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The Wise Woman and the Whale

Elizabeth Hardwick and the whale: although it is very dark inside the whiteness, she will read her way by oil lamp to Melville, “the most bookish of writers, a tireless midnight student.” Thigh-high in ambergris and spermaceti, she makes herself as much at home as on the prison ship, or the cannibal islands, or the Berkshire farm where Herman wrote in twelve-hour shifts, or inside the Manhattan townhouse down whose stairs he may have tossed his wife. Wherever and whatever—novels, letters, and biographies; marriage and derangement; carnival or crypt—Hardwick always moves in with her subject. And before she entertains, she will have picked the locks, ransacked the closets, let the madwomen out of the attic, brought up bodies from the basement, and bounced on the double bed like Goldilocks or Freud.

About this brilliant domesticity, there is also a jujitsu. “How certain human beings are able to create works of art is a mystery,” she wrote in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, “and why they should wish to do so, at a great cost to themselves usually, is another mystery.” This seems amiable enough. Likewise, in a discussion of Nadine Gordimer, she might be describing her own critical method: “Note the way the author opens the plot, arranges the magical correspondences, finds the fixed points, and sets them in a broad open space where many drifting, always to the point, things can wander.”

We are so comfortable in such company that we lean on her, as if she were a brother or a broom. And then all of a sudden, by rag doll twinkletoes and sleight-of-hand, we are head over heels. We’ve been thrown by our own weight, tumbled into deeper meanings, rueful reflections, and surprise perspectives. (Is Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s a plagiarism of Sally Bowles in Goodbye to Berlin? In which ways did Gertrude Stein anticipate Philip Glass? And how dare Peter Conrad ever publish another book after her roadkill review of Imagining America?) If great literature is where we go, alone, to complicate ourselves, a criticism worthy of it has to be equally nuanced—not bullying, not preemptive, not reductive, and certainly not French, but nonetheless subversive of lazy or reflex opinion. Once we have read William James, Margaret Fuller, Eugene O’Neill, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, Nathaniel Hawthorne, or even Thomas Mann through Hardwick’s all-seeing eye, they are more interesting and so are we.

And Melville, our first modern! She has been after him for decades. He shows up in her pages almost as often as Tolstoy (The Kreutzer Sonata) and Dreiser (Sister Carrie). There was, of course, the famous essay that gave her the title for her collection Bartleby in Manhattan, in which Melville’s story—“of austere minimalism, of philosophical quietism, of radical literary shape, of consummate despair, and withal beautiful in the perfection of the telling”—sounded in her radar reading of it as if it had been written by Samuel Beckett, of whose Endgame she has said elsewhere that it is “complete, merciless,” with “a sort of therapeutic beauty and truth, like the sight of an open grave…overpowering in the purity of its deathly summations.” But Herman is also mentioned when she is saying all those negative things about Simone de Beauvoir, and again in the middle of all those positive things about Joan Didion. Pierre appears in her exquisite exploration of the ambiguities of John Cheever and Billy Budd in her cross-burning of a twiggy Billy Graham. And she probably heard more than she needed to about Benito Cereno in the early 1960s, when her husband Robert Lowell was turning it into a play.

Naturally, she’d be fascinated by the prehistory of a well-born family reduced to shabby gentility by its “genetic disposition to bankruptcy.” (One of Herman’s grandfathers dumped tea into Boston Harbor and the other torched villages and massacred Mohawks during the Revolutionary War.) So would she by the psychodynamics of the lost father (dead when Herman was twelve), the difficult mother (who loved his older brother best), the dreamy little boy (slow to talk and slower to read), and the long, odd marriage of this self-described “isolato”; his hard drinking, manic depression, and unrequited love affair with Hawthorne; the cabin boy, merchant marine, castaway, and mutineer, who read everything from Rabelais and Dante to Kant and Carlyle, from Spinoza and Burke to Heine and Schopenhauer, from the Travels of Marco Polo to the Confessions of Rousseau, plus Thomas Maurice’s seven-volume History of Hindostan; who published ten astonishing books in eleven years and yet ended up owing his publishers money; who spent his last nineteen years as a clerk in the Customs House, six days a week for four dollars a day, “living with cannibals in woolen suits and ties and yet tattooed with ignorance and greed,” stuffing the pockets of his blue inspector’s jacket with little squares of yellow paper on which he jotted notes for the epic poem about the Holy Land—18,000 lines divided into 150 cantos—that he was writing secretly at night (“an act of defiance,” says Hardwick, “a scream for the scaffold”), not to mention Billy Budd, which was discovered in a tin breadbox and only published in 1924, three decades after his death; who despised industrialism and capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, Indian-killing and slavery, missionaries and God.
On the one hand, as Father Mapple warned us in his Moby-Dick sermon on Jonah: “But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.” On the other, according to Pierre: “By vast pains we mine into the pyramid; by horrible gropings we come to the central room; with joy we espy the sarcophagus; but we lift the lid—and nobody is there!—appallingly vacant as vast is the soul of man!” Reviewing The House of the Seven Gables, Melville must surely have been thinking more about himself than about Hawthorne: “He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no,—why they are in the happy condition of judicious, unencumbered travellers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.” And in his personal copy of the poems of Wordsworth, he underscored these lines: “The marble index of a mind forever/Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”

Besides which, there was his sex life. Hardwick explains:

Obsession and a compulsive need for confession; homoerotic intrusions came into his writing again and again with an unknown intention; subliminal matter, unconscious or boldly aware? Perhaps he is as blind as his readers, unacquainted with the naming of irregular impulses. Love scenes on the beach of his fiction lay undisturbed like any other specimen of conchology. Later readers picked up the bright shells with the avidity of collectors and would find that the crinkles and striations once held a secret, troubled heart.

It is this Melville—“Natural husband and father or one swimming in oceanic homoerotic yearnings?”—that Hardwick chooses to emphasize. It is well-plowed ground, from a cheeky Leslie A. Fiedler in Love and Death in the American Novel to the troubled but scrupulous Laurie Robertson-Lorant in her deeply affecting 1996 biog-raphy, Melville, from which Hardwick and I both borrow. But Melville-and-sexuality seems to be what everyone is interested in except James Wood in The Broken Estate, who prefers Melville-and-Calvin.

Thus, once more into the breach, which is what whales do when they leap out of the water. Or into the breech, which pertains more to male-bonding behavior among nineteenth-century sailors as theorized in contemporary scholarship on closet writing and gay reading. There is plenty of material to work with: in Typee, the Kory-Kory who seems at least as desirable as the bathing beauty Fayaway. In Redburn, the homosexual hustler Harry Bolton, the oil paintings of fellatio on the walls of a male brothel, and our narrator’s feelings about Carlo, the Italian boy who plays a hand organ. In Moby-Dick, Ishmael and Queequeg’s bedding down at the Spouter-Inn, and the notorious sperm-squeezing scene on the Pequod. In Pierre, the subplot about incest, which could be coded. In the epic poem Clarel, a Mother Goddess, bisexual dreams, and the pilgrim’s confusion of erotic attachments among beautiful Ruth, deformed Celio, and the young man from Lyona with a “rich, tumbled, chestnut hood of curls” as pretty as “a Polynesian girl’s.” And in Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor himself, “all but feminine in purity of natural complexion,” for whom, we are told, the malign Master-at-Arms feels an unspoken “touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.” Even Starry Vere, says Hardwick, “is half in love with the Angel of God.”

To which we must add Hawthorne, to whom Moby-Dick was dedicated, of whom unfriendly things would be said in Clarel. They were neighbors in the Berkshires, until Hawthorne defected to Concord. Melville, so desperate for any kind of intellectual kinship, seems to have inflated a few kind words into what Hardwick calls an “apostolic union,” gushing in a letter: “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, not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.” Still, Hawthorne never wrote a line of praise for Moby-Dick, which had been published to savage reviews and public indifference one year after the best-selling Scarlet Letter. The most he would ever do for Melville’s reputation was leave behind, for scholars to worry over, a journal note on Melville’s visit to his consular post in Liverpool in 1856: “Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief.”

The trouble was, Nathaniel already had the devoted Sophia. And he would later be too busy writing a campaign biography for Franklin Pierce. (As William Dean Howells would write a campaign biography for Abe Lincoln. How else had we imagined these nineteenth-century writers got themselves appointed as diplomats to Liverpool and Venice?) “It would seem the chagrin lies in personal inequality of affection,” says Hardwick, to which she will give her usual mordant spin: “a condition more often found in sentimental fiction than in life.” Robertson-Lorant informs us, besides, that Hawthorne had been on his guard against physically demonstrative men ever since as a child he’d been required, until age fifteen, to sleep with his uncle. Sophia herself has let us know that her husband “hates to be touched more than anyone I ever knew.” And from Hardwick’s own magnificent essay on Margaret Fuller, whom Hawthorne cruelly ridiculed in more venues than The Blithedale Romance, even after her death by drowning, we’ve reason to doubt not only his generosity, but his decency. “Her culture was greater than his,” says Hardwick, “and greater than he needed.”

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