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

Herman Melville

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

Biographical Background

Happily for the more prudish professors of literature, the known facts of Herman Melville's life reveal nothing so scandalous as an overtly homosexual liaison. One can, however, suggest with some certainty that Melville was "confused." For example, when his son Stanwix was born, Melville on the birth certificate accidentally identified his own mother as the mother of his son. This was when he was writing Pierre, a novel patently devoted to themes of incest. Relations with his wife were never very good; the first book published after his wedding, Mardi (1849) is a celebration of the intimate friendship of two men, and equates marriage with suicide. Incestuous mix-ups (which Melville himself linked with homosexuality) and misogyny (which many people link with male homosexuality), are the two rather negative factors taken into account when assessing Melville's erotic makeup. But frankly these two themes do not dominate the bulk of his work, and it is the more positive theme of masculine love which provides the sounder reason for seeing in his works some major threads of the homosexual imagination.

Melville's closest attachment about which we have evidence was with the other great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne - who, as far as I can tell, was so thoroughly heterosexual that nothing untoward could possibly have occurred between them. Melville felt for Hawthorne 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, and cast himself as the woman to Hawthorne's man, as in this slightly embarrassing expression of his love:

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.
Melville's wide-ranging sea adventures made him familiar with homosexuality at first hand, though his Puritan upbringing may have dissuaded him from any actual involvement himself. He started his career as a sailor in 1837, at the age of seventeen, and drew upon his maiden voyage from New York to Liverpool in his novel Redburn (1849), in which we find homosexual elements in the characters of Jackson and Bolton. During a second voyage to the South Seas, 1841-42, he jumped ship in the Marquessas Islands with his friend Richard Tobias Greene, and drew upon this in his first novel Typee (1846), which again has some homosexual undertones. Later he worked in Tahiti, which produced some copy for Omoo (1847), about "bosom friends," and which contains a specific allusion to the "unnatural crimes" of the Tahitian Prince Pomaree II. Contemporary observers even at that time were reporting that homsoexuality was tolerated in the Marquessas and Tahiti.

It is generally admitted that Melville thought his wife dull, and took every opportunity to leave home for the all-male company of bars, shipyards, and long sea voyages. In 1843 Melville was a seaman on the frigate United States, fictionalized in White Jacket (1850), in which he notes that "The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep." The hero of this novel was Jack Chase, the real-life Captain of the Maintop with whom Melville served, and to whom he dedicated Billy Budd in 1891, shortly before his death. William Plomer says of the man to whom Melville was clearly attached:

It was Jack Chase who won Melville's "best love." He need not be represented as the Beatrice to Melville's Dante, or as the only begetter of the whole Melvillean legend of the sea, yet he certainly seems to have been the captain, not only of the main-top in the US frigate United States in the year 1843, but of Melville's soul.
Another abiding memory was of a statue of Antinous, lover of the Emperor Hadrian, which Melville had seen in Italy in 1857. But here the biographical details - such as they are - come to an end. Until more research can unearth any of Melville's personal secrets, we are left with the homosexual patterns in nearly all of his novels as well as in some of his poems. I want here to examine some passages in his two greatest novels, Moby Dick and Billy Budd. The first analysis demonstrates how an author can describe an erotic relationship between males without being quite explicit - a skilful tact necessary in the 1850s. The second analysis demonstrates how an author can pervert his own artistic integrity in order to remain in the closet.

The Honeymoon of Ishmael and Queequeg

Leslie Fiedler, discussing the homosexual-pastoral nature of most American fiction, points out in An End to Innocence (1948) that Ishmael, the narrator of Moby Dick (1851), and Queequeg, the cannibal, are "ambiguously intertwined" in bed when they awake at the Spouter Inn. On can go further than Fiedler, and show that both men are quite unambiguously married, and even symbolically conceive and give birth to a child.

The bed they sleep in is the same marriage bed in which the landlord and his wife spent their wedding night: "it's a nice bed: Sal and me slept in that ere bed the night we were spliced. There's plenty of room for two to kick about in that bed; it's an almighty big bed that." Ishmael, virtually a new bride although a lusty seaman, appropriately goes to bed before Queequeg, the savage harpooner and bridegroom, and shivers in anticipation of her/his husband fulfilling his wedding-night duty:

I was all eagerness to see his face, but he kept it averted for some time while in unlacing the bag's mouth. This accomplished, however, he turned round - when, good heaven, what a sight!
Ishmael, like a terrified coy maiden, lies deathly still as he catches sight of the "bald purplish head" of this "purple rascal," reminding one of another kind of purple head, lower on the body. Queequeg performs his before-bed ritual of undressing, and then springs under the covers with his tomahawk (another euphemism), whereat Ishmael "shrieks out." There is some "kicking about" - which echoes the landlord's earlier promise about the erotic suitability of the bed - and Queequeg begins "feeling" Ishmael. Ishmael leaps out of bed, but the landlord comes running in and persuades him that there is really nothing to fear. No doubt he had given the same reassurance to his own wife Sal on their wedding night. Ishmael returns to bed, and decides that Queequeg is, after all, "on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal." They retire happily, and Ishmael "never slept better in my life."

Next morning Ishmael awakes with "Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner." He muses: "You had almost thought I had been his wife." Just so we do not miss the significance of this line, Melville adds two more variations: "his bridegroom clasp" and "hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style." Events happen quickly in this marriage, for already they have given birth to a child, symbolically of course: "Throwing aside the quilt, there lay the tomahawk sleeping by the savage's side, as if it were a hatchet-faced baby."

Their marriage thus far has not been formally sanctioned by the Church, and Ishmael hears a sermon by Father Maple that makes him feel guilty. The Minister refers to "the adulterer . . . in old Gomorrah" and "one of the missing murderers from Sodom." Perhaps because of this reference to the sins of the cities of the plain, Ishmael and Queequeg that very same day enter into a formal marriage contract - but according to pagan rather than Christian ritual. Together they sit down upon the mat which Queequeg pointedly explains is the same mat upon which both of his sisters had been married. They smoke a ceremonial pipe, and then Queequeg "pressed this forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said henceforth we were married."

Then the two men return to their marriage-bed, this time to taste the sweet joys bred by familiarity:

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 . . . . thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy, loving pair.
While "chatting and napping at short intervals, . . . Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine, and then drawing them back," they become "entirely sociable and free and easy," ready for their adventures with Captain Ahab.

Melville is thus quite explicit about the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, and, except for the baby, we really do not need any abstruse symbolic literary analysis to understand its more than subtle erotic motivation. Symbolic analysis of the entire novel - and everyone agrees that Melville loved symbols! - is too wide a theme to attempt here, but it is worth mentioning the obvious phallic significance of the white whale and Ahab's "castration," the wooden leg being his phallic substitute. Such an analysis would reveal Ahab as a severely repressed homosexual, in contrast to the ease with which Ishmael and Queequeg accept their love for one another. Of course the cannibal's "foreign ways" act as a distancing device which allows mid-nineteenth-century readers to merely be amused by his sleeping with Ishmael.


Melville in many of his works is intensely concerned with the intimate love between males - even extending to marriage between men - irrespective of whether or not we choose to call this homosexual love. In Typee, for example, he and his young friend Toby "ratified our engagement with an affecionate wedding of the palms." Also in Typee, he describes the Polynesian Marnoo, whose "unclad limbs were beautifully formed" and whose "cheek was of a feminine softness." He feels like a woman scorned when this Polynesian Apollo ignores him: "Had the belle of the season, in the pride of her beauty and power, been cut in a place of public resort by some supercilious exquisite, she could not have felt greater indignation than I did at this unexpected slight." Melville almost takes a camp delight in identifying himself with scorned women.

In a possibly autobiographical reference to having experienced physical homosexual relations, Melville in Pierre waxes poetic on the love-friendship between boys:

In their boyhood and earlier adolescence, Pierre and Glen had cherished a much more than cousinly attachment. At the age of ten, they had furnished an example of the truth, that the friendship of fine-hearted, generous boys, nurtured amid the romance-engendering comforts and elegancies of life, sometimes transcends the bounds of mere boyishness, and revels for a while in the empyrean of a love which only comes short by one degree, of the sweetest sentiment entertained between the sexes. Nor is this boy-love without the occasional fillips and spicinesses, which at times, by an apparent abatement, enhance the permanent delights of those more advanced lovers who love beneath the cestus of Venus. The signt of another lad too much consorting with the boy's beloved object, shall fill him with emotions akin to those of Othello's.
This is the typical first-love relationship of chums common to the homoerotic Victorian genre known as the school story, and Melville laments its passing- away:
But as the advancing fruit itself extrudes the beautiful blossom, so in many cases, does the eventual love for the other sex forever dismiss the preliminary love-friendship of boys. The mere outer friendship may in some degree - greater or less - survive, but the singular love in it has perishingly dropped away.
It is worth nothing, however, how Melville qualifies his statement - that this love is lost only in many cases, not in all, as proven in its revival in the love of Ishmael and Queequeg.

Captain Vere's Closet

A very different tone is reached in Melville's last novel, Billy Budd (published posthumously), which suggests to me that Melville increasingly came to recognize his homosexuality - and to realize that it was much more than just the "boy-love" or adolescent friendship described in Pierre - and finally to repress it ruthlessly.

The novel rather clearly describes a triangular love situation between males: the "welken-eyed Baby Budd, the Handsome Sailor"; the innately evil Claggart; and the stern father-figure Captain Vere. Billy, the "rustic beauty with a smooth face all but feminine in the purity of its natural complexion," is indeed "a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the fall." Virtually none of Melville's contemporary writers would have alluded to the nudity of their hero - a tell-tale marker of his interests. This Youth Incarnate, with "a lingering of adolescent expression" and "the dimple in his dyed cheek," might indeed have posed for Tadzio the Eros- figure in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice were he not so robust. Even Claggart is equally lovely, with "silken jet curls partly clustering over" his brow, though the faint pallor of his amber skin suggests "something defective or abnormal," and might more aptly fit him into the cast of Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. Billy undergoes the agony of a crucified Christ or Dionysus because of the paradoxical love/hate advances made toward him by Satan-Claggart.

Billy Budd is the archetypal desired object: he is the vision at whom all eyes would turn to stare at were he to enter a gay bar. Within the specific situation created by Melville, which is literally homosexual insofar as it consists entirely of men, Billy is described as if he were a beautiful woman, this being the most conventional way of describing a desired sex object:

As the "Handsome Sailor" Billy Budd's position aboard the seventy- four was something analogous to that of a rustic beauty transplanted from the provinces and brought into competition with the high-born dames of the court.
He resembles "the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne's minor tales," the one with the birthmark, because his stuttering is his only visible defect. He is like "a condemned vestal priestess." These and other descriptions of Billy's youth, his athletic grace, his flesh, his regal bearing, including allusions to Greek deities and Alexander the Great and "the comely young David" are carefully placed like codes throughout the narrative, giving Melville the opportunity to both expand upon and refine the physical portrait, and to mitigate what otherwise might have become a conspicuous concern with male anatomy.

Traditional critics - who are mostly pro-heterosexual if not actively homophobic - still see Billy merely as "handsome" and dismiss the notion that one man's appreciation for another man's beauty is in itself a sufficient motivation for tragic romance. They see in his good looks merely an innocence and purity rather than stimulants to desire, and rapidly beat a retreat to the safe forum where the moral battle between Good and Evil can be discussed with the security of abstraction. Melville himself beats the same retreat, and provides the safeguard of a chapter on Claggart's Innate Depravity, with reference to Plato and the Bible. But in a clear moment when he is not suppressing his own recognition, Melville quite simply identifies "what it was that had first moved [Claggart] against Billy, namely, his significant personal beauty." And after speculating upon Claggart's intermingled envy, antipathy, jealousy, and the disdain that "assumed various secret forms within him," Melville again recognizes, simply, that Claggart's

glance would follow the cheerful Sea Hyperion with a settled meditative and melancholy expression - his eyes strangely suffused with incipient feverish tears. Then would Claggart look like the man of sorrows. Yes, and sometimes the melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.
This is the tragic story of an unrequited homosexual love affair, the "ban" against which is so pervasive in American culture as to cause the fictional characters, the author and the readers themselves continuously to conspire to suppress it. Melville could not accept that part of himself which, like Claggart, desired Billy Budd. His acknowledgment that "This portrait [of Claggart] I essay, but shall never hit it" is an intellectual predetermination not to hit it, because to do so would reveal too much. Melville clearly wishes to abdicate responsibility for ascribing a motive to Claggart, for to do so would be to recognize that he, like Claggart, desires Billy Budd. Melville's deliberate obfuscation of the personal desire of Claggart - or perhaps his own internal confusion about his own desires - leaves its rhetorical mark in Chapter 7, with the repetition of terms such as "equivocal," "not exactly . . . nevertheless," "suggestive," "It might be . . . and yet . . . a bit of . . . suggesting that possibility," "mysterious," etc. in a marvellous interplay of double negatives. Double negation is the hallmark of the repressed homosexual.

With respect to Claggart's character, Melville observes that "An uncommon prudence is habitual with the subtler depravity, for it has everything to hide." This is a metaphysical analysis of the suppressed and closeted homosexual - and it applies equally to the character of Captain Vere. The major dilemma or mystery or enigma of the novel concerns neither Billy nor Claggart, but Captain Vere. The more provactive question in the novel is not Why did Claggart hate Billy? or Why did Billy kill Claggart? - but What happened in Captain Vere's closet?

The secret interview between Billy Budd and Captain Vere is called the "closeted" interview more than a dozen times, and it seems apt. Precisely "what took place at this interview was never known." But Melville offers some suggestive conjectures:

Captain Vere in the end may have developed the passion sometimes latent under an exterior stoical or indifferent. . . . The austere devotee of military duty letting himself melt back into what remains primeval in our formalized humanity may in the end have caught Billy to his heart even as Abraham may have caught young Isaac on the brink of resolutely offering him up in obedience to the exacting behest. But there is no telling the sacrament . . . two of great Nature's nobler order embrace.
Innumerable descriptions of Captain Vere sum up his desire "to guard as much as possible against publicity," to insist on "the maintenance of secrecy," to contain his "suppressed emotion," to maintain "self-control": in a word, his mind is "resolute to surmount difficulties even if against primitive instincts strong as the wind and the sea." That this is intimately linked to his fear of his own homosexual desires is suggested by his rationalization for not forgiving Billy's unintentional killing of Claggart: "The heart is the feminine in man, and hard though it be, she must here be ruled out."

It has been observed that Melville's novel, supposedly like all true tragedies, ends with a peaceful resolution. This is not at all true. It ends with the barren triumph of self-repression. Billy's humane "God bless Captain Vere" is full of the bitterest irony. At the moment he utters this blessing, which is echoed by the ship's crew, "Captain Vere, either through stoic self-control or a sort of momentary paralysis induced by emotional shock, stood erectly rigid as a musket in the ship-armour's rack" - that is: he becomes an erect penis. The blessing and the execution are followed by a very short chapter called "A Digression," in which the Purser and the Surgeon fail to account for the strange absence of "the muscular spasm" in Billy's hanged body, a "spasm" that is "more or less invariable in these cases." One wonders how many of Melville's readers realize that what is being discussed is the orgasm and ejaculation that usually occur when a man is hanged - one of the reasons why reformers felt that public hangings were obscene. But symbolically, Billy's body is itself Captain Vere's ejaculate: in the ballad which concludes the novel, "Billy in the Darbies," Billy's body hangs from the noose like a "Pendant pearl from the yard- arm-end."

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Herman Melville", Gay History and Literature, 9 Jan. 2000, updated 12 January 2011 <>.

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