Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Pieces of God

The Gay Love Letters of Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Photograph of Hermann Melville

The relations between Herman Melville (1819–91) and his wife were never very good; the first novel published after his wedding, Mardi (1849) is a celebration of the intimate friendship of two men, and equates marriage with suicide. When his son Stanwix was born, Melville on the birth certificate accidentally identified the mother as his own mother this was when he was writing his novel Pierre, which is explicitly devoted to themes of incest. Melville's wide-ranging sea adventures made him familiar with homosexuality at first hand. His maiden voyage as a cabin boy from New York to Liverpool in 1837, when he was seventeen, was the basis of his novel Redburn in which we find gay elements in the characters of Jackson and Bolton. During a voyage to the South Seas in 1841–2, Melville jumped ship in the Marquessas Islands with his friend Richard Tobias Greene, and drew upon this experience in his first novel Typee, which also has homosexual undertones. In his novel Omoo, drawing upon his experience of "bosom friends" in Tahiti, he specifically refers to the "unnatural crimes" of the Tahitian Prince Pomaree II. His experience as a seaman in 1843 was fictionalized in White Jacket, in which ships are called "wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep." The hero of the novel is based upon Jack Chase, the Captain of the Maintop with whom Melville served, and to whom he dedicated Billy Budd shortly before his death. This latter novel describes a triangular love relationship between the stern father-figure Captain Vere, the innately evil Claggart, and Billy Budd, "a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the fall." The "Handsome Sailor" is the archetypal desired object. Claggart's envy and antipathy are a result of repression: "sometimes [his] melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban." Captain Vere similarly suppresses his own love in favour of the rules of society. The novel is a paradigm of closet homosexuality. In the opening pages of Melville's greatest novel, Moby Dick (1851), the narrator Ishmael and the cannibal Queequeg go to bed together, and symbolically marry and even give birth. The bed in which they sleep at the Spouter Inn is the landlord's marriage bed; Ishmael plays the role of the terrified coy maiden, waiting in bed while the bridegroom gets undressed: "This accomplished, however, he turned round – when, good heaven, what a sight!" Queequeg springs under the covers with his tomahawk (!) and Ishmael "shrieks." There is some "kicking about" and Queequeg begins "feeling" Ishmael. Next morning Ishmael awakes with "Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife." Melville emphasizes the point by referring again to "his bridegroom clasp" and "hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style." And they even bear offspring, rather more quickly than heterosexuals: "Throwing aside the quilt, there lay the tomahawk sleeping by the savage's side, as if it were a hatchet-faced baby." An imagination informed by large symbolic relevance also informed Melville's relationship with his fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne, for whom he felt a powerful love that excluded consideration of both their wives. When he met Hawthorne, his neighbor in Massachusetts, he immediately fell for him, as yin for yang: "A man of a deep and noble nature had seized me in this seclusion. . . . The soft ravishments of the man spun me round about in a web of dreams. . . . But already I feel that Hawthorne had dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil in my Southern soul."


[1? June 1851]

My Dear Hawthorne,
. . . In a week or so, I go to New York, to bury myself in a third-story room, and work and slave on my "Whale" while it is driving through the press. . . . It is a rainy morning; so I am indoors, and all work suspended. I feel cheerfully disposed, and therefore I write a little bluely. Would the Gin were here! If ever, my dear Hawthorne, in the eternal times that are to come, you and I shall sit down in Paradise, in some little shady corner by ourselves; and if we shall by any means be able to smuggle a basket of champagne there (I won't believe in a Temperance Heaven), and if we shall then cross our celestial legs in the celestial grass that is forever tropical, and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert, – then, O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us, – when all the earth shall be but reminiscence, yea, its final dissolution an antiquity. Then shall songs be composed as when wars are over; humorous, comic songs, – "Oh, when I lied in that queer little hole called the world," or, "Oh, when I toiled and sweated below," or, "Oh, when I knocked and was knocked in the fight" – yes, let us look forward to such things. Let us swear that, though now we sweat, yet it is because of the dry heat which is indispensable to the nourishment of the vine which is to bear the grapes that are to give us the champagne hereafter. . . .

Pittsfield, Monday afternoon
[17? November 1851]

. . . Your letter [praising Moby Dick] was handed me last night on the road going to Mr Morewood's, and I read it there. Had I been at home, I would have sat down at once and answered it. In my divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous – catch them while you can. The world goes round, and the other side comes up. So now I can't write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic then – your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God's. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. . . .
          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. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. Now, sympathizing with the paper, my angel turns over another page. You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book – and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul. Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon, – the familiar, – and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes. . . .
          If the world was entirely made up of Magians, I'll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand – a million – billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question – they are One.

SOURCE: Reprinted by permission of the publishers from The Letters of Herman Melville, ed. Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman, Copyright © 1960 Yale University Press.

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