English 341

American Lit: Nation & Narration


A Research Paper

Melville's Men

by Jonathan Roche

The body of this argument lies in a meager psychoanalysis of Melville. I have had to take a very broad approach, look at Melville purely as a man. I have attempted to put the reader into Melville's head, where I have attempted to put myself. To better achieve this I discuss much of Melville's background, hoping to give the reader a sense of what he had experienced. I have written with confidence, but hopefully not too much, you must decide for yourselves what of mine you feel is right. It is always very hard to use psychoanalytical approaches, because, as the mind is a mystery, it is all ultimately unproved. All psychoanalytical opinion is based on event, as all psychology is based on the idea that men are shaped by experience. I speculate below, on things I cannot really know, and I do this only to achieve some rough personal connections between Melville and his Moby-Dick. It serves me, and I hope you as well.

Herman Melville might have been a homosexual, or at least, a lover of men. Of course the word, "Homosexual" did not exist in Melville's time and so he could not really be a homosexual. Besides this, there is little to no evidence that Melville ever did, or desired to engage in genital, homosexual sex. There is no way of knowing that he was homosexual, but there are many implications that he at least had strong affections toward men. The question is: How was this reflected in what is generally considered to be Melville's greatest work, Moby-Dick? Or one could even ask, how does the homoeroticism, ever present in Moby-Dick, reflect on Melville's own sexuality? Because homoeroticism, or rather, male friendships are such a large theme in Moby-Dick, one might also think to ask what it all means to the greater message of the book. The parallels between Melville's own sexual identity and the sexual identity of his protagonist, Ishmael are quite strong. Thus it follows that Moby-Dick might have been Melville's attempt to understand his own sexuality and its' course, or at least his fantasy.

Sigmund Freud theorized that while most male children are secretly attracted to their mothers, homosexual male children harbor attraction toward their fathers. While I am not calling him a homosexual, it seems clear to me that Melville's relationship with his father must have effected him. I assume the effect to be negative, because, Allan Melville was not a model father. As a child Herman stood in the shadow of his favored, older brother, Gansevoort, who at a young age was already accomplished in school.[.5] Conversely Herman was described by his father as, "very backward in speech and somewhat slow in comprehension,"[1] Later on in school Herman began to excel, but at the time his father was too busy to notice, under great financial pressures, he was constantly working. On one business trip, Allan Melville's boat was trapped on an iced over river, he had to cross the ice on foot. Not resting sufficiently after his ordeal he quickly began to "occasionally manifest an alienation of the mind."[2] Soon after he died, leaving his large family in quite uncertain circumstances. The absence of the chief male influence in Melville's early life might have left him searching for a man to be close to. It seems plausible that Herman's attraction to men grew out of the attention and love he never received from his father.

The Parallels between Melville's father and Ahab are quite apparent. Both are very driven and uncompromising men. Melville's father hovered in a state of financial distress for quite sometime, never lowering his extravagant life style or ceasing to speculate. Much like Ahab with his crew, Melville's father was known to employ violent disciplinary action in the raising of his children.[3] Melville's father went insane, and the same could be said of Ahab. Melville's father is the mad captain of Melville's childhood as Ahab is of Ishmael's voyage. Through all of his neglect and abuse, Melville's father planted an evil seed in his son, a seed that could bloom into the full-fledged flower of hate. Ahab does the same to Ishmael; he plants a black seed in all his crew when he convinces them to take an oath to join him in his dark purpose. Still, despite Ahab's insanity and evil intention, Ishmael follows him for a good while; Ahab is quite compelling. Much the same, Melville studied commerce in his youth, following in the footsteps of his father.[4]

Melville does not desire his father, but desires because of his father, who is much like Ahab, a man of passion. Both Melville's father and Ahab are also men of madness and hate. The child looks to the father like the sailor does to his captain, ready to follow, but what do they follow? Ahab says, "I now know thee,... to neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind... I own thy speechless, placeless power... oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee."[5] Ahab hates Moby-Dick for taking his leg. Ahab throws his hate back at the whale and at God, who is always culpable. He hates them for crippling and debasing him, for making him who he is. He hates who he is, and so hates himself. The fire of hate he breathes, he breathes into a mirror and it is reflected back at him, it destroys him. Ahab passes the seed of hate on to Ishmael, but if it grows in him he will grow to hate. A new Ishmael will be made in the fire of Ahab's hate, becoming it's child, only to father another.

Ishmael, as we know, avoids this fate. The hate is taken out of him by the only thing that can truly remove hate: love. Melville hopes to avoid what his father gave him, or rather fill the void of what his father did not give him, love. What Melville seeks is the equal male relationship; a chance to find his father in other men and then meet them as an equal. He wants no dominance or ranking, but rather perfect equality and perfect love. This equality takes form both mind and body. It is a lot to be close to someone in mind, but the truest closeness also involves the body. Perhaps Melville's homoerotic desires reflected in Moby-Dick are a backlash to the physical brutality his father showed him. In the chapter, "A Squeeze of the Hands," Ishmael says as he squeezes sperm whale and friends' hands, "I forgot all about our horrible oath... I felt divinely free from all ill-will, or petulance, or malice... such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this advocation beget... why should we longer cherish any social acerbities or know the slightest ill-humor or envy... let us all squeeze ourselves into each other."[6]

As Ishmael forgets his oath to Ahab he is released from the self-destructive course of the Pequod. Of course Ishmael is still stuck on the ship. What saves Ishmael from being consumed in Ahab's hatred also saves him from being taken down with the ship as an innocent bystander. It is Ishmael's love for Queequeg that is his salvation, he finds in Queequeg an equal relationship and a man who will love him. From their very first night together on shore they had been friendly lovers. After that first night Queequeg takes all his money and gives Ishmael half, thus perfectly maintaining their equality. Queequeg has exactly thirty pieces of silver to split between them, this is a symbolic leaving behind of Judas's betrayal of Jesus. Also symbolic, Ishmael is saved from drowning by Queequeg's coffin, one last gift from his friend.

Melville is his Ishmael, and Ahab is Mellville's father, but where is Melville's real life Queequeg to rescue him from his father's legacy? The obvious candidate for this position is Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville wrote many letters to Hawthorne over the ten year period that they were friends between 1846 and 1856.[7] It is clear that Melville greatly admired Hawthorne and vigorously sought the "friendship" of the older man. In a letter sent to Hawthorne on November 17th, 1851 Melville says, "your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours."[8] Melville would have Hawthorne complete him, he would have them "squeeze" themselves "into each other."[9] In an essay titled "Hawthorne and his Mosses" Melville says that "this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate them; and further, and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul."[10] Hawthorne's impregnation of Melville fills Melville with good feeling, and so stands opposed to the bad seed sown by Melville's father.

Why does Melville choose Hawthorne? One theory is that the heart of Melville's homoeroticism is not desire but self-loathing.[11] This is consistent with the lack of love from Melville's father. Melville never really learned to love himself; he lived in the shadow of his brother, as a true second son, just as Ishmael is. As an American writer Melville was generally "considered to be the first or second most popular"[12] , while Hawthorne was probably the most esteemed writer of the time. Melville did not want to live in Hawthorne's shadow, to be second class, he wanted to breakdown such barriers and be an equal. "I am told, my fellow-man, that there is an aristocracy of the brain, "[13] writes Melville in a letter to Hawthorne. Melville goes on to say how he does not want believe this. His use of the words "my fellow-man" shows how he wishes equality between them. In many of his letters to Hawthorne , Melville begs for a sign of weakness from Hawthorne, he entreats, "Let us speak, thought we show all our faults and weaknesses."[13.5] Either Hawthorne does not show his faults or he has no faults to show that would satisfy Melville.

Melville searches to justify his belief in and desire for equality. "It is but nature to be shy of a mortal who boldly declares that a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington. This is Ludicrous. But Truth is the silliest thing under the sun."[14] Melville secures his idealized vision of equality this way. He braces his fantasy by saying that the more people laugh at it the more it is true. In another letter to Hawthorne Melville refers to the motto of "Moby-Dick", "(the secret one)", "Ego non baptiso te in nomine,"[15] which translates, madness is undefinable. Melville protects himself again, his motto defies anyone who would think his views mad. He does not hate his father just as Ishmael does not hate Ahab, because he would not judge them else he be judged by the world.

Melville's love was not accepted by the world, just as his Moby-Dick was not a success. It was Hawthorne who inspired Melville to turn what would have been a simple whaling adventure into the epic that it is,[15.5] but then Hawthorne failed Melville, in that he could not fulfill the love that Melville so desired. Melville writes, "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... when all the earth shall be but a reminiscence."[16] Melville realizes that his dream of equal love will never truly be realize in his life. For Melville, a mad captain had been steering the boat, and he was almost caught up in the captain's madness, but was saved by another, who was then lost to him. Finally, Melville's voyage has ended, and he is left alone, an orphan floating on the open sea.

Somewhere, on a page I have read but can no longer find, if you will take it on faith, Melville wrote about how eventually every man must put his desires into some "attainable felicity." Melville was eventually married, and lived out a peaceful, comfortable life with his wife. At one in the morning of September 28th, 1891 Herman Melville died of what was diagnosed as "an enlargement of the heart."[17]


1. Hayford, Harrison & Parker, Hershel. A Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1967)

2. Martin, Robert K. . Hero, Captain, and Stranger (Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986)

3. Leverenz, David. Manhood and the American Renaissance (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1989)

4. Tolchin, Neal L. . Mourning, Gender, and Creativity in the Art of Herman Melville (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1988)

5. Howard, Leon. Herman Melville: A Biography (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1951)

6. Thompson, G.R. & Lokke, Virgil L. . Ruined Eden of the Present: Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe (Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1981)

Jones, Buford. Some "Mosses" from the Literary World: Critical and Bibliographical Survey of The Hawthorne-Melville Relationship