PITTSFIELD, Mass. — “Moby Dick” is the classic tale of obsession and the lusty allure of the sea. Whether you’ve read the massive novel, or seen the film starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, you probably know the story was written by Herman Melville. You may even know he wrote it in land-locked Pittsfield (not on the water, as one might expect). But what do you know about Melville himself, or his erotic side?
Well, a New England author has a new novel about Melville that’s part fact, part fiction, part love story. And there are parts of the book that might be too suggestive for some people to handle.
In writing “The Passages of H.M.,” Jay Parini, a Middlebury College English professor, spent countless hours at Arrowhead in Pittsfield. It’s a museum now, but Melville lived in this farmhouse for 13 years with his children and long-suffering wife, Lizzie.
“This is where Herman and Lizzie slept,” Parini said as he gestured into the bedroom, “and the babies would sleep with them.”
Then there’s the study, just across the hall, where Melville wrestled down his white whale with ink and paper. Parini walks around the old room, and Melville’s writing desk, as if they were his own.
As it turns out, Herman Melville is Parini’s Moby Dick. Writing his new novel has been something of a quest to more deeply understand how Melville’s real-life adventures, on land and sea, fueled works like “Moby Dick” and “Billy Budd.”
“I spent my whole life reading these wonderful novels, stories of his, his poetry,” Parini said. “I’ve sort of chased him around the world visiting spots that he visited. I wanted to somehow to inhabit his soul. And the best way to do that is to write a novel, because writing a novel you can be Herman Melville!”
Like Captain Ahab, Parini is clearly obsessed with Melville, who we know today as the author of an iconic American novel. But Melville’s real life was the stuff of tragedy. He was an intellectual loner, felt dejected after a relatively brief burst of literary fame, drank heavily, and Parini says was quite possibly a manic depressive. On land Melville continually yearned for the sea, seemed unfulfilled after his wild whaling adventures in the South Pacific, and died largely forgotten in 1891. “Moby Dick’s” true literary majesty wasn’t fully realized until a Melville revival in the 1920s.
All of this makes Melville a compelling character for a novel, according to Parini. He built his fictional Melville using real letters, journals and biographies. Parini has written straight-forward biographies before — on Robert Frost and John Steinbeck. But with “The Passages of H.M.” he broke away from the strict shoreline of fact.
“I go places where normally a biographer wouldn’t dare to tread,” Parini said, adding. “If I were a straight-forward literary scholar I think I would hate me.”
“Well, one of the things I assume in this novel is that Herman Melville is a bisexual,” Parini said. “I mean if you read his work carefully from the beginning, ‘Typee,’ right on up to ‘Billy Budd,’ it’s just suffused with lovely homoerotic sensations.”
To make his point, Parini pointed to the scene in “Moby Dick” where Ishmael and his shipmates aboard the Pequod massage the innards of a captured sperm whale, in ecstatic unison, “till a strange sort of insanity came over me, and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules.” This excerpt opens one of the chapters in “The Passages of H.M.”
Next Parini quoted an affectionate passage from “Billy Budd:”
Though our Handsome Sailor had as much of masculine beauty as one can expect anywhere to see; nevertheless, like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne’s minor tales. There was just one thing amiss about him…
For Parini it’s no accident that Nathaniel Hawthorne was on Melville’s mind when he wrote that.
“I hate to say this, but I think he fell head-over-heels in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had just brought out ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ ” Parini explained.
In reality, Hawthorne and Melville were neighbors in the Berkshires. Hawthorne coached Melville as he wrote “Moby Dick,” and Melville dedicated “Moby Dick” to Hawthorne.
“He worshiped the writing of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and let’s put it frankly, Hawthorne was gorgeous!” Parini said. And he was! Melville’s infatuation with Hawthorne has been studied, so this isn’t actually news. But Parini couldn’t resist pushing their relationship further in fiction. Take one scene in “The Passages of H.M.” where Hawthorne pays a visit to Melville:
“He comes in full of snow,” Parini described passionately, “takes of his coonskin cap and his gloves and his big furry coat, stomps up here in the study, comes and visits Melville, pounds on his door. (Parini knocked on a nearby door for effect) ‘Herman are you in there?’ And they spent the whole night talking in this room.”
Actually, they talked all night in a tiny bedroom abutting the study. But Parini’s fictional scene strongly suggests the two great writers did more than just talk.
“I was sort of waiting to be shown inside the bedroom door to see what Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne were doing in there one night in western Massachusetts,” said Chris Benfey, an English professor at Mount Holyoke College. He recently reviewed Parini’s novel in The New Republic (favorably, in case you’re wondering). Much of Parini’s novel is told from the perspective of Lizzie, Melville’s wife, and she hovers outside the bedroom door. Benfey says the device works. “Jay actually maintains Lizzie’s perspective, wondering what those two men are up to.”
And we’re left wondering, too. While the scene isn’t graphic, it hits home, according to Benfey. “It’s true that in recent Melville scholarship there is a fairly shared assumption that Melville’s feelings about Hawthorne were intense.”
Benfey also said plenty of scholars get bummed out by talk of Melville’s sexuality.
“I’ve been to academic conferences when Melville scholars almost came to blows with one another,” Benfey said. “To have our national writer, the writer of the great American novel, be a gay or bisexual man is something that some scholars still find difficult to accept.”
Life-long Melville biographer Hershel Parker is one of them. “The problem, Andrea, for me is, I was raised as a prude,” he confessed to me on the phone from his home in California. “I’ve never told a dirty joke in my life, I’ve never bragged about a sexual conquest, and I find it very hard to think about how Melville talked with other men about sexual matters, and I work at it because we’ve got a certain amount of evidence.”
Melville’s homoerotic impulses have been established in the academy, Parker conferred, but whether he acted on those impulses is up for debate. And he says it’s highly unlikely that Hawthorne had reciprocal feelings for Melville. Parker calls Parini’s novel “a fantasy” — and Parini buys that. In his own defense he said, “I hope my novel is a version of what might’ve happened.”
The biographer and the novelist can agree on one more thing: they both hope this new book will stimulate interest in Melville. And that’s Parini’s motivation. “I’m hoping my novel will actually be a huge entertainment for readers, and that it will draw them toward the life of Herman Melville,” he said, “and if they read my book, then move on to ‘Moby Dick’ and ‘Billy Budd,’ my work will have been accomplished.”
But I had to ask Parini the obvious question: what would Melville think?
Parini paused before answering, then mused, “I don’t doubt there’d be times where Herman Melville would be reading my novel where he wouldn’t take that quill pen off the desk right there and want to plunge it into my artery!”
But Parini reminds me how Melville himself was a master at bending fact and fiction — and he got a lot of flack for it in his day.
For the record, Parini’s new novel never gets too sexy. But it is adventurous, and he leaves plenty to our own imaginations.
One more note: It’s realistic to wonder what might be in store for Jay Parini and his version of Herman Melville down the line. Maybe some time on the big screen? I say this because Parini’s last biographical novel, “The Last Station” featuring Leo Tolstoy and his wife, was made into an Academy Award-winning film.