In my essay “Melville’s Secrets,” I offer an interpretation of a famous passage in Moby-Dick about sperm-squeezing, which concludes with a vision of “long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.” Melville scholar Scott Norsworthy has made a couple of discoveries that he generously describes as a “footnote” to my essay: It transpires that there’s another angel with a jar in Melville’s late prose-poem combination “Under the Rose,” and that, what’s more, both jar-carrying angels may be allusions to a Christianized star-map first published in 1660 by Andreas Cellarius. Norsworthy further wonders whether the row of asterisks that follow the sperm-squeezing passage are meant to suggest a constellation.
My essay “Melville’s Secrets” has been published in volume 14, number 3, of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. If you’re a member of the Melville Society, your copy should be reaching your mailbox shortly. If your library subscribes to Leviathan, you can read my article at the publisher’s website. If your library doesn’t subscribe, please get in touch using the form at the bottom of my “About” page, and I’ll send you a digital offprint. Per the copyright agreement, I’m allowed to send the offprint to anyone, but I’m not allowed to post it on a public website—so you have to ask! The essay began life as a talk I gave at SUNY Geneseo on 23 September 2010, for the annual Walter Harding Lecture. I am allowed to post on this website the pre-peer-reviewed version of the article, and eventually I will, but really I’d rather have you read the original version, so please feel free to ask for it!
This morning you can find me online reading “The Counterpane,” chapter 4 of Moby-Dick. Ishmael wakes up in Queequeg’s arms, is startled to find his bedmate’s hard tomahawk between them, and is reminded of the time his step-mother caught him trying to go up the chimney.
The reading is part of the Moby-Dick Big Read, which invites 135 different readers—including Tilda Swinton, prime minister David Cameron, Chad Harbach, and Andrew Delbanco—to tackle a chapter of Herman Melville’s novel. The project is being organized by the writer Philip Hoare and the artist Angela Cockayne. Hoare is the author of The Whale, which recounts his lifelong, Melville-induced pursuit of the leviathan, and Cockayne, too, takes much inspiration from Melville’s novel (the photo above is of her work Sleeping Sperm Whales).
I feel very honored to take part. The Guardian notes that other readers include Benedict Cumberbarch, Will Self, and David Attenborough; the New York Times reports that John Waters and Stephen Fry are involved; and the Provincetown Wicked Local adds the names Fiona Shaw, Cerys Matthews, and Nathaniel Philbrick.
My essay “Melville’s Secrets” will be published in the September issue of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. A subscription to the journal is sent to all members of the Melville Society, so join now (you can use Paypal and do it all online), if you’d like a copy. The essay is a mild revision of the Walter Harding lecture that I gave at SUNY Geneseo in September 2010.
Yesterday afternoon I gave the 2010 Walter Harding lecture at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture series is named after Walter Harding, who taught for decades in Geneseo and was the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Henry David Thoreau, and I felt it was a tremendous honor to have been asked. I talked about Melville’s secrets—in particular, about a distorted Platonic myth that I suspect may be present in Moby-Dick. “Ishmael,” I claimed, “might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.”
SUNY Geneseo has already uploaded a video of my talk (perhaps also embedded below, if I’ve coaxed the html sufficiently); a downloadable audio is forthcoming. I’m not going to post a transcript, because I’m hoping to revise the talk into a scholarly paper in the not-too-distant future. To that end, if any of you who heard the talk yesterday or who listen to it online have suggestions, corrections, or comments, please get in touch.
I had a great time at SUNY Geneseo. Many thanks to Marjorie Harding, for the gift that made the lecture series possible; it was an honor to meet the Harding family. I’m very grateful to Geneseo’s English department for their hospitality and great questions. I’m especially grateful to department chair Paul Schacht for his support and guidance, to associate professor Alice Rutkowski for a very kind introduction, and to the college president and English professor Christopher Dahl and his wife Ruth Rowse for a lovely dinner.
Once spermaceti, the oil inside the head of a sperm whale, is extracted, it begins to congeal, and in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” the 94th chapter of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville claims that sailors used to be put to work rehomogenizing the oil by hand:
When the proper time arrived, this same sperm was carefully manipulated ere going to the try-works, of which anon.
It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty!
Melville goes on to describe an ecstatic experience that overcame his narrator while engaged in sperm squeezing; that ecstasy has attracted much commentary and speculation about its possible sexual and psychological significance. The meanings that Melville invests in the task are clearly a contribution of his own. Much of the whaling practice described in the novel, though, is non-fiction. Was sperm-squeezing?
When I reviewed Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan for the New Yorker in 2007, I concluded that it wasn’t, but the case is a tricky one, so here’s a presentation of the evidence.
Dolin himself was agnostic, and merely quoted Melville’s description of “the experience of squeezing the lumps out of congealed spermaceti” (Dolin, p. 267). A number of nineteenth-century whaling narratives do confirm that spermaceti looks, feels, and behaves as Melville describes, though prior to the publication of Moby-Dick, none that I know of describes hands-on delumping.
In Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (1841), for example, Francis Allyn Olmsted writes:
The case [the head of the whale] is surrounded by a thick wall of a white, gristly substance, termed by the whalers “white horse;” the cavity is lined with a yellowish fat, and is filled with oil of a very superior quality, which, when warm, is perfectly limpid, but concretes in beautiful white masses, if allowed to become cold, or as it drips upon the water. (p. 65)
Olmsted goes on to say that “The head oil and fat are immediately committed to the try-pots”—cauldrons where the fat is purified by high heat. He makes no mention of physical manipulation.
According to William Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), head oil wasn’t passed through try-pots before it was stored: “The head-matter congeals when it is cold; it is put into casks in its crude state, and refined on shore at the conclusion of the voyage” (vol. 2, pp. 534-35). In Whaling and Fishing, published in 1856, Charles Nordhoff also describes storing case oil immediately, without boiling it first in try-pots:
Meantime the case was opened; a man being placed in the large opening, the pure and beautifully white spermacetti was bailed out with a bucket constructed for that purpose. It is quite fluid when first taken out, but quickly congeals on exposure to air. It is at once placed in new casks, which are duly marked “case.” (p. 127)
Since I haven’t found any accounts before Melville that refer to sperm squeezing and since the episode in the novel is overlaid with such personal psychological significance, it seems possible that Melville invented the practice, which doesn’t on the face of it make much sense. If sperm oil congeals as it cools, then presumably it melts again when heated, so the try-works would render squeezing unnecessary. On the other hand, if the spermaceti is to be stored in barrels without heat purification, squeezing would be in vain, because the lumps would inevitably form again while the oil waited inside the barrels; whalers often spent years at sea. Melville does sometimes invent. In the very next chapter, “The Cassock,” he writes that before the tougher blubber of the whale is sliced up for the try-pots, the slicer dresses himself in the skin of the whale’s penis. As Howard P. Vincent observed in In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, “the whaling sources give no indication, physiological or otherwise, of the facts of Melville’s chapter” and so “one must assume that it came from memory or from an imagination profoundly Rabelaisian.” Probably the latter.
But there’s at least one piece of evidence vindicating Melville. In Nimrod of the Sea (1874), in a passage that I was first directed to by Wilson Heflin’s Herman Melville’s Whaling Years, William M. Davis does describe sperm squeezing:
On being withdrawn [from the head of whale], the bucket is filled with transparent spermaceti, mixed with the soft, silky integuments, and possessing the odor of the new-drawn milk of our home dairies. With our hands blistered yesterday by the oar, and all on fire to-day by the harsh friction of the handspike, it was luxurious to wade deep in the try-pots filled with this odorous unguent, in order to squeeze and strain out the fibres, which, if allowed to remain, would char with the heat, and darken the oil. No king of earth, even Solomon in all his glory, could command such a bath. I almost fell in love with the touch of my own poor legs, as I stroked the precious ointment from the skin.
One reason to hesitate in accepting this evidence is the date. Since Nimrod began writing his book in 1872, there’s a possibility of contamination—in other words, there’s a possibility that he read Melville’s novel and later remembered Melville’s account as an experience of his own. (For a contemporary example, consider Tony Blair, whose account of meeting with the queen incorporates dialogue from Stephen Frears’s movie The Queen, which Blair claims not to have seen.) It argues against contamination that Davis’s account differs somewhat from Melville’s. The purpose of squeezing, Davis writes in the passage above, wasn’t to redissolve lumps but to remove fibers that would darken the oil—a more plausible explanation than Melville’s, though it suggests that if the task was real, Melville failed to understand the point of it and probably didn’t do a very good job. Davis’s reference to Solomon’s bath reminds me of Melville’s reference to Constantine’s, though—hinting at contamination. Maybe Davis did unconsciously turn Melville’s fictional description into a memory of his own and just as unconsciously revised it, to make it more rational. Also worrisome: Try-pots had to reach a very high temperature, and they stayed at that temperature for days while a whale was being processed, so I’m a little skeptical of Davis’s account of wading into the try-pots, which implies significant delay in heating them. Also, even a small amount of moisture in the try-pots was dangerous, because it caused the oil to sputter. Olmsted says the whalers went to great lengths to keep moisture out, making it unlikely that sailors, who perspire, would have been asked to wade into the fluid.
Despite my reservations, I’m inclined for the interim to accept Davis’s testimony and believe that sperm-squeezing was an activity that real whalers engaged in, as well as fictional ones. But I wish there were more evidence on either side. A plea for crowd-sourcing: If anyone knows of another reference to sperm squeezing—especially one published before 1851—I’d love to hear about it.
I am currently reading Melville's Moby Dick. Although I enjoy the book, I fail to understand fully the meaning of the chapter devoted to whaling, such as the one about cetology or the one about whalemen eating whale meat. There are enough comments about religion or cannibals to make me think that these chapter should be taken with a pinch of salt. I do not however understand to which degree exactly they should be taken and what their precise aim is. I would welcome any pointers or explanations. I may add that my only clue about American literature is Leo Marx's The Machine in the Garden, which I read eagerly (my English professor of my undergrad years praised that book).
I thought I'd try to answer publicly, not because I have the answer, but because by coincidence I've been thinking about this very question, among others, for a lecture that I've been invited to give at SUNY Geneseo's English department in honor of the Thoreau scholar Walter Harding. (The lecture is scheduled to take place at 4pm on September 23 on the SUNY Geneseo campus.)
What I hope to talk about at Geneseo is the problem of esoteric knowledge in Melville's work—that is, the sense that the reader has that Melville's work has a secret meaning, and that among the pleasures and duties of reading him is the pursuit of his secret. It isn't at all obvious that a work of art should have a secret meaning, and I think most successful works of art don't. It's hard enough to communicate when one is taking care to be honest and forthcoming. Jane Austen's novels don't seem to have secrets; not even a book as heavy with symbolism as the Great Gatsby does. Infinite Jest, on the other hand, seems to me to be hiding something—to be begging for exegesis—especially toward the end, when it turns compressed and the allusions to Hamlet start to accumulate. Books that provoke in the reader a sense of secret knowledge almost never, of course, make a claim to such knowledge explicitly, so deciding which books fall into the category is tricky and somewhat subjective.
There are more books in the world than anyone has time to read. Why should a reader think it worth his while to ferret out the meaning of a writer who is withholding it? Moreover, why should a reader believe that a withheld meaning is true? When people believe that someone has access to secret truths, it's generally because they think of the person as a prophet, a guru, or even an incarnated god. Why should a novelist have such access? Or to put the question another way: How does a novelist go about convincing readers that he has such access?
This is all a little far afield from Mathieu P.'s particular question, the short answer to which is that there is no consensus about what whaling signifies in Moby-Dick. Two books that suggest answers are Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael and C. L. R. James's Mariners, Renegades & Castaways, both of which lay more emphasis on political and economic meanings than is common in academic analyses. I hope in my lecture that I will be able to articulate some of my own hunches about the secrets in Moby-Dick, which always sound half-mad even to myself when I try to put them into words. My method will be to compare them to the half-submerged ideas that appear in Mardi and Clarel, two works of Melville's that are less successful but also try to lure the reader into the pursuit of hidden meanings. A whale is an intelligent mammal that doesn't kill, doesn't have to work, and needn't have second thoughts about its sexual nature. Though apparently simple, when that definition works its way through Melville's strangely intertwined ideas about gender, incarnation, sexuality, immortality, and capitalism, the reader ends up in a strange place. I read Byron's Cain this week, and it occurred to me that Melville's whales share a great deal with the beings that existed in the world before Adam, shown to Cain by Lucifer during a visit to Hades:
Cain. What are these mighty phantoms which I see
Floating around me?—They wear not the form
Of the Intelligences I have seen
Round our regretted and unentered Eden;
Nor wear the form of man as I have viewed it
In Adam's and in Abel's, and in mine,
Nor in my sister-bride's, nor in my children's:
And yet they have an aspect, which, though not
Of men nor angels, looks like something, which,
If not the last, rose higher than the first,
Haughty, and high, and beautiful, and full
Of seeming strength, but of inexplicable
Shape; for I never saw such. They bear not
The wing of Seraph, nor the face of man,
Nor form of mightiest brute, nor aught that is
Now breathing; mighty yet and beautiful
As the most beautiful and mighty which
Live, and yet so unlike them, that I scarce
Can call them living.
In Byron's play, the pre-Adamites are not the same as whales, which do however make an appearance a few pages later, when Lucifer, on the same tour of Hades, shows Cain an ocean, a thing Cain has never seen before:
Cain. 'Tis like another world; a liquid sun—
And those inordinate creatures sporting o'er
Its shining surface?
Lucifer. Are its inhabitants,
The past Leviathans.
So like everybody else, I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last week, and like everybody else I loved it. I think I’m going to be limiting my dose of Franzen criticism in the near future, having already made my decision whether to read the book and all, but I did read Sam Anderson’s take on the novel in New York magazine this week. Anderson claims (pretends?) that he would have found Franzen’s crankiness about the environmental and cultural degradation of America tiresome if Franzen weren’t a genius in his creation of plot and character.
This, I confess, was not quite the problem that I had to overcome, but mine was related. My problem, rather, was the irony with which Franzen handles that crankiness. Perhaps to shield the reader from direct contact with his anger, Franzen places it largely in the mind and voice of Walter Berglund, Midwestern do-gooder, who is falling apart. I found myself reading dour judgments about the ecologial and cultural degradation of America that to me sounded justifiable and even spot-on but which were being framed within the novel as symptoms of nervous breakdown and by-products of romantic frustration. Here’s Walter Berglund explaining his distress to an old friend:
I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t stand what was happening to the country. . . . It was like having acid thrown in my face every time I passed the city limits. Not just the industrial farming but the sprawl, the sprawl, the sprawl. Low-density development is the worst. And SUVs everywhere, snowmobiles everywhere, Jet Skis everywhere, ATVs everywhere, two-acre lawns everywhere. The goddamned green monospecific chemical-drenched lawns. . . . This was what was keeping me awake at night. . . This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the internet, or cable TV—there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion little bits of distracting noise. We can never sit down and have any kind of sustained conversation, it’s all just cheap trash and shitty development.
To which every molecule in my being wanted to say, Amen, self-incriminatingly, but plot twists conspired to remind me that Walter’s thinking had drifted a little south of healthy.
Since I happened to read Freedom in between cantos of Clarel, Herman Melville’s 500-page epic poem about a tour to the Holy Land, I happened to notice that Melville, like Franzen, also took the precaution of voicing his angriest rants through fictional characters recognized by others inside his literary work as not altogether sane. Here’s Ungar, a Civil War veteran, taking a dim view of the English-speaking peoples’ loud religiosity and triumphalist crowing about free trade:
The Anglo-Saxons—lacking grace
To win the love of any race;
Hated by myriads dispossessed
Of rights—the Indians East and West.
These pirates of the sphere! grave looters—
Grave, canting, Mammonite freebooters,
Who in the name of Christ and Trade
(Oh, bucklered forehead of the brass!)
Deflower the world’s last sylvan glade!
My marginal note: “Franzenesque!”
Some time in the last few decades of his life, Herman Melville wrote a short poem, “Monody,” in which a speaker mourns a man whom he loved but became estranged from. In 1929, the critic Lewis Mumford claimed that the poem was an elegy for Hawthorne, who died in 1864. In 1960, the scholar Walter Bezanson strengthened the case by noting that the character Vine in Melville’s epic poem Clarel resembles Hawthorne in many ways, and that the vine-and-grape imagery that surrounds Vine echoes, or is echoed by, an image of a vine and grape in the closing lines of “Monody.” The identification became an established piece of lore among Melville scholars until 1990, when the editor and scholar Harrison Hayford cast doubt on it in “Melville’s ‘Monody’: Really for Hawthorne?” a pamphlet distributed as a keepsake along with the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel, which Hayford co-edited.
I don’t remember when exactly I first read Hayford’s pamphlet, but it was over a decade ago, and I remember that I read it quickly and that it made me angry. Quickly, because although the last chapter of my book American Sympathy, which I must then have been either writing or revising, was concerned with Melville and homosexual eros, it wasn’t much concerned with Melville’s biography. I was hardly averse to his biography—I had drawn on details of Melville’s life in an earlier essay—but one of the ideas I had about American Sympathy was that the book would progress from biography to literature: the first chapter would discuss a set of diaries and letters, and the last would be an interpretation of Billy Budd conducted on a plane of empyrean detachment from the dross of history. It didn’t turn out that neatly, of course, but officially I wasn’t in the market for learning new facts about Melville’s life, so I read quickly. I became angry, because, despite the haste of my reading, it seemed to me that the aim of Hayford’s pamphlet was to bury a piece of the evidence for Melville’s sexuality as manifested in his writing.
Another reason I read quickly was that I wasn’t then in any position fully to evaluate Hayford’s claim, because I couldn’t evaluate Bezanson’s, because I hadn’t yet read Clarel. I shamefacedly report that it is only now, in August of 2010, that I am at last filling this lacuna in my formation as a Melvillean. (More on Clarel another day, perhaps; I seem to have filled a small notebook with notes already, and I’m only two-thirds through the 500-page poem.) In the back of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel is a version of Hayford’s essay about “Monody,” which abridges Hayford’s argument about the Hawthorne identification but gives a more detailed description of Melville’s manuscript of “Monody,” which survives in Harvard’s Houghton Library. Calmer than I was a decade ago, and also a veteran of journalism, I was impressed, in reading the Clarel version of Hayford’s essay, by his careful use of the available facts—such caution is not always exercised by literary critics. For about ten dollars I bought a copy of his pamphlet from an online bookseller and re-read it last week. I now see that it’s a useful essay, which distinguishes what’s known from what has been speculated, but I don’t think I was entirely wrong in my more emotional reaction a decade ago, because there is something slightly disingenuous about it rhetorically, and it may be worth while to try to spell out why.
“Monody” runs as follows:
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-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.
Hayford points out that no evidence proves that Hawthorne is the object of this poem’s lament, though the mistakes of scholars have sometimes given the impression that such evidence exists. Hayford is assiduous about clearing this scholarly underbrush away. In speculating about the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville, for example, Mumford claimed that Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand” depicted Melville, and that Melville was upset by the portrait. In fact, Hayford points out, “Ethan Brand” was published before Melville and Hawthorne ever met.
That’s an obvious blunder, but not all Hayford’s corrections are of errors so black-and-white. Melville and Hawthorne became famously close in 1850 and 1851, while they were not-quite-neighbors in western Massachusetts and while Melville was finishing Moby-Dick. In the fall of 1851, however, Hawthorne abruptly left. Biographer Brenda Wineapple has suggested that Hawthorne wanted to be closer to Boston, to position himself strategically for his friend Franklin Pierce’s 1852 presidential campaign, but some biographers of Melville have speculated that Melville came on too strong, emotionally or perhaps even sexually, and frightened Hawthorne off. If so, then the phrase “estranged in life” in line 3 of “Monody” might point to Hawthorne. Hayford, however, insists quite rightly that Hawthorne and Melville exchanged uniformly warm letters in this period, that Hawthorne’s references to Melville in his letters and journals throughout his life were nothing but kind, and that when Melville visited the Hawthornes in Liverpool in 1856, Hawthorne wrote that “we soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence.” There isn’t “the slightest documentary confirmation,” Hayford writes, of what he calls “the rupture hypothesis.”
To which anyone who’s been around the block might answer: Well, yes and no. When you realize that someone isn’t going to reciprocate your love, you don’t necessarily stop talking to each other. As Robert Milder wrote in “Editing Melville’s Afterlife,” a 1996 review of Hayford’s pamphlet for the journal Text, “‘estrangement’ might . . . imply a slow but perceptible emotional distancing.” In 1852, Melville’s letters to Hawthorne do grow cooler. It’s dangerous to read literature back into biography, but there’s an awful lot of literary evidence pointing to something biographical happening between the two men. In Melville’s Clarel, the hero yearns for Vine, widely thought to represent Hawthorne, imploring him, “Give me thyself!” In Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, the narrator rejects the overtures of the burly Hollingsworth, who is often said to represent Melville. And Hawthorne’s 1856 reference to “our former terms of sociability and confidence” is ambiguous: Hawthorne was saying that the 1856 visit went well, but he was also acknowledging that he and Melville were no longer as close as they had been.
When the scholar Jay Leyda printed “Monody” in The Melville Log (1951), a two-volume compilation of documentary sources about Melville, he was so persuaded by the Hawthorne identification that he placed the first stanza of “Monody” below the May 19, 1864 entry for Hawthorne’s death. In Melville’s manuscript, the two stanzas appear on separate pieces of paper, with different inks and different paper, and Leyda thought the second stanza must have been composed later. Hayford, ever a stickler, writes that Leyda was wrong on both counts. Indeed, nothing but speculation linked the dates of the composition of “Monody” and Hawthorne’s death, though Leyda’s reputation for impartiality and documentary style was to convince many scholars otherwise. The different inks and papers of the manuscript proved only that the two stanzas were inscribed at different times, not that they were composed at different times. In fact, Hayford continued, if the stanzas were composed at the same time, as he suspected, then “Monody” couldn’t be about Hawthorne at all, because there couldn’t have been any snow on Hawthorne’s grave in May.
“Hayford’s reasoning is faultless,” Milder wrote in his review,
but it works on the premise that an elegy should have the factual scrupulousness of a newspaper report. . . . No writer who began his career by expanding four weeks of benign captivity among a Marquesan tribe into four months would scruple about introducing snow and ice into an elegy for someone who happened to die in May.
Moreover, there is in fact some reason to believe on the basis of the manuscript that the second stanza was composed later than the first. For one thing, the two stanzas differ markedly in literary style. The first is colloquial, with a phrasing that’s natural and easy; it’s written almost the way someone might talk. The second, however, reverses natural word order. In English, you wouldn’t ordinarily say, “By wintry hills his hermit-mound the sheeted snow-drifts drape.” You would say, “The sheeted snow-drifts drape his hermit-mound by wintry hills.” The contorted syntax and the compression of detail and imagery in the second stanza sound to me like the result of a much more effortful mood.
For another thing, the manuscript contains a telling set of erased alterations to the first stanza, and to the first stanza only. (I’m relying here on Robert C. Ryan’s genetic transcription of the “Monody” manuscript, printed with Hayford’s essay in Clarel). Next to both instances of the word “him” in the first line, Melville pencilled the word “her,” which he then in both instances erased. In Hayford’s words: “Melville considered changing his pronoun references to the mourned person from masculine to feminine.” Hayford concludes from this that the person mourned might therefore have been either a man or a woman, and if we lived in a world with perfect symmetry in that department, Hayford might be right. But we don’t live in such a world, but rather in one in which even Whitman, when printing his poem “Once I Pass’d through a Populous City,” changed
I remember, I say, only one rude and ignorant man, who, when I departed, long and long held me by the hand
I remember I say only that woman who passionately clung to me
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Melville’s lost beloved was a woman. The most likely reason for Melville to change the gender of the pronoun, in that case, would be to hide his love for this woman from his wife. But Melville gave this very manuscript to his wife, to make a clean copy of—her copy of it is printed on the page after his, in the Northwestern-Newberry Clarel—and if the partly erased pencil “her’s” were visible to Hayford and Ryan in 1991, they would surely have been visible to Elizabeth Shaw Melville in the nineteenth century. Another problem: I’ve never heard any biographical hint of Melville having had an affair while married. Yet another: If the woman in question were a lover of Melville’s, it would hardly be true that neither party was “in the wrong,” as the poem has it. Melville would have been a cheating husband, and cheating husbands are proverbially in the wrong. It seems nearly impossible to me that the alterations were an attempt to restore a woman hidden behind Melville’s “his’s.” It seems far more likely that Melville had qualms and briefly considered disguising a romantic poem about a man who had died.
There is, however, no attempted alteration to the word “his” in the first line of the second stanza. That suggests to me that Melville composed the second stanza after his bout of wondering whether to censor the gender of his beloved. If the second stanza was indeed composed later, there’s really no need for its winter imagery to correspond to the May of Hawthorne’s death—though as Milder observes, there’s really no such need in any case.
Hayford never claims that there’s any reason to think that “Monody” isn’t about Hawthorne, and I agree that there’s no final proof that it is. But even if “Monody” isn’t about Hawthorne, the gender of the person mourned reveals that Melville had been deeply moved and upset by the unhappy outcome of his love for another man. Therein, I think, lies Hayford’s rhetorical sleight of hand. Hayford writes as if he believed that if it may be doubted that Melville wrote “Monody” for Hawthorne, then it may also be doubted that Melville grieved because he never got to live out in full his love for another man. But Melville did write “Monody,” and it doesn’t sound to me like the sort of poem written out of feelings that were purely imaginary.
If not Hawthorne, who? It has been suggested, for example by Corey Evan Thompson in a 2006 article for ANQ, that the true subject of “Monody” is Melville’s teenage son Malcolm, who committed suicide in his bedroom in the Melvilles’ New York home on September 11, 1867. This seems far-fetched. Rather clumsily, Thompson argues that Melville couldn’t have longed for Hawthorne to be his close male adult friend because Melville had for a companion Richard Tobias Greene, the man fictionalized as “Toby” in Melville’s first novel Typee. After all, Greene named one of his sons after Melville, Thompson writes. This is true, but even in Typee, Toby isn’t a terribly romantic figure; in the matter of charisma, the cannibals leave him well in the shade. And once returned to America, Greene always lived elsewhere—upstate New York, Ohio, Chicago—and so could hardly have assuaged whatever longings Melville may have had.
More to the point, however, the poem just doesn’t sound like an elegy for a son. The lines “To have known him, to have loved him / After loneness long” are too erotic for a parent to address them to a child, even a dead child. I for one would be much more creeped out by a Melville who wrote such a poem about his son than by a Melville who wrote it about a male friend. If Melville had his son in mind when writing the poem, it’s inexplicable that he considered altering the gender of the poem’s subject—what need for disguise would there be? Melville was said by one of his cousins to have been a strict parent, and he may even have been an abusive one, traits that seem belied by the poem’s claim that “neither [were] in the wrong.” Even if Melville were unconscious of his severity, though, the characterization of the estrangement as equitable seems inconsistent with a parent-child relationship, even one that has gone awry. Nor does the person described resemble what is known about Malcolm. Everyone who knew Hawthorne described him as shy, but according to Hershel Parker, Malcolm’s uncle John Hoadley wrote about the boy’s “playful fondness of children” and his “fondness for social frolicking with his young friends, and acquaintances that he made down town.” Not long before his death, Malcolm joined a volunteer regiment and a baseball team; he hardly seems to have been “the shyest grape.”
In Clarel, however, Vine is addressed with exactly such imagery:
“Ambushed in leaves we spy your grape,”
Cried Derwent [to Vine]; “black but juicy one…”
Vine first appears in the poem at a tomb sculpted with grapes, among other fruit, and is said to have blood like “swart Vesuvian wine” that’s been somehow cooled, as if the imagery of a vine on a grave were with Melville from his first conception of the character.
At the end of his pamphlet, Hayford pronounces over the Hawthorne/”Monody” hypothesis “the Scottish verdict ‘Not Proven.’” True enough, as a matter of biography and history, but the case for Malcolm as the poem’s subject should be thrown out of court. My own verdict is that if the poem’s subject wasn’t Hawthorne, it was a man so like him and so closely linked to him in Melville’s imagination that the distinction between them is, for the purposes of literary interpretation, moot.