The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Herman Melville Sexual Orientation Watch, Part 1

The first time I tried (unsuccessfully) to read Moby-Dick, I was, if I recall correctly, 13 years old.  I don't think I made it as far as "The First Lowering."  I do have a distinct memory of being nonplussed by the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg.  Ishmael awakens to find "Queequeg's arm thrown over [him] in the most loving and affectionate manner" (Ch. IV, "The Counterpane"); that afternoon, Queequeg "pressed his forehead against [Ishmael's], clasped [him] round the waist, and said that henceforth [they] were married" (Ch. X, "A Bosom Friend"); afterward, they lay in bed together chatting, as "Queequeg now and then affectionately [threw] his brown tattooed legs over [Ismael's]" (Ch. XI, "Nightgown").  What the heck is this, thought I?  The 1956 movie didn't prepare me for ... whatever it was that was going on upstairs in the Spouter Inn.

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]


  1. Herman Melville: 1819 - 1891
    Sigmund Freud: 1856 - 1939

    "Moby Dick" was published in 1851. "The Confidence-Man," Melville's last major novel, was published in 1857, before Freud's first birthday. Were sexual relations as front-of-mind as they have come to be in our post-Freudian world?

  2. @ palata88: Thanks for your comments! I think you're right to wonder how conscious people were of sexual relations in the 19th century. For example, I remember reading a letter of condolence to Thomas Carlyle, after the death of his wife, from another author, in which the letter writer said (if I recall correctly), "My intercourse with your wife was one of the high points of my life."

    On the other hand, I think it's possible that a writer's choices of language and topics, over the course of a career, might evidence his sexual orientation. Of course, any conclusions on this topic need to be tentative and based on a holistic view of Melville's life, works, and milieu.