As the world and I have grown older, and both of us have become more accustomed to discussing homosexuality and bisexuality in authors, I've come to find the question of Melville's sexual orientation (to use an anachronistic term) fascinating. Is it true what they say about relations between some men aboard sailing ships? Patrick O'Brian (in Master and Commander) and William Martin (in Cape Cod) certainly seemed to think so, although both were writing about war ships, not whalers.
Is Melville hinting at something that dare not speak its name in his fiction? Was he gay or bisexual? Was he a hetero gadfly with a transgressive sense of humor? Or is a harpoon just a harpoon?
I can't begin to formulate even a tentative answer to those questions. Someday I hope I will understand Melville better. In the meantime, I pick up bits of what appears to be evidence, for future study. For example, two passages from his 1849 novel Redburn: His First Voyage:
It was the day following my Sunday stroll into the country, and when I had been in England four weeks or more, that I made the acquaintance of a handsome, accomplished, but unfortunate youth, young Harry Bolton. He was one of those small, but perfectly formed beings, with curling hair, and silken muscles, who seem to have been born in cocoons. His complexion was a mantling brunette, feminine as a girl's; his feet were small; his hands were white; and his eyes were large, black, and womanly; and, poetry aside, his voice was as the sound of a harp. [Ch. XLIV]
* * *
There was on board our ship, among the emigrant passengers, a rich-cheeked, chestnut-haired Italian boy, arrayed in a faded, olive-hued velvet jacket, and tattered trowsers rolled up to his knee. He was not above fifteen years of age; but in the twilight pensiveness of his full morning eyes, there seemed to sleep experiences so sad and various, that his days must have seemed to him years. It was not an eye like Harry's tho' Harry's was large and womanly. It shone with a soft and spiritual radiance, like a moist star in a tropic sky; and spoke of humility, deep-seated thoughtfulness, yet a careless endurance of all the ills of life.
The head was if any thing small; and heaped with thick clusters of tendril curls, half overhanging the brows and delicate ears, it somehow reminded you of a classic vase, piled up with Falernian foliage.
From the knee downward, the naked leg was beautiful to behold as any lady's arm; so soft and rounded, with infantile ease and grace. His whole figure was free, fine, and indolent; he was such a boy as might have ripened into life in a Neapolitan vineyard; such a boy as gipsies steal in infancy; such a boy as Murillo often painted, when he went among the poor and outcast, for subjects wherewith to captivate the eyes of rank and wealth; such a boy, as only Andalusian beggars are, full of poetry, gushing from every rent.
Carlo was his name; a poor and friendless son of earth, who had no sire; and on life's ocean was swept along, as spoon-drift in a gale. [Ch. XLIX]