A Paper Presented
At the Annual Convention of the National Council of Teachers of English
Indianapolis, IN, Friday, 19 November 2004
by John W. Stuart, Ph.D.
Dr. John W. Stuart, Chair, Department of English, Manchester-Essex Regional High School, Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA(courtesy of Dr. John W. Stuart)
I would like to begin by sharing with you some of the experiences that have led
me to today’s presentation. Early in 1998 at the request of some of my students,
I became a Co-Founding Sponsor of our school’s gay-straight alliance or GSA, through
which we worked on behalf of making our school safer and more welcoming for all
its students, staff members, and visitors regardless of their sexuality. Our GSA
began as a very active group that eventually included approximately ten per cent
of our student body as members. We became the first suburban public school to
host The Shared Heart photographic exhibit of young gay and lesbian people,
each of whom had composed a brief autobiography to accompany his or her photo.
During all our GSA activities, there was, of course, the daily grind of classes,
several of which happened to be finishing Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
in October, 1998, just after some of us had attended a remarkable celebration
of National Coming Out Day at Phillips Andover Academy. A brainstorm that I
had experienced previously in regard to the Rev. Mr. Dimmesdale’s actions in
the narrative finally seemed too appropriate to resist including as one of my
essay test questions for The Scarlet Letter. Here is what it said:
Hawthorne's bisexual contemporary, Herman Melville (author of Moby-Dick
and Billy Budd), who was also a close friend to the author of The
Scarlet Letter and a great admirer of the novel, may well have viewed Arthur
Dimmesdale's struggle with a "secret" as a powerful parallel or metaphor for
the position of a gay or bisexual person "in the closet." With this week's National
Coming Out Day 1998 (an occasion for gay and lesbian organizations to advocate
"coming out of the closet" that has so long contributed to homophobic oppression)
in mind, trace Dimmesdale's movement from concealment to revelation and parallel
it with whatever you happen to know about . . . moves "out of the closet."
“Outing” Dimmesdale, so to speak, worked so well in my classes that a little over
a year later, when I joined the Hawthorne in Salem website project, I had no hesitation
in choosing the Hawthorne-Melville relationship topic as the one I most wanted
to investigate for the site. I wrote to the site’s founder, North Shore Professor
Terri Whitney, on May 2, 2000, telling her about my Scarlet Letter assignment
that “asks students to examine Dimmesdale’s ultimate revelation as a kind of coming
out experience with obvious appeal to the gay sensibility of his friend and admirer,
fellow novelist Herman Melville.” I went on to say that the relationship between
the two authors “is a timely topic indeed, and any light that the website could
lend it would be valuable.”
Terri assigned me to study the Hawthorne-Melville relationship; and, although I also got to work with David Donavel on the topic of Faith and Religion for the website, I eventually had the Hawthorne-Melville section entirely to myself. What I found and posted for it over the course of the ensuing three years amounted to a fascinating research experience, the results of which I want to summarize for you.
Terri had received a three year grant of a quarter of a million dollars from the National Endowment for the Humanities for the Hawthorne in Salem website. One of the first and most important ways that the money was used was in setting up a lecture series by Hawthorne scholars at Salem’s Turner House, better known as The House of the Seven Gables, or at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillips Library. Almost the entirety of the lectures can now be found on the website by any user of the worldwide web, but the live audience for them in the fall of 2000 was generally limited to the half dozen or so of us who were charged with developing the site’s content.
Dr. David Kesterson of North Texas State University delivered his lecture
“Hawthorne and Melville”
at the Phillips Library on September 23, 2000, giving the website one of its
finest pieces of scholarship. Here are some excerpts from his talk:
The zenith of [Hawthorne and Melville’s] relationship was reached
. . . when Moby-Dick was published in middle November of 1851 and was
dedicated to Hawthorne [“To Nathaniel Hawthorne: In token of my admiration for
his genius”]. Hawthorne’s letter to Melville [at the time], like most of those
to his friend, has not been preserved, but Melville’s answer on November 17
. . . speaks of the effect Hawthorne’s letter had upon him, in terms characteristic
of his impassioned utterances:
I felt pantheist then—your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. . . . 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. . . . Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. . . . Ah! It’s a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold. But with you for a passenger, I am content and can be happy. . . .
As [Arlin]Turner says in analyzing this letter, “[Melville] was aware, it can be assumed, of the inclusiveness and interwoven imagery of his letter, and no less aware of the meaning behind the imagery. The same awareness can be assumed on the part of Hawthorne”. Edwin Haviland Miller, who interprets Melville’s affection for Hawthorne as in part sexual, says that in this passage, “the most ardent and doubtlessly one of the most painful he was ever to write, he candidly and boldly laid bare his love”. Miller goes on to say that “when Hawthorne retreated from Lenox, he retreated from Melville. How Hawthorne felt his reticences keep us from knowing, but his friend wrestled with the problems and nature of the relationship almost until the end of his life”. Turner says only that “there is evidence through the remaining forty years of Melville’s life that he thought he had been rebuffed by Hawthorne, and that he felt a genuine regret for his loss.”
Kesterson also includes a famous published Melvillian reference to Hawthorne that is at least as filled with sexual imagery as the verse of Walt Whitman. It is in the . . .
suggestive panegyric [in his 1850 review of Hawthorne’s Mosses
from an Old Manse], [that] Melville writes . . . “already I feel that this
Hawthorne has 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 in the hot soil of my Southern soul”.
Hawthorne had also given Melville a positive book review but characteristically expressed it with ambiguity. As Kesterson says,
. . . Hawthorne liked [Melville’s novel Typee], observing
[in 1846] that . . . Melville has “that freedom of view—it would be too harsh
to call it laxity of principle—which renders him tolerant of codes of morals
that may be little in accordance with our own; a spirit proper enough to a young
and adventurous sailor . . .”
Hawthorne is much more explicit in regard to same sex relationships and perhaps
alludes to Melville’s wooing of him in his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance.
In excerpting that work for the website, I introduced it as follows:
In the following excerpts from Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance,
the Hawthorne-like character, poet and narrator Miles Coverdale, and the Melville-like
character, passionate monomaniac Hollingsworth suggest Melville's influence
on the novel. The first person narrator, a young man who joins a major enterprise
with mostly adventure-seeking motives, certainly calls to mind narrator Ishmael
in Melville's Moby-Dick. The dark and brawny Hollingsworth, bearing a
physical resemblance to Melville, cares for Coverdale and seeks his partnership,
moreover, in an intensity that seems to parallel Melville's evident affection
for and desire for intimacy with Hawthorne. The sharp, mysterious break in the
relationships between the two authors and the fictional pair constitute yet
Among the relevant excerpts are the following:
In Chapter Four
Coverdale describes Hollingsworth's "dark complexion, his abundant beard, and the rude strength with which his features seemed to have been hammered out of iron, rather than chiselled or moulded from any finer or softer material." He adds that in Hollingsworth's "gentler moods, there was a tenderness in his voice, eyes, mouth, in his gesture, and in every indescribable manifestation, which few men could resist, and no woman."
In Chapter Six
Coverdale notes that "there was something of the woman moulded into the great, stalwart frame of Hollingsworth; nor was he ashamed of it, as men often are of what is best in them, nor seemed ever to know that there was such a soft place in his heart. . . . I besought Hollingsworth to let nobody else enter the room, but continually to make me sensible of his own presence by a grasp of the hand, a word, -- a prayer, if he thought good to utter it . . . ."
In Chapter Nine
Coverdale declares, "I loved Hollingsworth, as has already been enough expressed." He adds, "If . . .[Priscilla] thought him beautiful, it was no wonder. I often thought him so, with the expression of tender, human care, and gentlest sympathy . . . ." And in Hawthorne's most explicitly homoerotic allusion, Coverdale notes, "the footing, on which we all associated at Blithedale, was widely different from that of conventional society. While inclining us to the soft affections of the Golden Age, it seemed to authorize any individual, of either sex, to fall in love with any other, regardless of what would elsewhere be judged suitable and prudent."
And finally from Chapter Twenty-six
Coverdale concludes the tale of Zenobia's hopeless love for Hollingsworth and enigmatically adds, "It suits me not to explain what was the analogy that I saw, or imagined, between Zenobia's situation and mine; nor, I believe, will the reader detect this one secret, hidden beneath many a revelation which perhaps concerned me less."
Actually, the reader would have to be remarkably obtuse not to recognize the sexual
tension between Coverdale and Hollingsworth. If only we could know what Melville
thought when he read it! Certainly, Melville was aware that Brook Farm in Roxbury,
Massachusetts, which Blithedale represents, had enjoyed the company of Hawthorne
as a communal society member for most of 1841. Perhaps he also knew that substantial
portions of Coverdale’s first person narration are taken directly from Hawthorne’s
Brook Farm journals, and he would certainly know better than we the extent to
which the novel may also represent allusions to Hawthorne’s and his experiences
together during the year before the publication of Blithedale.
Let me return briefly to Dr. Kesterson for his observation of the circumstances
surrounding the creation of Moby-Dick. He notes . . .
The major occurrence in Melville’s life . . . during the writing
of Moby-Dick was the growing friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne . .
. . We are reminded that throughout the fall and winter of 1850, and summer
of 1851, Hawthorne and Melville were visiting and writing to each other. . Hawthorne
encapsulating their conversation [of August 1, 1851] by writing in his journal:
“Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and
of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters,
that lasted pretty deep into the night . . . .”
Coincidental with our work on the Hawthorne in Salem website, the year 2001 marked
the sesquicentennial of the original publication of Moby-Dick; and Shakespeare
and Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, marked the occasion by staging an original
play about the role of Hawthorne and Melville’s relationship in the making of
that great work. The play is entitled A Tanglewood Tale, and its authors
Stephen and Juliane Glantz generously granted us permission to quote excerpts
from the play while Shakespeare and Company graced us with the show’s publicity
photos, making for some of the site’s most effective images. Here is how I
introduce excerpts from the play on the site:
[A Tanglewood Tale] dramatizes the developing friendship of
Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville during the 1850-1851 period when both
authors resided in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. In spite of their strong
attraction to each other, they become estranged by fundamental differences.
Puritan-in-spite-of himself Hawthorne is pressed too far when worldly former
whaler Melville becomes explicit about shipboard liaisons with fellow sailors.
Though the play suggests Hawthorne is curious about same sex relations, the
reserved New Englander flees Melville and the Berkshires rather than pursue
The words that the playwrights give to Melville in Act Two, Scene Eight, for the
occasion at the Curtis Hotel ballroom, which he had arranged for the two novelists
alone to celebrate the publication of Moby-Dick, attempt to explain a plausible
way that the younger, more worldly author, might have alienated Hawthorne:
MELVILLE - Well, I’m drunk enough to say anything and forget I ever said it . . . So here we are . . . When sailing the seas, Hawthorne, many men look to each other for the things only women on shore can provide. And a common understanding among sailors is that as soon as the ship reaches dry land, all is forgotten. You and all the others know this about sailors. But you are all afraid to ask. You are curious about me, Hawthorne, are you not? Yet you ask not. Where is the reason and logic to that?
In the last scene of the play, Melville ironically recites his passionate final letter to Hawthorne, which has been carefully preserved, while he destroys his letters from Hawthorne. Melville’s concluding words are from his “Monody,” a poem that is thought to express his deep personal loss when learning of Hawthorne’s death in 1864:
To have known him, To have loved him after loneness long; And then to be estranged in life, And neither in the wrong; And now he’s left to set his seal – Ease me, a little ease, my song! By wintry hills his hermit-mound the sheeted snow-drifts drape, And houseless there the snow-bird flits beneath the fir-trees’ crape: Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine that hid the shyest grape.
The last piece from the Hawthorne in Salem website that I want to call to your
attention in regard to the Hawthorne-Melville relationship is my essay “Echoes
of Hawthorne in Melville’s Billy Budd,” which contains a section on
same sex relationships. The other two parts of the essay build upon Melville’s
allusion in Billy Budd to Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark” and draw
parallels between the two authors in regard to their interests in the nature of
good and evil. Here is the portion that relates most clearly to the two authors’
Same sex relationships in the all male environment of Billy Budd’s
British as well as Herman Melville’s American ships are understood. As former
First Lord of the Admiralty, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once witheringly
quipped, British naval tradition might well be equated with sodomy. Although
Billy Budd lacks the “marriage” rites of Moby-Dick’s Ishmael and
Queequeg, itcontains endearments for “Handsome Sailor” Billy that leave little
doubt as to many of his mates’ ardent feelings toward him. The old Dansker on
the British warship originates “Baby Budd,” also shortened to “Baby,” in reference
to Billy, “the name by which the foretopman eventually became known aboard ship.”
Readers also hear “one Donald” addressing Billy as “Beauty.”
Captain Graveling of Billy’s first ship The Rights of Man notes of
his crew’s feelings for Billy that “they all love him,” and Captain Vere muses
upon the asset that the impressed Billy brings to H.M.S. Bellipotent
as “a fine specimen of the genus homo, who in the nude might well have posed
for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.” Arch diction indeed from Melville,
for whom “genus homo” might well serve as a subtitle for the early
between-the-lines gay manifesto that Billy Budd constitutes! But if
the novelette subtly promotes liberated sexuality, as do a number of Melville’s
narratives, it primarily does so indirectly by means of demonstrating negative
consequences of traditional, repressive Western culture.
Billy’s pathological enemy, Master at Arms John Claggart, initially resents the young sailor precisely because of “his significant personal beauty.” Claggart’s recognition of Billy’s innocence as well
but intensified his passion . . . . Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it.
Claggart, in other words, like the Handsome Sailor’s many admirers, finds Billy attractive; but, since he believes that, for some unspecified reason, perhaps a result of paranoia, no closeness can ever exist between the two of them, the more desirable that Claggart perceives Billy, the more he hates him.
In surveying Billy, “sometimes [Claggart’s] melancholy expression would have in it a touch of soft yearning, as if [he] could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban.” Evidently, Claggart has not fully disguised his private appreciation of Billy; but, because he believes something forbids any future for such feelings, he hardens his heart more and more fiercely toward the object of his desire. What “fate” and what “ban” does his misguided imagination perceive? Do their roles on the ship or elsewhere in society somehow doom any intimacy between them? Or does Claggart just presume Billy could never reciprocate his feelings? Might the Master at Arms simply despise sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular and, as a result, find himself driven all the more mad by his uncontrollable “yearning”? Whatever the accurate diagnosis, it is clear that Claggart distorts any positive feelings he possesses for Billy into negative ones with terrible consequences.
Claggart’s repressed, closeted attraction to Billy finds parallels with
some interpretations of Hawthorne’s evident spurning of Melville’s too intimate
attentions and Hawthorne’s character in The Blithedale Romance Coverdale’s
similar rejection of the invitation from Holingsworth to be his “friend of
friends, forever.” For Melville, Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale’s agonizing
acknowledgement of adultery must have seemed a stunning parallel with what
later generations would term “coming out of the closet.” Whether Hawthorne
himself were a closeted gay man, it is clear that Melville was relatively
open in his affections for the senior author and that those affections were
somehow turned away and seem to have left a wound that never fully healed.
The evils of the closet constitute a subtext in Billy Budd that may
well have brought to its author’s mind the sad sundering of his closeness
with Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Billy Budd provides an implicit indictment of the culture, whether
military or civil, that encourages the kind of closet where a Claggart so
readily succumbs to his “depravity according to nature.” Captain Vere likewise
shows a closed, perhaps also “closeted” mind as ready prey for the phenomenon
of evil. In Vere’s presence, as Billy is struck dumb by Claggart’s accusation,
Claggart is struck dead by a single blow from Billy’s fist, the only response
he can muster to defend himself. Although Vere cherishes Billy as “an angel
of God” and knows him to be innocent of Claggart’s charges, he resists any
bending of rules to protect him against the harshest of consequences for his
act of insubordination. Ruthlessly silencing the dictates of his heart, “sometimes
the feminine in man,” Vere effects what Claggart’s malice alone could not
-- Billy’s total destruction.
Although British naval mutineers as well as criminals ashore are explicitly
shown in Billy Budd’s early chapters to have received forms of amnesty
that ultimately contributed to the saving of the nation, Vere offers no such
amnesty to Billy Budd. Claggart himself is rumored to have entered the service
as an alternative to imprisonment, the navy’s need for manpower leading to
frequent waivers of usual punishments; but Billy Budd receives no alternatives,
no waivers. At Nelson’s triumphant Trafalgar, the thwarting of Napoleon’s
invasion plans meant a “plenary absolution” for all the former offenders who
had contributed to the victory. Billy, however, a “peacemaker,” neither a
mutineer nor a criminal, makes a single misstep in retaliation against a known
liar who seeks to manipulate the system to destroy him, and how is Billy to
be absolved? Vere’s “vehemently exclaimed” answer: “the angel must hang!”
Billy is first the victim of Claggart’s closet, one with similarities to the Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover kinds that project self-loathing onto their targets. Vere’s condition, on the other hand, while containing degrees of benevolence, ultimately emerges as more deadly than Claggart’s. Associating his heart with his hated feminine side, Vere crushes down his capacity for love and compassion with a thoroughly brutal, Night-of-the-Long-Knives sort of intolerance. He, who would never have initiated Billy’s demise, will not permit his own ardor to soften his inflexible judgment, as that would evidently equate with irresolution and weakness. After all, he might rationalize, he is the Captain and the Captain has an image to uphold – right? Forget justice; forget humane treatment; maintaining machismo holds precedence over all! And the tragic result: mindless, meaningless, totally unnecessary suffering and loss on the altar of nothing less than evil itself!
In a chapter on Herman Melville, biographer Tom Cowan’s Gay Men and Women Who
Enriched the World also explores the Billy Budd author’s relationship
with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Despite the public record of both great authors’ having
been married men and fathers, the wealth of evidence of a same sex relationship
between them, not to mention others at Brook Farm or on the high seas, constitutes
one of the most important ways that they can speak to our world today.