Those of us who have spent precious hours musing over Moby-Dick and urging students to go and do likewise may feel we have come to “know” Melville enough to speak with authority about what may be learned from his wild, digressive, oblique, radically poetic, deeply ironic, “grand, ungodly god-like” habits of mind. And his long sentences.
Refracted through the elusive and inconsistent Ishmael, the mind of Melville splays, dazzling and prismatic, across the broad canvas of that work in ways that invite not only the most sophisticated application of critical tools we can bring to the task but also intimate, jarring, epiphanic encounter that leaves our universe disturbed. Audacious metaphors (the pub as a coffin; the ocean as prairie; the whale’s skin as magnifying glass) create a palimpsest of suggestion. Deft and dramatic changes of frame sustain a strong tension between oddly selected details (a whole chapter on Ahab’s pipe) and an unbounded cosmic backdrop, reminding us that, if we look long enough, the implications of what we see nearby are “infinite.” If you spend a while in Melville’s company, you begin to believe in hyperbole.
Perhaps you came to that “great shaggy monument” of a novel through the South Sea stories or the later, shorter tales—“Benito Cereno” or “Billy Budd.” Perhaps some English teacher, himself strangely inclined to pregnant silences, urged you to write about “Bartleby” when you “preferred not to.” Or perhaps in a graduate course you dutifully labored through the long, mannered poems most consider the least worthy productions of Melville’s errant pen. We organize these other works around the story of the whale we know to be the jewel in a giant crown. We suspect we may have, as he might put it himself, a madman as our national laureate, but he is ours and if we seek to fathom our own Americanness, we have to take him into account.
Taking him into account will eventually lead readers to his letters, seeking to understand how a work that seems to hover just beyond the reach of ordinary life could have emerged from an ordinary life. Some of us visit his house in Pittsfield, gaze out the window at Mt. Greylock, and find it “very like a whale.” If we do that, we’re likely also to travel down the road to the modest red cottage where he met with Hawthorne for long, late-night conversations that seemed, to Melville at least, divinely guided excursions into realms of mystery.
Writing is relational. Writers write to and for and because of relationships, real and imagined, with readers and with those whose affection and attention support their lonely habit. Even among the romantics who tended to foster the myth of the solitary genius-in-the-garret, friendship fueled work that might not otherwise have come to fruition—or to us. Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Pound and Stein, Hurston and Hughes, Wharton and James, Byron and Shelley, and of course Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Alcott and Hawthorne all enjoyed extended conversations that shaped and tested their work, and helped to bring forth what was in them. Among these many well-documented associations and friendships, the brief flame-like friendship between Melville and Hawthorne stands out in its peculiarity and, especially on Melville’s side, its passionate intensity.
Critics have mined those letters for evidence of Melville’s manic-depressive tendencies, homoeroticism, spiritual angst, and desperate loneliness. All these theories about his state of mind might, of course, be inferred from Moby-Dick, though to do so would hardly count as responsible criticism. Even casual speculation about a writer’s psychological states or possible psychiatric disorders runs the risk of reductionistic reading and can easily obscure what may have been bought dearly at the cost of some pain—the “subtilized” mind (to use a term I’ve encountered only in Moby-Dick) that makes available to us a point of view and shades of sensibility to which we would otherwise have no access.
Personal letters, however, offer more hospitable room for such speculation, assuming we’re all comfortable with the slightly voyeuristic habits of historians and critics who regard formerly private correspondence as their rightful share in the wealth of those who now “belong to the ages.” Mark Niemeyer has joined the band of scholars who have found in Melville’s letters to Hawthorne—a tantalizingly small and one-sided collection since Hawthorne’s responses have not survived—valuable shards of insight and imagination that, if we hold them in the light, become lenses through which yet another layer of meaning may be glimpsed in texts that have already yielded abundant food for theological, political, and psychological thought. He foregrounds the ways they reflect the writer’s intense moral and spiritual concerns. “That these letters … read much like homilies is a key to their power and genius,” he claims, departing without apology from those who find them more manic than ministerial.
No one label can suffice, in any case, to summarize Melville’s urgent efforts to sustain in these letters a friendship that burned bright for two years and flickered on thereafter until Hawthorne’s untimely death at 59—an event that left the younger man devastated, but not wordless: he wrote a “monody” that begins with a stanza of uncharacteristic simplicity and pathos in naked shock at loss:
To have known him, to have loved him,
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal—
Ease me, a little ease, my song!
Fifteen years Hawthorne’s junior, Melville’s ardent affection for the man he regarded as a soul-mate (the “divine magnet” that draws him) is clearly genuine. It is also Romantic in rhetorical style, in its intimate, confessional character, and in its “infinite longing.” He found in this friendship an access to the divine that comforted him for the deep disillusionments he had suffered among his native Calvinists. “I feel,” he writes, “that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling.” He seeks from his friend not only sympathetic understanding of his restless compulsions and unorthodox inclinations to write “all that is banned,” but also a level of spiritual companionship that perhaps proved impossible to maintain. Certain it is—as Hawthorne would have said—that life carried them on and away from those long evening colloquies by a Berkshire fireside into very different territories—Hawthorne to fame, diplomatic service, and early death, Melville to a long, often silent and sad life threaded with the loneliness that had once, in Hawthorne’s presence, been so happily dispelled.
Niemeyer’s lovely edition of Melville's letters and Paul Harding’s generous, thoughtful foreword are clearly works of love as well as of scholarship. Their essays provide a worthy setting for these unabashed testimonies to the life-giving joy to be found when one human being recognizes in another a reflection or refraction of divine light.
Marilyn McEntyre, formerly professor of American Literature at Westmont College now teaches Medical Humanities at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program, offers writing workshops and retreats, and finds that her happiest days are those that include a little quiet time, a few hours of writing, conversation, and a walk by the river. Her books include Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, What's in a Phrase?, A Faithful Farewell, A Long Letting Go and, forthcoming in spring, 2018, Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Minds and Open Our Hearts. More at www.marilynmcentyre.com.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.