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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.”

Come to think of it, wasn’t Fuller’s urgent need of Emerson’s approval pretty much the same as Melville’s of Hawthorne’s, and equally unreciprocated? Aren’t we really talking about needy geniuses with father problems? But I have never found Melville’s sexuality, the truth of which we’ll never know, as compelling as his politics, about which the evidence is so abundant, even thrilling. “The renegade,” says Hardwick, with “the scars of knowing, choosing, the bleak underside of life.” For all his obsessing about colonialism and slavery—cannibalism was his metaphor for economic and social injustice; “white civilized man [is] the most ferocious animal on the face of the earth”—he should certainly have been included in Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark. In Mardi, John C. Calhoun himself is caricatured, arguing that slaves are soulless. Try to imagine the shock of meeting, in the 1850s in Benito Cereno, a black man like Babo: “The head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites.” Never mind that Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Henry Ward Beecher, and Horace Greeley all show up in The Confidence-Man; observe its chapter on “The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating.”

When Irving Howe belatedly discovered Redburn, what he got out of it wasn’t homoeroticism but an exhilarating sense of American fraternity; of a young Melville “as the tenderfoot only a step or two away from the greenhorn.” Hardwick quotes Melville, among the poor, diseased, and beggarly, the Chartist soapbox orators and the mixed-race romantics, in dreary Liverpool: “You cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world…. Our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world.” The Pequod chasing after the white whale, with Queequeg, Tashtego, Daggoo, and Pip, is a dreamboat of multiculturalism as much as a ship of fools. (Robertson-Lorant makes a convincing case for Moby-Dick‘s debt to Native American folklore and myth, the vision quest, the sweat lodge, the Ghost Dance, in addition to the usual biblical, Homeric, Promethean, Shakespearean, and Faustian suspects.) And whether or not White-Jacket was decisive in persuading Congress to abolish flogging in the American navy, it obviously helped.

So “spectral Herman” went away in his own head after he could no longer play with boats. Maybe he should never have married—“His appalling ‘celestial’ labor and her earth-bound servitude,” Hardwick tells us, “reduced them both to strange, well-born peons landing in the cane fields”; they lost one son to suicide and another to tuberculosis—even if his late-life “Rose Poems,” after he’d stopped drinking, suggest a return to marital fervor. I like to think of him letting his granddaughters use his library books as building blocks; maybe he remembered the younger self who had been, after jumping ship, a pinboy in a bowling alley in Honolulu. Anyway, this sort of difficult marriage, which lasted forty-four years, is Hardwick’s specialty, from “George Eliot’s Husband” to “Seduction and Betrayal” to “Wives and Mistresses.” She has earned the last word:

The marriage was more prudent for Melville than for his wife. He might have longed for male friendship, even for love, but marriage changed him from an unanchored wanderer into an obsessive writer, almost as if there, in a house, in a neighborhood, there was nothing else for this man to do except to use the capital he had found in himself….

But his words are what she cares most about, from the “wild, sunlit flow of adjective; an active, sonorous explosion of sheer sensation” to “an azure, steel-blue streak of pity and loss” to the “loveliness of whiteness in natural objects: marbles, japonicas, and pearls; royalty mounted on their white elephants or chargers; the innocence of brides; the white ermine of judges; sacramental vestments,” after which we must “yet consider the white bear of the poles and the white shark of the tropics” not so innocent. Hardwick has always had the shaman’s gift of disappearing into writers she loves, speaking in their voices, seeing through their eyes. Almost alone among our serious critics of literature, she makes us need to read the books she has chosen to care about. Herman Melville is quite short, but it will send us directly to a lot of very long Melvilles. She has put on his “white savage” mask like—well, like the foreskin of the sperm whale in Moby-Dick, “stretched and dried by the ship’s ‘mincer,’ [to become] large enough for him to wear it as a ‘canonical’ cloak.” “A wild impertinence” she calls this ribald passage about foreskins turned into vestments. But one reason we read both Melville and Hardwick is for such moments, when the great floodgates of the wonder-world swing open and the wild conceits sway us to their purpose.
“Oh, M.,” she wrote in her novel Sleepless Nights (1979), by which “M.” she may or may not have meant Mary McCarthy, “when I think of the people I have buried, North and South. Yet, why is it that we cannot keep the note of irony, the jangle of carelessness at a distance? Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone—many of these have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child.” Then, after a short poem and a briefer reference to “a lifetime with its mound of men climbing on and off,” she appends: “The torment of personal relations. Nothing new there except in the disguise, and in the escape on the wings of adjectives. Sweet to be pierced by daggers at the end of paragraphs.”

Elizabeth Hardwick is eighty-three years and nine books old. She has been putting on shaman skins, practicing jujitsu, picking locks, and piercing paragraphs with daggers ever since the giddy days of Partisan Review. (In her introduction to Mary McCarthy’s Intellectual Memoirs, she gave us perhaps the best and certainly the most succinct description of that “ring of bullies”: “In that circle, the Soviet Union, the Civil War in Spain, Hitler, and Mussolini were what you might call real life, but not in the magazine’s pages more real, more apposite, than T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Kafka, and Dostoevsky.”) Quietly, with a serpent’s tooth, a cat’s paw, a built-in shit-detector, and several slices of Hamlet on wry toast, with a deep focus and with a zoom lens, with gravity and grace, she has put together a body of work as radiant and satisfying as a Mozart horn concerto.

Only by impudent inference is it possible to read portions of that work as autobiographical. She chose not, in Sleepless Nights, to write a rebuttal to The Dolphin. If, in Ian Hamilton’s Robert Lowell, she sometimes appeared as an aggrieved spear-carrier in the grandly operatic psychodrama of the mad poet, that spear was heavy enough to caution us against the piling on of more dead weight. In Partisans: Marriage, Politics, and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals, David Laskin’s tendentious put-down of Hardwick, McCarthy, and Jean Stafford for their messy private lives and their failure to be Sixties feminists, he reads this paragraph from Hardwick’s essay on Zelda Fitzgerald as intimate inside info:

Sick persons create guilt of a mysterious kind, whether by their own wish or merely by the peculiarities of their often luminous fixity. The will to blame, to hold them to account, soon appears futile to those closest. Instead the mad entwine their relations in an unresolved, lingering, chafing connection, where guilt, exasperation and grief for the mysteries of life continue to choke. Perhaps the nearest feeling is the immensely suffering and baffling connection between those living and those slowly dying.

Maybe. But also more eloquent and forgiving than anything in Partisans, which should have known before it got past its own fevered intro on the “willed blindness” of these “male-identified” career-woman radicals that marriage, madness, life, and literature are all more complicated than Laskin’s vulgar formulations; even breakfast is more complicated. Of course, Hardwick has always been interested in literary couples, writers bent on self-destruction, writers with terrible family secrets; in abandonment and nihilism and sex and betrayal. But she has also always been interested in writers who are women, writers who are American, English, French, and Russian, writers who can really write, and all the books about them. And this is to scant her interest in murder, from her second novel, The Simple Truth (1955), to her meditation on Caryl Chessman in the gas chamber (1960), to her articles for The New York Review on the trials of the Menendez brothers, those pretty-boy voids, and, of course, O.J. And to ignore her increasing suspicion that the body is a poor vehicle for transcendence. Besides which she actually went to Selma for a civil rights march in 1965, and to Atlanta for the funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Not only that, but she also goes to movies and the theater.

Here’s what’s important about Hardwick, just skimming off the top: her essays on David Riesman, Sylvia Plath, The Scarlet Letter, Billy Graham, Simone Weil, Edith Wharton, Thomas Mann, John Reed, Margaret Fuller, Gertrude Stein, John Cheever, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Bishop, Truman Capote, Bartleby the Scrivener, Boston, and Brazil.

And here’s what’s wonderful about Elizabeth Hardwick:

On Dylan Thomas: “There was a certain amount of poison in our good will.”

On David Riesman: “But if you make yourself honey the flies will eat you.”

On Eugene O’Neill: “A certain humility is necessary about the lowly, badly hammered nails if the poor house, completed, moves you to tears…. Sometimes literature is not made with words.”

On Henry David Thoreau: “It was [his] genius to carry landscape and weather as far as they could go.”

On Gertrude Stein: “sturdy as a turnip.”

On John Updike: “A bit of a parson, too, something icy inside the melting flesh of concupiscence.”

On Philip Roth: “Indeed the novels are prickled like a sea urchin with the spines and fuzz of many indecencies.”

On Katherine Anne Porter: “Research finds that in Germany, Katherine Anne Porter did not always conduct herself with generosity or moral refinement.”

On Truman Capote (and his “unique crocodilian celebrity”): “[He] never showed an interest in political or moral debate, and perhaps this was prudent since ideas, to some degree, may define one’s social life and could just be excess baggage he didn’t need to bring aboard; and, worse, boring, like the ruins and works of art he declined to get off the yacht to see.”

Or there is this unsurpassed pas-sage in her great essay “Seduction and Betrayal”:
> The betrayed heroine, unlike the merely betrayed woman, is never under the illusion that love or sex confers rights upon human beings. She may, of course, begin with the hope, and romance would scarcely be possible otherwise; however, the truth hits her sharply, like vision or revelation when the time comes. Affections are not things and persons never can become possessions, matters of ownership. The desolate soul knows this immediately, and only the trivial pretend that it can be otherwise. When love goes wrong the survival of the spirit appears to stand upon endurance, independence, tolerance, solitary grief. These are tremendously moving qualities, and when they are called upon it is usual for the heroine to overshadow the man who is the origin of her torment. She is under the command of necessity, consequence, natural order, and a bending to these commands is the mark of a superior being. Or so it seems in the novel, a form not entirely commensurate with the heedlessness and rages of life.

So superior are these sentences to the churlishness that passes for criticism elsewhere in our culture—the exorcism, the vampire bite, the vanity production, the body-snatching and the sperm-sucking by pomo aliens—so generous and wise, that they seem to belong to an entirely different realm of discourse, where the liberal arts meet something like transubstantiation. There will be no dagger at the end of this paragraph. She sends up kites; she catches lightning.

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