August 7, 2019

Celebrating Herman Melville’s 200th Birthday: The Word Is Love

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s so fine, it’s sunshine, it’s the word love….
—John Lennon, from “The Word”

When I began writing this column on Thursday, August 1, an hour into Herman Melville’s 200th birthday, I’d been reading Philip Hoare’s celebration of Moby-Dick in the online July 30 Guardian, where he says he “fell in love with Melville” as much as “he had fallen in love with whales.” With the combination of love and Melville in mind, I had my subject. Two days later, the mass shooting in El Paso followed by Sunday’s in Dayton put hate in the headlines. The news cycle’s massive dissemination of love’s opposite only underscores the enduring power and significance of one of the most casually abused, glorified and degraded verbs in the language. Even so, it remains remarkably durable. John Lennon and the Beatles made an anthem of it in “All You Need Is Love” after paying tribute to it in “The Word.” When Lennon sings, “Everywhere I go I hear it said, in the good and the bad books, that I have read,” I’m thinking of what Melville said after finishing Moby-Dick: “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.”

To Love Melville

On the occasion of Melville’s centenary in August 1919, at a time when the author of Moby-Dick had only begun to be rediscovered, the critic Frank Jewett Mather, Jr., wrote, “Gradually I learned that to love Herman Melville was to join a very small circle. It was like eating hasheesh.”

Loving Melville is not that easy. It’s not like loving sunsets and sunrises, New York City, peanut butter, Mozart, and the goldfinches raiding the bird feeder in the backyard. It’s not a love founded on some ideal of literary greatness, or genius, or enduring fame-after-dying-in-obscurity. I’m not a card-carrying Melvillian for the same reason Groucho Marx refuses to join any club that would have him for a member. I don’t attend seminars, or write scholarly articles, although I do have the only MOBY 1ED license plate in New Jersey. Loving Melville is an obsessive, unapologetic commitment, like loving baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals. I’m a fan. It pleases me to know that my column matching Melville and Marilyn Monroe is posted on an MM tribute blog. The most obvious example of my devotion to the cause is my novel Rosamund’s Vision (1983), which is centered on a ramshackle New Jersey bookshop that has the original manuscript of Moby-Dick stashed in the basement. The idea came from The Melville Log (1951) and Jay Leyda’s mention of the legend declaring that “will-o’-the-wisp Mardi and Moby-Dick manuscripts are still flitting about in New Jersey.”

A Classic Comics Crush

It’s possible my crush on Melville dates back to the Classic Comic of Moby-Dick and the biography at the back: “Sailor … adventurer … poet … humorist and handsome gentleman … Something happened to him at 25, something inside he could never explain. This adventuresome youth became a hard-working writer.” Sounds good, thinks the six-year-old reader as he shrugs off the last part about how the author became a customs inspector in 1866, all but forgotten by the public, “and died, a poor man, in 1891.” I was also under the influence of Louis Zansky’s noirishly-lit frames showing Ishmael asking for a room at the Spouter Inn, which subliminally set me up for the dark turn the book would take when I first came to it 15 years later. In one frame, the landlord, his face bathed in a sinister Jack Davis/Mad Comics aura by the light of the candle he’s holding, tells Ishmael, “So you don’t believe me, eh? Well, ye shall see.” What Ishmael can’t believe is that he’s going to be sharing a bed with a cannibal. Little did I know that the simplistic comicbook “blood brother” friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg would be transformed by Melville into a “rich and strange” comedy romance, with the immortal punchline “Better to sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Melville’s Month

The first week of August loomed as large as the white whale itself for Melville. Besides being born in New York City on August 1, 1819, he married Elizabeth Shaw on August 4, 1847, and met Nathaniel Hawthorne, the literary love of his life, on August 5, 1850. Despite the various recorded rumors about Herman’s treatment of Lizzie during the writing of Moby-Dick, horror stories recently recycled in Jill Lepore’s piece in the July 29 New Yorker, the marriage endured until Melville’s death. In the dedication to a volume of poems he composed “for thee, Madonna of the Trefoils” on their anniversary, less than two months before he died, he recalls the morning of their wedding day, when he found “that rare four-leaved variety [of clover] accounted of happy augury to the finder, though, to be sure, I yearly remind you of the coincidence in my chancing on such a specimen by the wayside on the early forenoon of the fourth day of a certain bridal month, now four years more than four times ten years ago.” For her 69th birthday in June of the same year, he dedicated a volume of verse and the last book published in his lifetime, “To Her — without whose assistance both manual and literary Timoleon could not have passed through the press.”

When Melville turned from fiction to poetry after the failure of The Confidence Man (1857), Lizzie made a futile effort to find a publisher for his verse. Thanking one appreciative editor, she wrote of feeling more confidence in its worth “since it has been such a profound secret between Herman and myself for so long that I rejoice to have my own prejudice in its favor confirmed.” Around the time he published Battle-Pieces (1867), his first book of poetry, Melville’s “terrified wife nearly left him,” her family having “hatched a plot to all but kidnap her,” according to Lepore, who sounds disappointed as she adds, “Lizzie never left.”

Climbing a Mountain

“This 5th of August was a happy day throughout, and I never saw Hawthorne in better spirits,” says publisher/editor/poet James T. Fields of the day Melville and Hawthorne met. During a group ascent of Monument Mountain, both men were notably energized. As Melville “bestrode a peaked rock that ran out like a bowsprit, and pulled and hauled imaginary ropes for our delectation,” Hawthorne was “among the most enterprising of the merrymakers,” as he “ventured to call out lustily and pretend that certain destruction was inevitable to all of us.” This was unusual to say the least for a reclusive writer described by one of the other members of the party as “Mr. Noble Melancholy.” As Fields put it, “Hawthorne rayed out in a sparkling and unwonted manner.” That’s a striking image, the somber author of The Scarlet Letter radiant and sparkling while Melville, as confirmed by another observer, “was the boldest of all.”

A month later, Hawthorne’s devoted and adoring wife Sophia (her heart already warmed by Melville’s appreciation of her husband’s work in “The Literary World”), describes him in a letter to her mother. “A man with a true, warm heart, and a soul and an intellect — with life to his finger-tips.” If she’s not falling for the 31-year-old author, she certainly sounds smitten as she notes his “very keen perceptive power,” and his “air free, brave and manly.” At first she sees his eyes as a defect (what “astonishes” her is that they are “not large and deep,” “not keen,” and “quite undistinguished in any way”), yet she can’t help wondering over what happens as he’s “conversing … full of gesture and force” as “his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected — an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into himself.”

As I noted in the Marilyn/Melville column, “It’s a seductive formula, eyes that put her off only to take her in with their ‘lazy power’ — the way she’s expressed it, the person he was taking deepest note of seems to have been Sophia, who thus feels compelled to add that the subject of the taking ‘into himself’ was not her but the Hawthornes’ six-year-old daughter, Una.”

Hawthorne himself documents Melville’s charm in a journal entry for August 1, 1851, Melville’s 32nd birthday in which he appears as “a cavalier on horseback,” saluting Hawthorne and his young son Julian and at one point putting the boy into the saddle for a ride of “at least a mile homeward.” Four days later another journal entry has Julian saying “that he loved Mr. Melville as well as me, and as mamma, and as Una.”

“Moby-Dick” a Love Letter

Calling Moby-Dick a “love letter” to Hawthorne, Philip Hoare misleadingly claims that it was “sadly unreciprocated.” In fact, the letter Hawthorne sent Melville after reading the book was, as Melville told him, “joy-giving and exultation-breeding … A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book.” Hawthorne’s understanding meant everything because Melville already intuited that, as he told Hawthorne in another letter, “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter.”

“Moby-Dick Big Read”

Regardless of my quibble about his reference to the unreciprocated love letter, I enjoyed Philip Hoare’s piece (“Subversive, queer and terrifyingly relevant: six reasons why Moby-Dick is the novel for our times”), which includes contact information for the Moby-Dick Big Read curated by Hoare and artist Angela Cockayne. There you can hear the entire novel read by a host of readers including Tilda Swinton, Fiona Shaw, Stephen Fry, Benedict Cumberbatch and 130 others; it’s at If Tilda Swinton’s sensitive reading of the first chapter is any indication, the Big Read is the essence of what it means to love Melville.