- The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard, and: The Divine Magnet: Herman Melville's Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne ed. by Mark Niemeyer
The Whale: A Love Story
New York: Viking, 2016. 281 pp.
The Divine Magnet: Herman Melville's Letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne
Foreword by Paul Harding. Asheville, NC: Orison Books, 2016. 106 pp.
The relationship between the American Romantics Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne significantly alters in 1852. At least, this is the last year in which Melville's famous letters to Hawthorne, which inspire these two books, survive. Having left the Berkshires in 1851, Hawthorne accepted in 1853 a prestigious and lucrative (though not as lucrative as he had hoped) position as American consul to Liverpool from his friend Franklin Pierce, then President of the United States. The authors saw one another again in November 1856 during Hawthorne's consulship in Liverpool. Melville was traveling to Europe and the Holy Land in order to restore his health. If Mark Beauregard's novel The Whale offers any insight into Melville's psyche, it is a wonder that Melville did not undergo a physical and emotional collapse much earlier.
The two authors first met on August 5, 1850, the occasion being a now-fabled hiking trip up Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, that included a lavish, champagne-suffused picnic. This gathering of Berkshire cognoscenti was organized by a local resident, David Dudley Field, and included Melville's publisher Evert Duyckinck, the physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Cornelius Mathews, an editor and writer who would pen the standard account of this venture. (Brenda Wineapple in her biography Hawthorne mildly mocks its legendary status: "It was a good story.") Greatly taken by the older author, Melville rapidly produced an essay, ostensibly a review of Mosses from an Old Manse, called "Hawthorne and His Mosses," published in [End Page 78] The Literary World in two issues, August 17 and August 24, 1850, and purportedly written by "a Virginian spending July in Vermont." He not only compared Hawthorne to Shakespeare but proclaimed him very nearly the Bard's equal.
For some time, controversies have swirled around questions about the arc of the great romancers' friendship and its possible sexual dimension. Edwin Haviland Miller's 1975 biography of Melville posited that a sexual advance from the younger author to the reserved, propriety-minded Hawthorne, rebuffed by him, led to a rift between the men. Robert Milder, in his essay "The Ugly Socrates" (a reference to one of Melville's letters to Hawthorne), contends that there is no basis for Miller's interpretation. "Given Hawthorne's reserve and almost abnormal fastidiousness on matters of touch, together with his uneasiness about sexuality of any sort other than heterosexual monogamy, Melville would have known better than to try. If he did transgress by word or deed, it is extremely unlikely that Hawthorne would have invited him to visit Concord in 1852" or expressed his re-establishment of prior friendly terms with Melville in 1856, as he does in his notebooks. Scholars such as Christopher Castiglia have challenged the very idea of a rift between the two men.
While Milder makes a persuasive case, there is something fastidiously neat about his account of what each man would have done. Milder, with some justification, contends that Hawthorne would not have invited Melville into his home if he had made sexual overtures to the author. But to insist that people's behavior about such matters conforms to logic, sense, decorum, or even their own established behavioral patterns is to ignore the unpredictability of actual events. Similarly, while no concrete evidence confirms the theory that the two men had a falling out, the literary evidence is suggestive. Hawthorne's 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance contains a highly charged, and ultimately failed, relationship between the first-person narrator Miles Coverdale and the social reformer Hollingsworth. Coverdale's rejection of the beautiful, charismatic, and untrustworthy Hollingsworth's plea that the narrator become his "friend of friends forever" could be taken as a fictionalized account of the romancers' real-life friendship, including a denied—or possibly consummated then abandoned—sexual relationship.