You may know Herman Melville from a little book called Moby-Dick, one of the most famous classics that nobody has read. A couple of months ago I decided to take on the beast himself and was surprised by the homosexual undertones of the story. They’re pretty out there. I would go so far as to just call them tones. It all starts when Ishmael, the one who declares “Call me Ishmael” in the famous opening lines, meets Queequeg, a harpooner, at the “Spouter-Inn” before the two characters go off to sea.
I was trying my hardest not to read their intimate scenes from a modern lens, but Melville makes it pretty difficult. Ishmael and Queequeg first become friends on the front porch of the Inn. During their smoking session, Ishmael notes “Queequeg seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning…we were bosom friends.” Married? Bosom friends? That sounds a little suspect to me. The physicality of their relationship is intriguing because the physical togetherness that precipitates from this “marriage” implies a bond between lovers, instead of friends. I ship them (pun intended) so much!
Just when I thought the homoeroticism had ended, Melville shocks us yet again! In the chapter entitled “Bosom Friend,” which suggests that Ishmael is going to explain what he meant by the use of this term earlier in the book, perhaps shore-ing up a platonic reading of the phrase, he instead writes, “There is no place like a bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts’ honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg—a cosy, loving pair.” Uhhh. I am just going to go out and say that their relationship is more than just friends. Friends-with-benefits maybe (as we millennials may put it), but it’s evident that there’s some love in the air. C’mon, they’re man and wife!
This made me start thinking about another odd fact about the novel: the book is dedicated to Nathanial Hawthorne, the author of The Scarlet Letter. What sort of relationship did they have? I did some digging around and found a series of correspondences between Melville and Hawthorne, that I may go so far as to call love letters. I know, a 19th century romance, how exciting!
In one letter Melville writes, “Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips – lo, they are yours and not mine.” The sexual energy feels a little overwhelming if you ask me. Something tells me he’s not only talking about a drinking container, but in the spirit of keeping it PG, Melville is clearly fantasizing about Hawthorne’s lips.
Later, Melville notes, “But I felt pantheistic then – your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s.” There’s some “unity” between the two authors: two chests close enough to feel each other’s heartbeat. This closeness may be strictly metaphorical, but that would still indicate some “special” relationship between them. This made me think about Queequeg and Ishmael’s “bosom friends” relationship, and how both situations highlight the physicality of their unity—of their hearts being one. Is there some parallel that can be drawn between these two relationships? I can only imagine the bravery that must’ve went through writing these taboo emotions. Because of this, I want to commend Melville for his ability to remain iconoclastic in such a socially conservative time.
Sadly, it is difficult to know if Hawthorne ever returned his feelings for Melville. Where Melville’s marriage was famously turbulent and problematic, Hawthorne was quite in love with his wife.
Now, do you want to read Moby-Dick?
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