At the end of her quirky 1996 biography of Melville, Laurie Robertson-Lorant (now a professor at U. Mass., Dartmouth) includes a quirky discussion of Melville's sexuality. It's short -- three pages -- which is good, because she avoids a sustained argument.
She begins with a fun poke at deconstruction, observing that scholars are "as mesmerized by Paul deMan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, and Jacques Lacan as Ahab was by Fedallah and his crew of phantoms[.]" Their politicizing of "[t]he language of sex and gender" is not for her. She prefers to treat sex and gender as "organic components of complex, changeable human beings."
She then lays it on the line: "In successive drafts of this biography, I have struggled to craft a language for talking about Melville's sexuality without force-fitting him into the Procrustean bed of theory." She's simply not ready to label him a gay writer. While she concedes (as anyone must) that "his writings reflect a deep longing for emotional intimacy with other men," we lack evidence of gay sex on Melville's part. Set Melville beside Whitman, Oscar Wilde, or Charles Warren Stoddard, as she suggests -- the contrast is instructive.
Melville confuses us because of the upheaval (she uses the French term bouleversement) in his sexual attitudes when he lived in the South Seas. In the literary world of antebellum America, he was an exotic. Today, it's easy, probably too easy, to see gayness in the exotics among us. But we err in applying the same worldly wisdom to Melville.
Robertson-Lorant also tries to contextualize same-sex activities. Male travelers often shared beds; "erotic tropes" were often used between close friends of the same sex. She puts the brakes on headlong readings of Melville's heavily scrutinized letters to Hawthorne, which are "more narcissistic than erotic[.]" And she rightly criticizes the view that Melville must have had gay sex "because all sailors did[.]"
Melville's fiction was "transgressive" (there's that word again), probing and questioning the pieties of his day. Reducing that to "Melville was gay" detracts from his artistic achievements and ultimately makes his work less challenging.
Still, we mustn't presume to be definitive. Yet-undiscovered letters and diaries may wait out there, ready to work a bouleversement in our Melville orientation. "One never knows what 'great gliding phantom' will emerge from the lost material about, or by, the elusive Herman Melville."
Herman Melville Sexual Orientation Watch, Part 1