Focusing on Herman Melville's letters to literary peers, this essay reads the extravagance of Melville's epistolary style less as a symptom of any urgent sexual desires for his addressees than as a relatively conventional performance of nineteenth-century masculine letter writing. From this premise, the essay makes two related arguments. The first is historiographic. It shows that the isolation of Nathaniel Hawthorne as Melville's principal love object was as much as projection of mid-twentieth-century Americanist critics (for whom Hawthorne was unquestionably a love object) as it was a historical reality. The critical effort to establish Melville as a great American writer made strategic use of epistolary evidence that linked Melville to another great American writer. The essay's second argument is formalist. It shows that if Melville expressed his longings to a number of male companions according to the period's terms for masculine epistolary convention, those longings were not any less meaningful for being highly conventional. This understanding of literary form shows that the historical study of sexuality can benefit from attention to the formal and conventional aspects of personal expression.


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pp. 119-140
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