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Does the 21st Century still need Herman Melville?


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In the 200 years since his birth, Herman Melville has accumulated a wide array of epithets – the great American novelist, overrated, underrated, obscure, tedious, crazy, that-guy-who-wrote-about-that-whale-one-time – but how much do you really know about the man behind Moby Dick?

Etching of Joseph Oriel Eaton's portrait of Herman Melville, via Wikimedia Commons

In New York in 1819, Herman Melville was born. Melville worked as a clerk, a sailor, a whaler, a teacher, a lecturer, and a customs inspector to make ends meet when his career as an author proved fairly unsuccessful. It was not until the early 20th Century that public interest in his writing piqued for what was probably the first time since the release of his first novel, Typee. In 1919, on the centennial of his birth, Melville was rescued from the obscurity that he had fallen into.

It might surprise you to find out that he had faded into insignificance during his own lifetime, the relative success of his first few novels waning quickly and giving way to lukewarm reviews that considering his writing crazy at best and dull at worst. Then again, why should that surprise us, when Melville still exists in relative obscurity these days, too? Despite the infamy of Moby Dick’s opening line, ‘Call me Ishmael’, and the academic interest in Melville that lingers, popular culture has relegated the author to the abyssal periphery of our world.

Why do so few of us know anything about Moby Dick beyond the opening line and the titular character? Melville is somehow simultaneously an infamous author and entirely unknown, both in his own lifetime and ours, and I want to rescue him from these watery depths of oblivion and return him to the limelight.

The title of this article is rhetorical (as the answer from me is a resounding ‘yes’, as I hope it will soon be from you), so I will instead answer the question, why does the 21st Century still need Herman Melville?

The tip of the Melvillian iceberg

Let’s begin with the tip of the Melvillian iceberg: where can we find Melville already? Our culture is already saturated with references to the man, though they’re often hard to spot. Did you know, for example, that Starbucks got its name from the first mate in Moby Dick? Do you remember when Khan from Star Trek used his last breath to quote Ahab? Do you remember when Homer and Lisa disagreed over the true meaning of Moby Dick in The Simpsons? Did you ever listen to Mastodon’s album Leviathan, Led Zeppelin’s album Moby Dick, or anything by the band Ahab? Did you see that Futurama episode where they discover a four-dimensional whale that Leela becomes obsessed with hunting? Or, maybe you've seen the carefully curated Twitter bot that churns out lines from Moby Dick at random?

Whether you’re aware of it or not, you’ve probably seen something that referenced Melville or, more specifically, Moby Dick. Think of him next time you order that skinny vanilla latte from Starbucks.

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Image credit: AWeith via Wikimedia Commons

Why Melville, why now?

Perhaps you know who Melville is from one of the aforementioned references, or you were forced to read Moby Dick in high school and only got halfway through, or you didn’t even know there were whales and you’re not sure why you’re even reading this article. If these snippets of the man are the only things you know of him, you’d just about be forgiven for writing him off as irrelevant in the 21st Century. But if Melville’s ideas were too modern for his own time, and modern enough for the modernists of the early 20th Century to revive and revere him, then surely there is still something to be said for his enduring modernity.

Pop culture rarely touches on the more radical and repressed aspects of Melville’s writing. In 1851, he wrote to contemporary Nathaniel Hawthorne that ‘what I feel most moved to write, that is banned – it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot.’ He was, of course, talking about Moby Dick, and in time this other way of writing that his society so deplored has come to be one of his most beloved traits. Melville’s writing moves and sways like reeds in a river, his timing is tidal, his prose peculiar and pulsating. Reading Melville is like standing on the corner of a busy street and listening to the overlapping conversations and car horns or sitting in a sunny meadow and listening to the aliveness of life. It’s refreshingly present and yet frighteningly old, timeless even.

And you have to let it overwhelm you. You have to let his other way of thinking lead you astray like a sea Siren, let it shipwreck you, let it drown you. Eventually, you’ll learn how to breath his language. He will take you to the ‘forbidden seas’ and ‘barbarous coasts’ that Moby Dick’s protagonist, Ishmael, yearns for and is ‘tormented’ by. But what are these forbidden seas, and why do they torment Melville and his protagonists so?

Queerness and Queequeg

What, throughout history, has been more explicitly and implicitly forbidden than queerness? Generally, it’s also forbidden to read too autobiographically into an author’s fiction. It tends to get you branded as anachronistic. But queer lives so often play out between the lines rather than within them. It would be an injustice to ignore the heavy, swelling otherness that lives and breathes between Melville’s lines and occasionally spills onto them, too great and glorious to be locked away.

In 1851, 164 years before same-sex marriage was legalised in the United States, Melville describes a relationship between two men as explicitly matrimonial. Ishmael is in need of a bed, and the only one available to him happens to already be occupied by a man called Queequeg, who, as his name implies, is the very embodiment of queerness. Queequeg unashamedly refuses the rules of Western society and sees no reason that two men should not share a bed.

So, they share a bed.

When Ishmael wakes up, he finds ‘Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.’ The position is described as a ‘bridegroom clasp’ and Ishmael bemoans the ‘unbecomingness’ of being hugged by ‘a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style.’ If that weren’t suggestive enough, Ishmael proceeds to stare at Queequeg as the man gets dressed in front of him: ‘he treated me with so much civility and consideration, while I was guilty of great rudeness; staring at him from the bed, and watching all his toilette motions; for the time my curiosity getting the better of my breeding’. Queequeg is, unsurprisingly, from one of the ‘barbarous coasts’ that Ishmael so longs for: a place ‘not down on any map’. A place between the lines.

Also, if you’re going to read Moby Dick, I suppose I should warn you that there’s a lot of sperm. It’s all ostensibly spermaceti, the oil that whalers harvest from sperm whales – and yet.

And yet, it’s all very ambiguous. And if you’re not going to read Moby Dick, you should at least read Chapter 94, ‘A Squeeze of the Hand’ for the sheer ridiculousness of it. As may be obvious from the title, it’s all about squeezing and hands and, er, sperm.

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Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, via Wikimedia Commons

Melville and Hawthorne

If Melville’s 19th Century depiction of gay marriage and sperm squeezing aren’t eyebrow raising enough for you, his letters to Hawthorne might be. The authors had a tumultuous relationship, though the majority of what we know about them is one-sided because Melville reportedly destroyed all the letters that Hawthorne sent to him. Why he did this is anyone’s guess: perhaps bitter anger, or perhaps to destroy evidence of something forbidden. Luckily, Hawthorne kept all the letters that Melville sent him.

Amongst the most affecting and heartfelt of lines in these letters are the ones in which Melville invokes what he calls ‘pantheistic’ feeling between the two of them. ‘I felt pantheistic then -- your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God's,’ he writes in response to a letter from Hawthorne about the recently published Moby Dick. He continues: ‘A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.’

Whether or not soulmates exist, the word certainly springs to mind when reading these letters. Melville asks his friend, ‘Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips -- lo, they are yours and not mine. 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.’ They are, Melville seems to believe, two pieces of a whole, so overlapping and intermingling that even he cannot tell them apart.

These letters are reminiscent of a passage in Typee in which Tommo, our protagonist, believes that his friend Toby ‘like myself, had evidently moved in a different sphere of life, and his conversation at times betrayed this, although he was anxious to conceal it.’ You cannot help but wonder, what are they so anxious to conceal? What is this sphere of life? And, if you read the rest of Typee, why is Tommo so magnetically drawn to Toby? Magnetism seems to be the operative word for Melville. He tells Hawthorne, ‘The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds.’

These themes of magnetism, secrecy, and taboo seem to wash ashore in everything Melville writes, like so many messages in bottles from the queer, mysterious past.

Melville’s Message in a Bottle

I promised you an explanation for revisiting Melville in the 21st century.

Aside from the pure joy of reading his strange, wondrous, unfathomable prose, which can only fully be understood by doing the reading yourself, Melville extends his hand to us from the 19th Century so that we might take it and see fragments of ourselves between the lines on his palm. Through Melville’s writing, we can learn the value of our individualism, the value of a community, and the value of recording our forbidden thoughts for future generations to read. We can learn the importance of finding your people and cherishing them and letting them go when we need to. We can learn the importance of the wicked, the taboo; of rebelling against oppressive Captains; of journeying, and testing ourselves, and breaking rules.

There is a wealth of immediacy to be found in Melville’s writing, but you’ll never discover it if you don’t open them.

And remember to think of him next time you order that skinny vanilla latte from Starbucks, marry your same-sex partner, or, heavens forbid, squeeze some sperm.

Lead image credit: Etching of Joseph Oriel Eaton's portrait of Herman Melville, via Wikimedia Commons

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