of cannibalism would destroy Tommo’s body, and the other would destroy his soul.

Homosexuality shares this paradox. The Greeks are as famously homosexual as they are famously the beginning of Western culture. Love between men — transcending the private love between man and woman or between parent and child — is the hallmark of civilization, but sodomy is a crime so dire its name derives from the story of Sodom, a mythical destruction of civilization.35

Since this exploration of love and cannibalism has returned to its starting point by unearthing another congruence between cannibalism and homosexuality, it may be time to move on to the next proposition.

Homosexuality as power

To get from “friendship” to “sodomy,” you have to cross several lines. You cross from legal to illegal. You cross from spirit to body. You cross from civilization to barbarity. And you cross from love to power.

The egalitarian homosexual relationship is peculiar to the twentieth century. In mid-nineteenth century America, it was difficult to imagine that a friendship between men could involve physical intimacy without slipping into something other than friendship. The act of sodomy implied coercion and submission; it was undemocratic.

I remember a conversation I had with an old high school classmate who had gone into the Navy. We were discussing the Navy’s exclusion of homosexuals. He insisted that the Navy’s policy was the only reasonable one; I disagreed. Our discussion didn’t get very far, because the word “homosexuality” meant a different thing to each of us. He was referring to the not infrequent practice of an officer on ship bullying a midshipman or lower rank into sex. He had observed it; naturally, it appalled him; and he felt that no rule that might discourage it should be relaxed. Unfortunately, I had never given much thought to that problem; if I had, I would have called it “rape,” not “homosexuality.” I could not convince him that this practice could be meaningfully distinguished from the consensual and egalitarian version more prevalent on land.

Something like my friend’s concern, I think, is behind Melville’s condemnation of sodomy in White-Jacket. “There are evils in men-of-war, which […] will neither bear representing, nor reading, and will hardly bear thinking of.” Although Melville calls the sinful ships “wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep,” his language is not motivated by religion, but by a concern for justice and democracy. What bothers him is that there is no redress for the crime of male rape. Sodomy is so unspeakable that it can’t be discussed at the quarter-deck. Worse, the victim of male rape is somehow disqualified as a citizen; he is not acceptable as a plaintiff; and therefore justice is impossible. “More than once complaints were made at the mast in the Neversink, from which the deck officer would turn away with loathing, refuse to hear them, and command the complainant out of his sight” (WJ 376). Like female victims of rape, these plaintiffs are blamed for the crime. Even if the sodomy does not occur, the frustration of it cannot be mentioned either, and this can also lead to injustice. In Chapter 52, a waister is flogged for mysterious reasons “at the complaint of a midshipman.” Presumably the midshipman was annoyed at the waister for rejecting his advances; Melville is elliptical. He says only that the full story “can not here be related; it would not well bear recital,” and that the midshipman was “a youth, who was apt to indulge at times in undignified familiarities with some of the men, who, sooner or later, almost always suffered from his capricious preferences” (WJ 216).

Another aspect of maritime life also provokes the question of homosexuality and power. Sailors surrender affection and control to their captain. Their bodies are his to use. Erotic attraction complicates relations of power, but it is hardly clear whether it strengthens or weakens them. Homosexuality and power cross and combine in Billy Budd, but so unpleasantly that some think the pessimism is exceptional — an old man’s bitter despair. However, a curious choice of words in “The Try-Works” chapter of Moby-Dick suggests Melville was aware of the intersection much earlier. During a brief nap at the helm, Ishmael gets turned around without realizing it. When he wakes, what he sees confuses him:

Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling, as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow, in some enchanted way, inverted. (MD 424)

D. H. Lawrence quotes this passage in his essay on Moby-Dick, and he interprets it as a warning not to stare into the fire of capitalist industry, lest one suffer “reversion.”36 Perhaps. What interests me is Lawrence’s silent correction of Melville. He uses the word “reversion” twice. Melville does not. In fact, Melville repeats the word he chose: “Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee, as for the time it did me” (MD 425). In the nineteenth century, “inversion” was the psychological term for adopting the behavior of the opposite gender. It included what we would call “homosexuality” — it was not until Freud that the two terms were distinguished. It would have been all-too-recognizable to Lawrence, although it is obscure today. The word re-appears in “The Needle” chapter, when Ahab proves to his men that he has the power to make “inverted” compasses point true again (MD 517). In that chapter, strangely, no one notices that the sun is in the wrong side of the sky until Ahab does — Ahab, who held lightning-rods in his hands the night before and who shoots “a certain magnetism” (MD 518) into the hearts of his harpooners. As captain, Ahab is like an “artificial fire” that can distract the sailors from “the glorious, golden, glad sun” (MD 424); he can invert their compasses and enchant their tillers at will.

In the world Melville described, physical intimacy between men was inextricable from power. It almost always implied a loss of control over the body. The loss of control, in turn, suggested a compromise of the self and a disintegration of identity. These associations follow Melville from sea to land. Melville’s euphemism for male rape on board the Neversink — “undignified familiarities” — could also describe Kory-Kory’s ministrations in Typee. Kory-Kory, Tommo’s appointed companion, is where the peculiar voluptuousness of the island touches Tommo most directly. Kory-Kory bathes, spoon-feeds, carries, and sleeps beside Tommo. Even when a bevy of girls gather around Tommo to rub him down with oil, Kory-Kory sits close by, watching “with the most jealous attention” (T 110). But Kory-Kory is also where Tommo most directly feels his loss of control. When Tommo tries to hobble down to the seaside, Kory-Kory clings to his arm. When Tommo tries to leave the hut door open for escape by pretending to go for a drink of water, Kory-Kory leaves a calabash of water at Tommo’s bedside. Tommo’s final escape is almost frustrated by Kory-Kory’s refusal to carry him to the shore. Like a lover (or as a lover), Kory-Kory has custody of Tommo’s body. He takes care of its pleasures and its needs, but by virtue of that, he controls Tommo. Tommo can’t escape from the Typees until he can escape from Kory-Kory.

Tommo knows he should escape from Kory-Kory. He tends to forget to worry about it, though. It’s tempting to lie back and enjoy. Helpfully, his leg swells up to remind him; he frets, dutifully; but then he forgets again. The frightfulness of the Typees comes and goes for Tommo, and it is always of an ambiguous nature. “The word ‘Typee,'” Melville writes in sheer fiction, “in the Marquesan dialect signifies a lover of human flesh” (T 24).37 They are monsters with a peculiar voluptuousness. It is only at his final escape that Tommo works himself into a full and violent panic. An angry cannibal with a gleaming knife scares him into a cruel break. The novel’s tone drops from Montaignesque tolerance into Gothic horror. Homosexuality disappears behind cannibalism.

Cannibalism as power

I am not interested in “proving” any of the neat and symmetrical headings I have placed in boldface. Rather, I want to show how each of these propositions about Melville also suggests the others. For example, in this section, I do not so much want to show that Melville saw cannibalism as a relation of power — that would be almost self-evident — as I want to show that in Melville’s hands, cannibalism was an erotically charged power by which one man could threaten or control another.

In Freud, orality is both affectionate and hostile. Eating something is a way of keeping it with you forever, but it’s also a way of destroying it. From her experiences as a child analyst, Melanie Klein drew a candid and grisly image of the infant’s cannibalistic urges:

In the very first months of the baby’s existence it has sadistic impulses directed, not only against its mother’s breast, but also against the inside of her body: scooping it out, devouring the contents, destroying it by every means which sadism can suggest.38

To master a love-object that is sometimes frustratingly withheld, the infant indulges a fantasy of total sadistic control.

Melville must have found the same ambiguity in his sources about cannibalism. The same Langsdorff who suggested that prehistoric German cannibalism lurked behind the expression “eating someone through love” also suggested it was the motive for the expression “blood-thirsty.”39

A modern anthropologist, Eli Sagan, has in fact proposed that all forms of cannibalism could be catalogued as either “aggressive” or “affectionate.” “Affectionate cannibalism” is the practice of eating dead friends and relatives. It is a way primitive people reconcile themselves to the loss of their loved ones. “Aggressive cannibalism” is simply making the most of a military victory; it is magic that ensures the victor will absorb all the manly virtues of the vanquished. According to Sagan, the motives for both types of cannibalism are universal, but as civilization advances, cannibalism becomes sublimated into symbolic rituals.40

Sagan explains the motives for affectionate cannibalism at length, but the motives for aggressive cannibalism are presented as more or less intuitive. “What is the worst punishment that one could inflict on someone one wished to hurt in the most radical way? Eat him, of course.”41

Sagan’s “of course” is a little unsettling, but cannibalism is a thorough demonstration of power. Soul and body are both disposed of. As Melville writes, “Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar” (MD 150).42 Like his nineteenth-century sources, Melville cites power matter-of-factly as a motivation for cannibalism. In his defense of the Typees, he writes that “they are such [cannibals] only when they seek to gratify the passion of revenge upon their enemies” (T 125). When the captain of the Town-Ho finally captures the mutinous Steelkilt, the captain exclaims “I mean to mince ye up for the try-pots” (MD 253).

Stubb completes his mastery over a whale by eating a steak from the small of its back. That there is an element of homosexuality to this could be inferred from the sexual fury of the chase, Stubb “slowly churn[ing] his long sharp lance into the fish” (MD 286), the whale’s orgasm-like death-flurry, and the imagery by which both Stubb and the whale are described as smoking pipes: Stubb’s is tobacco, the whale’s is his “vapoury jet,” and when the whale is killed, Stubb pronounces, “Both pipes smoked out.” That there is an element of cannibalism to this could be inferred from Stubb’s marked preference for raw whale meat, the analogy to the sharks “cannibally” devouring the whale carcass in the water below, and Melville’s insinuation that there is something cannibal about eating “a newly murdered thing of the sea…by its own light” (MD 299).

Daggoo and Tashtego enjoy bullying the steward Dough-Boy by threatening to eat him. On one occasion Daggoo goes so far as to thrust “his head into a great empty wooden trencher, while Tashtego, knife in hand, began laying out the circle preliminary to scalping him.” When Queequeg smacks his lips, “Dough-Boy almost looked to see whether any marks of teeth lurked in his own lean arms” (MD 152-53).

The cannibals are only joking. But the Christians on board don’t take cannibalism so lightly. In the early nineteenth century, as I mentioned above, there were more than a few cases of sailors reduced to cannibalism by shipwreck or famine. The stories appeared in newspapers, ballads, broadsheets, and jokes in Punch. They were common knowledge. A historian of nineteenth century cannibalism has argued that “maritime survival cannibalism, preceded by the drawing of lots and killing, was a socially accepted practice among seamen until the end of the days of sail.”43 Under certain conditions, cannibalism was the done thing. The sailors in Melville’s novels would have been aware that, at the breakpoint of starvation, a gruesome injustice might occur.

It has become a commonplace to see repressed homosexual attraction in the hungry and hostile gaze that Jackson fixes on Redburn, Radney on Steelkilt, and Claggart on Billy Budd. But if maritime cannibalism is as common as Simpson maintains, the hunger in that gaze could be susceptible to a simpler exegesis. Perhaps Redburn shuddered “when I caught this man gazing at me, as I often did” (R 58), because he imagined that in a dire situation, the eerily charismatic Jackson would be able to choose the victim. Melville’s hungry gazers are explicitly jealous of the bodies they gaze at. Steelkilt is “a tall and noble animal” (MD 246); Billy Budd is envied for his “good looks, cheery health, and frank enjoyment of young life;”44 Redburn is “young and handsome” (R 58); and Jackson also eyes a Belfast man “particularly because of his red cheeks” (R 59). The gazers have a peculiar passion for human flesh. Although it seems more likely that the peculiar passion is a repressed homoerotic attraction, the gaze might have been interpreted — by the gazed at and by the gazers themselves — ambiguously.

Hints of cannibalism also mix with hints of the erotic in the story of “Benito Cereno.” John Harmon McElroy and Barbara J. Baines contend that Babo made a cannibal feast of the late slave-owner Don Alexandro Aranda.45 (McElroy 1974; Baines 1984). They point out that the preparation of Aranda’s skeleton is shrouded in preterition. The reader only knows that the skeleton was prepared “in a way the negroes afterwards told the deponent [Don Benito], but which he, so long as reason is left him, can never divulge” (PT 112). They also point to Babo’s mysterious decision to spare the life of the ship’s cook and to Melville’s identification of the Blacks as Ashantis (not so identified in Melville’s source), a tribe associated with cannibalism in contemporary accounts.

Baines contends that it is because of this terrible and unspeakable secret that Don Benito is a man who is always “eating of his own words, even as he ever seemed eating his own heart” (PT 81). With the threat of cannibalism, Babo broke Don Benito’s spirit. But it is possible cannibalism is not the only secret. Something else may be eating at Don Benito’s heart. Throughout the story, Babo is as close to Don Benito as Kory-Kory was to Tommo. Captain Delano thinks Babo is “less a servant than a devoted companion” and calls the shaving incident “a sort of love-quarrel” (PT 52, 88). After Don Benito has been saved, he cannot rid himself of the shadow of “the Negro,” nor can he abide the sight of him. When asked to identify his kidnaper in court, Don Benito faints.

Perhaps Don Benito succumbs to despair because he cannot himself understand, and could certainly never communicate to Captain Delano, that he became attached to Babo, that something in him responded to his imprisonment, something he could never have foreseen. In the 1970s, when terrorism had begun to focus international attention on kidnapers and hostages, psychologists were puzzled by something they called the “Stockholm syndrome,” a phenomenon named after a bank robbery in Sweden. Apparently, a hostage often becomes attached to his kidnaper. For his own safety, the hostage takes the kidnaper’s side, against the authorities. Although on the surface a paradox, the Stockholm syndrome makes sense as a mechanism of self-defense, because if the bond between kidnaper and hostage seems genuine to the kidnaper, he may be less likely to kill the hostage. Could Don Benito have found himself precipitated by circumstance into the acts that horrified Tommo — cannibal feast and homosexual love? The text no more than hints at both possibilities. The two are hidden together. They are secrets that make Don Benito’s reconciliation with civilization impossible. Don Benito now understands, as Delano cannot, the almost unimaginable complicity by which power compels its victims to follow their leader “in spirit, as now in body” (PT 107). Don Benito is compromised; he is mute; he will never again be a well man.

Homosexuality as love

On a blank page in the back of a Shakespeare volume he owned, Melville scribbled “Secret grief is a cannibal of its own heart — Bacon.” The note is terser than the original Bacon, which reads as follows: “The parable of Pythagoras is dark, but true, Cor ne edito: Eat not the heart. Certainly, if a man would give it a hard phrase, those that want friends to open themselves unto are cannibals of their own hearts.”46 Melville’s ellipsis is telling. What he omits is “wanting friends to open themselves to,” which collapses into “secret grief.” In Melville’s formulation, the particular grief is so secret that only its metaphoric vehicle, cannibalism, is visible.

This is a dark aphorism. D. H. Lawrence wrote of Melville, that “to the end he pined for this…a perfect friend.”47 Take this with Bacon’s aphorism, and Melville’s life was the slow eating-out of his own heart, self-mutilation, the gradual and quiet deadening of his soul.

Melville mixed the language of love between men with the language of cannibalism. In his early works, they are both fascinating horrors; he flirts with them and flees. In his late works, the mixing is deeply pessimistic: homosexual love has become cannibalism, a love that devours and destroys. But in Moby-Dick, there is a brief and happy quirk in the imagery. Instead of a homosexual love that is cannibalistic, there is a cannibal love that is homosexual: Queequeg.

When Ishmael first sees Queequeg, he has trouble figuring out who he is. First, he thinks Queequeg is an injured white man. Then, a white man tattooed by cannibals. Then, “the devil himself” (MD 22); then, a savage; then, an idolatrous heathen. It is not until the landlord comes in to adjudicate that Ishmael at last identifies Queequeg as a cannibal.

But once Ishmael sees Queequeg is a cannibal — and not a belligerent drunk, a renegade, or a Satanist — he is willing to sleep with him. Ishmael’s first identifications of Queequeg are fallen categories, words defined negatively, by how they fail to reach the standard of sober and pacific white Christian. Heathen and cannibal, however, are defined positively, by what the heathen and cannibal do. Furthermore, a cannibal is unfallen and uncompromised, a primitive, located before sin. Queequeg is his own man. He is not a man who fails to reach the standard of independent nineteenth-century American manhood, but a man by another standard, to wit, a cannibal standard. Ishmael thinks he has found a loophole; he is able to love Queequeg the way one cannibal loves another. The homophobic strictures of America do not apply, he imagines. “In a countryman, this sudden flame of friendship would have seemed far too premature, a thing to be much distrusted; but in this simple savage those old rules would not apply” (MD 51).

According to the conventions of his era, Ishmael’s love with Queequeg compromises his integrity, bodily and spiritual. Ishmael is aware of this. Waking up in Queequeg’s arms, he is reminded of a childhood episode when he imagined his hand was not his own. Later, after noting that “no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed,” Ishmael opens his eyes in bed with Queequeg, to “a disagreeable revulsion,” not explained (MD 54). But although these concerns about his identity and integrity unsettle Ishmael, they do not destroy his love for Queequeg. Queequeg’s hug, Ishmael says, is like the childhood episode of the alienated hand if you “take away the awful fear” (MD 26) he felt as a child and keep only the strangeness. And Ishmael’s “disagreeable revulsion” is quickly dissipated by a toke on Queequeg’s Tomahawk-pipe. Queequeg dispels the fear of having broken the rules, perhaps because he is outside them. The cannibal is exceptional.

In Melville’s fiction, the most open expression of love between men is tangled up with cannibalism. Love between men was a difficult thing to write about; the language of cannibalism defused some of the shame and offered the resource of a more speakable but parallel violation of the body. As a literary device, cannibalism was not only useful in fiction. When Melville tried to express his love for Hawthorne, he also borrowed the imagery of cannibalism. His letters to Hawthorne are full of confused metaphors of eating men.

For example, the letter of June 1, 1851, echoes Bacon’s aphorism, then embellishes it:

It is a frightful poetical creed that the cultivation of the brain eats out the heart. But it’s my prose opinion that in most cases, in those men who have fine brains and work them well, the heart extends down to hams. And though you smoke them with the fire of tribulation, yet, like veritable hams, the head[*] only gives the richer and the better flavor. I stand for the heart. To the dogs with the head! I had rather be a fool with a heart, than Jupiter Olympus with his head.48

Several things are happening here. First, Melville is jabbing at Hawthorne’s cerebrality. Moody and love-struck Melville must have been more than a little annoyed at Hawthorne’s coolness, and here he rails somewhat playfully against it. Second, the metaphor seems to have carried Melville away, taking him into the otherwise unmentionable “hams,” whose rich flavor, tribulation-broiled, he hopes will be tasted. Third, Melville has overheated, or some transcriber goofed, because the metaphor does not make sense as stands. Unless one reads “heart” for the “head” I marked with an asterisk[*] above, the metaphoric logic is hopelessly confused. Of course, the point, as in all love letters, is the passion, not the syntax.

But it is interesting that at his most passionate and confused, Melville turns to images of cannibalism, not to explicit images of male-male intimacy. In his most fervent letter to Hawthorne, of November 17, 1851, Melville writes that “Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon.” And further on:

Whence came 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. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling.49

Eating, drinking, cannibalism, and the disintegration of identity are all here. Hawthorne and Melville share a drink. Melville cannot distinguish between his own lips and Hawthorne’s — implying that they kiss, or that they share a body — in any case, the decent boundaries have been broken. And then Melville presents a new vision of two men united in cannibalism: not two men sharing a cannibal feast, not one man eating another, but both men being devoured at once as bits of the host in Holy Communion. They are at one with God and with each other, but also rent apart like Orpheus. The imagery is a strange mix of separation and union; of destruction, metamorphosis, and resurrection. Through the metaphor of cannibalism, Melville expresses his desperate love for Hawthorne, and ingeniously Melville’s metaphor captures at once the most physical and the most spiritual aspects of that love.

Hawthorne, unfortunately, did not return Melville’s love. He left Melville alone. Melville’s heart, head, and hams had only each other and memory to devour. In Melville’s novels, there is a line of characters who, in secret grief, devour themselves. Jackson “was being consumed by an incurable malady, that was eating up his vitals” (R 58). Ahab’s fixed purpose is “a vulture [that] feeds upon that heart for ever” (MD 202). Claggart’s obsession with Billy “like a subterranean fire was eating its way deeper and deeper in him.”50 One imagines Melville, rejected and bitter, fighting against becoming himself another character in this line. He pretends to Hawthorne that the grief will not eat out his heart, but push it further down, to the hams. He writes reminiscent poems of old sailor chums, turning to nostalgia, because although it may be intellectually weaker, at least it is not bitter. But his greatest defense against consuming himself in madness and despair is his imagination. Melville continued to write, even if only for himself. He continued to try to understand.

To conclude, I feel I ought to explain, as Mary Shelley put it in her introduction to Frankenstein, how I “came to think of and to dilate upon so very hideous an idea.”

In July 1991, when I returned to America from a year abroad, the newspapers were full of Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Dahmer had killed, dismembered, cooked, and allegedly eaten more than a dozen people. Dahmer’s crimes were fascinatingly horrible. Seen through the lens of culture shock, they seemed to embody evil in its most pure and unknowable form. After about a week or so of coverage, it became clear — either directly or indirectly, depending on the scruples of the newspaper you were reading — that all Dahmer’s victims had been men, in fact, gay men. Then reporters began to doubt the evidence he had actually eaten the people he had dismembered (Dahmer later testified he had). These shifts in the story made it no less bizarre, but they raised some questions. Why didn’t it emerge sooner that Dahmer killed gay men? Why was the confusion of cannibalism and homosexuality so compelling? Dahmer horrified me, but I could not explain him, so instead I transferred my attention to the media’s representation of him.

My questions about the reporting on Dahmer, in turn, threw new light on Melville’s representation of male-male relationships. In nearly every one of Melville’s novels, cannibalism and homosexuality seemed to be tangled up with each other. New questions came to mind: Why do homosexuality and cannibalism seem parallel to the American mind? How does this parallelism affect the understanding of each category, individually? A contemporary American film, The Silence of the Lambs, confirmed my suspicion that, elsewhere in the American Gothic tradition, these two “horrors” could be representations of each other. In The Silence of the Lambs, the homosexual serial killer, Buffalo Bill, almost never speaks. The viewer, through the detective, only uncovers him by passing first through the mind of Hannibal Lecter, the cannibal. At one point in the distant past, we are told, Hannibal Lecter was even Buffalo Bill’s “analyst.” But Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter are not neatly divided. Buffalo Bill has the cannibal’s tattoos and pierced body parts, and Hannibal Lecter has the homosexual’s refined taste. When Buffalo Bill is caught, Hannibal Lecter escapes. They are two sides of the same coin.

Our society continues to read the homosexual through the cannibal. I don’t think there is anything “natural,” “real,” or “true” about the connection, but in the interest of greater understanding, I have tried to suggest why the connection was cogent to Melville and his readers.


I would like to thank Professors Andrew Delbanco and Ann Douglas for their comments and support. This essay is dedicated to Chris Duffy and Bruno Navasky.

1 J.-B. Henry Savigny and Alexander Corréard, Narrative of a Voyage to Senegal in 1816 Undertaken By Order of the French Government, Comprising an Account of the Shipwreck of the Medusa, the Sufferings of the Crew and the Various Occurrences on Board the Raft…. (London, 1811; rpt., Marlboro, Vermont: The Marlboro Press, 1986), 52-53.

2 Geneviève Bresc-Bautier, ed., Louvre: Guide des collections (Paris: Editions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, 1989), 376-77.

3 David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, and other essays on Greek love (New York: Routledge, 1990), 15.

4 See “A Note on the Use of the Term ‘Homosexual'” in Robert Martin, Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 12-16.

5 Robert K. Martin, “Knights-Errant and Gothic Seducers: The Representation of Male Friendship in Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (New York: Meridian, 1990), 171.

6 Jay Leyda, The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891 (New York: Gordian Press, 1969), 230, 272. J. Bayard Taylor, Views Afoot; or, Europe Seen with Knapsack and Staff (New York: Wiley & Putnam, 1847).

7 A. W. Brian Simpson, Cannibalism and the Common Law: The Story of the Tragic Last Voyage of the Mignonette and the Strange Legal Proceedings to Which It Gave Rise (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 114-139.

8 “Melville’s Memoranda in Chase’s Narrative of the Essex.” Quotations from editions of Herman Melville’s novels are cited in the text using the following abbreviations:

MD: Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, ed., Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1988)

PT: The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839-1860, ed., Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1987)

R: Redburn, His First Voyage; Being the Sailor-Boy Confessions and Reminiscences of the Son-of-a-Gentleman, in the Merchant Service, ed., Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1969)

T: Typee, A Peep at Polynesian Life, ed., Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1968)

WJ: White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War, ed., Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1970)

9 Cheri Wolfe, Lt. Charles Wilkes and the Great U.S. Exploring Expedition (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1991), 99-100.

10 Simpson, 111.

11 Edwin Bryant, What I Saw in California (Philadelphia: D. Appleton and Co., 1848). The classic account of the Donner Party’s demise is C. F. McGlashan, History of the Donner Party: A Tragedy of the Sierra (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft, 1880; rpt., Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1947). For the latest archaeological evidence, see Bruce R. Hawkins and David B. Madsen, Excavation of the Donner-Reed Wagons: Historic Archaeology Along the Hastings Cutoff (Salt Lake City: University of Utah, 1990).

12 Edgar Allan Poe, The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 819.

13 Jonathan Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: A Documentary (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1976), 26.

14 Charles R. Anderson, Melville in the South Seas (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939), 15-21.

15 David Porter, Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean by Captain David Porter in the United States Frigate Essex in the Years 1812, 1813, and 1814 (New York: Wiley and Halsted, 1822; rpt., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: The Gregg Press, 1970), II: 11, 59.

16 William Ellis, Polynesian Researches during a Residence of Nearly Eight Years in the Society and Sandwich Islands (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), III: 314.

17 Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World during the Years 1803, 1804, 1805, 1806, and 1807 (Carlisle: George Philips, 1817), 104, 107.

18 C. S. Stewart, A Visit to the South Seas in the U. S. Ship Vincennes, During the Years 1829 and 1830; with Scenes in Brazil, Peru, Manilla, the Cape of Good Hope, and St. Helena (New York: John P. Haven, 1831), I: 228, 259.

19 Ellis, I: 97-98. Romans 1:26-27 reads as follows: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

20 M. Russell, Polynesia: or, an Historical Account of the Principal Islands in the South Sea, including New Zealand; the Introduction of Christianity; and the Actual Condition of the Inhabitants in Regard to Civilisation, Commerce, and the Arts of Social Life (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1845), 187. Stewart, I: 262.

21 Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast: A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea (New York: Penguin, 1981), 207.

22 Anderson, 142. According to a later anthropologist, Robert Suggs, this was a misinterpretation of a system of sexual partnership subsidiary to marriage, and was not polyandry proper. See Robert C. Suggs, Marquesan Sexual Behavior (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1966).

23 Porter, II: 68.

24 Suggs, 45-55, 83-84, 103, 121.

25 Ellis, I: 358 and III: 313.

26 Langsdorff, 131, 135.

27 Porter, II: 45.

28 James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), 125.

29 Martin, Hero, Captain, and Stranger, 51.

30 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985, 89.

31 Martin, Hero, Captain, and Stranger, 46.

32 Langsdorff, 132, 130, 134.

33 McGlashan, 86. Captain George Pollard of the Essex, however, seems to have eaten his nephew Owen Coffin with no more than the usual squeamishness (Simpson, 126).

34 D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 143.

35 Eve Sedgwick noticed this etymology in her essay on Billy Budd in Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 127-8.

36 Lawrence, 165.

37 Paul Witherington was the first to note this pun, in “The Art of Melville’s Typee,Arizona Quarterly 26 (Summer 1970): 136-50. While revising this essay for publication, I discovered that David Bergman has also written on this provocative ambiguity in “Cannibals and Queers: Man-Eating,” the eighth chapter of his Gaiety Transfigured: Gay Self-Representation in American Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991).

38 Melanie Klein, “A Contribution to the Psychogenesis of Manic-Depressive States,” The Selected Melanie Klein, Julie Mitchell, ed. (New York: Free Press, 1987), 116.

39 Langsdorff, 135.

40 Eli Sagan, Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1974). Peggy Reeves Sanday has elaborated on Sagan’s structuralist thesis in her Divine Hunger: Cannibalism as a Cultural System (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986). Two books link cannibalism and homosexuality directly — Weston La Barre’s Muelos: A Stone Age Superstition About Sexuality (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984) and Rictor Norton’s The Homosexual Literary Tradition: An Interpretation (New York: Revisionist Press, 1974) — but in the tradition of Freud’s Totem and Taboo they are more provocative than convincing. W. R. Arens’ The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) has offered a serious challenge to all would-be cannibal theorists by raising profound doubts about the evidence for cultural cannibalism’s existence.

41 Sagan, 9.

42 To be fair, he may not have intended this joke.

43 Simpson, 145.

44 Herman Melville, Billy Budd and Other Tales (New York: New American Library, 1961), 39.

45 John Harmon McElroy, “Cannibalism in Melville’s ‘Benito Cereno,'” Essays in Literature 1 (1974): 206-218. Barbara J. Baines, “Ritualized Cannibalism in ‘Benito Cereno’: Melville’s ‘Black-Letter’ Texts,” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 30 (1984): 163-169.

46 “Melville’s Notes (1849-1851) in a Shakespeare Volume,” MD 969, 964.

47 Lawrence, 151.

48 The Letters of Herman Melville (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 129.

49 Letters, 142.

50 Melville, Billy Budd, 50.