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The Scrivener and the Whale | The Nation

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The Scrivener and the Whale

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Melville kept writing--poems, stories, novels, among them Pierre, Bartleby the Scrivener and, at the last, Billy Budd--but the forty years after Moby-Dick (he died in 1891) constituted something of a life sentence: the long, painful years of a failed writer living in depressed and reclusive obscurity, working in the New York Customs House, seeing almost no one, entirely forgotten by whatever public he had once had. Upon his death many were surprised to learn that Melville had still been alive.

About the Author

Vivian Gornick
Vivian Gornick is an essayist and critic. Her biography of Emma Goldman is forthcoming from Yale.

Also by the Author

An eloquent portrait of underground life among the undocumented and the damned of the earth.

Seeing not a person but a thing was the crime of crimes for Primo Levi.

Oh, yes, one other thing: He was married for more than forty years to a woman of his own class with whom he had two sons and two daughters, but neither in his wife nor in any of his children did Melville find a soul mate. Nowhere at home did he receive solace of the spirit, find relief from or exaltation in that which pressed so sorely on him. Perhaps it was this unhappy circumstance that turned the impassioned and volatile writer into a stricken domestic tyrant who stormed about the house, frightening all who came his way, then dissolving in bitter regret. For years on end the family, according to Melville's granddaughter, suffered "not only from insufficient funds for daily needs but far more from his bursts of nervous anger and attacks of morose conscience." One son committed suicide at 18, the other died at 35 far from home.

For some contemporary readers, this dramatic failure of domesticity is added proof of Melville's homoerotic leanings. I say "added" because much has also been made of his extravagant unhappiness over Hawthorne's willingness to let their friendship drift (in a letter Melville writes bitterly that Hawthorne "withholds" himself, and in a poem he seems to beg the older writer, "Give me thyself!"). But above all, it has been argued, it is in the writing itself that the homoerotic Melville is inescapably to be found: in the extraordinary portraits of male companionship (Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick), the clear adoration of male beauty (Billy Budd), the erotic cast of men in bondage to one another (Benito Cereno). One could easily go on and on. But what, exactly, are we to make of that which is clearly there for all to read?

For me, Melville's homoeroticism is akin to that of D.H. Lawrence. They were two men who hungered to reach down to the very center of human existence, where the self that was dark, free, wild, even mystic--have I left out any piece of the rhetoric?--was waiting to be discovered. Both wanted to know, with an almost religious hysteria, the primitive "truth" of things more deeply than either wanted anything else. Each writer associated such knowingness entirely with the world of men; the world of strong and vivid action; the one in which one came dangerously up against one's own fears and desires. It was only with men that one could get naked, so to speak. With women one was always somehow clothed. In their world there was the relief of order, sentiment, convention; but here one struggled incessantly against the constraint that domesticity placed on inner exploration.

Yet each man was ineluctably attached to women--clung to them, wouldn't have known how to put it together without them--at the same time that he eroticized in imagination if not in actuality (the truth we'll never know) what passed between men. In short, whether he understood it or not, each felt the amazing complexity of sexual force--and it was out of what he felt that he wrote. The genius lay in the strength of sensibility.

It seems to me that these are the complications we are calling homoerotic, and they are interesting when seen in the light of a psyche divided in anguish and excitement against itself, rather than that of straightforward sexual attraction to the members of one's own sex. This self-division is, in fact, the key that, when turned, unlocks the door--in Melville as well as in Lawrence--to the inner drama out of which both made great fiction.

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