Gossipy summer reading about Hawthorne and Melville in “The Whale: A Love Story”

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It’s love at first sight for Herman Melville (r) and Nathaniel Hawthorne (l) in Mark Beauregard’s new novel The Whale: A Love Story (Viking) – and likely a shock for most scholarly readers. Try this excerpt on for size:

“Herman Melville sat fidgeting in a railway car next to Oliver Wendell Holmes as their train chugged toward Stockbridge. Herman was staying at his cousin Robert’s bed and breakfast in the nearby town of Pittsfield…Nathanial Hawthorne was riding up from Stockbridge to meet them.

“Hawthorne’s features were so fine that they could have belonged to a woman: eyebrows that prettily framed his coffee brown eyes; a hawkish Roman nose; sensuous red lips, the bottom lip a wide devouring flare; and waving chestnut hair that fell in ringlets behind his ears.”

And a chapter later, we read that “Herman forgot all about his whale manuscript, and he forgot about his debts and even about his wife and son and mother. He forgot about himself. The only thing he knew for certain was the radiance of Nathaniel Hawthorne.”

Oh, my. Those closeted literary types. Of course, when scholars who are unafraid of the LGBT elements take on the greats, the heteros get sniffish about it. “Where’s the proof,” they demand. It may be right there, in front of them, in the barely disguised stylized writings of a different century before they invented the word “gay”. But to be safe, Beauregard has labelled his work a novel, and invented a bit of history to go with that which is known.

We know a lot about this relationship because there is a body of letters from Melville to Hawthorne. But there is mystery, too, because Melville ended up burning all of his from Hawthorne. Beauregard knows how to decipher these gems, and it does seem the conclusion is inescapable: From the moment Melville first met Hawthorne to the day he died, he was totally infatuated by the good looking writer. Even his The Whale (Moby Dick) was dedicated to his colleague “in token of my admiration for his genius.”

The book keeps the two out of each others bedrooms, but does allude to some kisses, affection and frottage in barns and outdoor locales.

As Tim Pfaff comments in his Bay Area Reporter book review, “Altogether plausibly, Beauregard’s Melville is wholly without gay self-hatred – but at the price of not being able to see anything beyond his personal desires and obsessions. He’s not reliving, but rather, stuck in his own neglected childhood, and everything about him is childish in that way that is often true of the greatest artists. There are lovely, memorable children throughout this book, but for Melville they’re little more than barriers to his access to Hawthorne; there is no greater child than Melville, and he’s a petulant one at that.

“Also preposterous, but in ways that are calculated to make you love him the more. The depiction of a love-besotted, barely clad Melville marching sweatily through the snow at night to see the object of his mania, his make-believe lover with the gall not to answer his overheated letters, is wrenching in its pathos and easily this novel’s finest and truest scene.”

Imagining dinner conversations and idle moments spent between the great writers of the past has always been a favorite way to spend time during the languid days of Summer. This book fills that niche very nicely.

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