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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 345-372
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Incest and Authorship in Melville's Pierre
In November 1851 Melville received a letter from Hawthorne praising his most recent literary endeavor, Moby-Dick. Shortly thereafter, Melville composed his famous response to his friend: "A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book," he confesses. "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." 1 For Melville, Hawthorne's understanding of Moby-Dick (or more accurately, Melville's projection of this understanding) inspired an intense corporeal bond, a connection so profound it resulted in a vision of merged subjectivity. In this fantasy, Hawthorne and he are not discrete individuals but "pieces" of a common being. In recent years scholars have read Melville's intense response to Hawthorne in a (homo)erotic register. 2 While not wishing to displace this reading, I would like to suggest that we can arrive at a more complete understanding of this letter's libidinal force by considering its sentimental posture. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sentimental ideology posited that fellow-feeling between individuals could result in the experience of bodily merging. When we use the imagination to "place ourselves in [another's] situation," writes Adam Smith in 1759, "we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him." 3 Like Smith, Melville imagines a mental convergence with Hawthorne that leads to a fantasy of physical unity. The erotic overtones of shared lips, I would argue, are one component of [End Page 345] a larger sentimental drama in which bodily convergence indicates a perfect reciprocity of feeling or what Smith calls "the entire concord of the affections." 4 When Melville writes Hawthorne that "your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours," he makes use of a romantic trope in articulating a vision of mutually incorporated experience. 5
If Melville's letter expresses sentimental feeling, however, it does so in specific relation to issues of authorship and audience. Melville experienced writing as a profoundly solitary activity, offset only by the discovery of a sympathetic reader. Although he scorned the conventional audience—"men who go straight from their cradles to their graves & never dream of the queer things going on at the antipodes" 6 —he claimed a true devotion to a small group of followers who both appreciated his work and articulated similar sentiments in return. Hawthorne represented the epitome of this vision, a reader-writer with whom Melville might enjoy an absolute mutuality of feeling. Indeed, in the letter of November 1851, Melville writes of the identification he experienced both in reading Hawthorne's original letter to him and in envisioning Hawthorne reading the one he was composing in response. 7 In a letter to Richard Henry Dana Jr., Melville confesses a fellowship similarly inspired. "My Dear Dana—" Melville begins:
I thank you very heartily for your friendly letter; and am more pleased than I can well tell, to think that any thing I have written about the sea has at all responded to your own impressions of it. . . . I am specially delighted at the thought, that those strange, congenial feelings, with which after my first voyage, I for the first time read "Two Years Before the Mast," and while so engaged was, as it were, tied & welded to you by a sort of Siamese link of affectionate sympathy—that these feelings should be reciprocated by you, in your turn, and be called out by any White Jackets or Redburns of mine—this is indeed delightful to me. 8
Melville's letters to Hawthorne and Dana are significant not merely because they demonstrate Melville's capacity for passionate attachment but also because they indicate that such affection is generated through authorship and reading. Melville...