Fifty Shades of Moby-Dick

| July 5, 2016 | 0 Comments | Email This Post Email This Post

Fifty Shades of Moby-DickThink of Herman Melville and you don’t think lothario. But in 1847, after the publication of his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, Melville was considered something of a venereal adventurer by the antsy prudes who controlled literary comment. The erotic episodes he’d had with girls on the Marquesas Islands as a young sailor helped inform the narrative contours of Typee, and puritanical readers eagerly squinted between the lines to spot evidence of their own obsessions. The greatest living authority on Melville, Hershel Parker, in his matchless two-volume monument to the author’s life and work, writes that Typee and Omoo saddled Melville with the erroneous reputation for “being sexually dangerous, and even depraved.” You didn’t have to sin very earnestly in antebellum America to be branded a libertine: Writing temperate books of the flesh did the trick. So Melville had to listen to the drivel of censorious critics such as Horace Greeley, who charged his novels with being “positively diseased in moral tone.” Melville was many things—a husband for 44 years, the father of four children, an artist of impetuous virtuosity—but a diseased promoter of eroticism wasn’t exactly one of them. You close Parker’s 2,000-page excavation of Melville’s world not much wiser about his love life but certain of his life’s loves: books, ideas, art.

It’s always a touch suspicious when the biographer of a hyper-scrutinized figure such as Melville comes along with a new, catchall detail that everyone else miraculously missed. Michael Shelden’s made-for-daytime biography, Melville in Love: The Secret Life of Herman Melville and the Muse of Moby-Dick, lets you know up front what new detail Shelden believes he’s disinterred: Melville’s mistress. Biographers have long known about Sarah Morewood, the Melvilles’ bewitching neighbor in Pittsfield, Massachusetts—an indefatigable thrower of parties and the Berkshires’ top literary hanger-on—but Shelden wants you to know her in the Biblical sense. “Sexy beyond measure,” Morewood is “one of the great unsung figures in literary history,” a woman who “didn’t like to take no for an answer.” Shelden describes her as Melville’s “goddess in his Berkshire paradise,” the “powerful key to unlocking his secrets,” an “untamed spirit” whose “seductive powers worked their wonders on more than a few men.” Her supposed years-long affair with Melville was “so intimate and revealing that it colored every aspect of his life.” Shelden’s panting, cliché-choked style soon has you reaching for the light switch and candle, then the cigarette and bonbons.

Four years younger than Melville, Morewood was an aspiring poet who was allergic to boredom and married to a wealthy, English-born stiff. She became the nucleus of Melville’s set in Pittsfield. Previous biographers haven’t considered her important in comprehending Melville, but Shelden believes that she “will prove the most enduring influence on Melville’s life, a muse as well as a lover.”

Proof, however, is precisely what he does not have. When you navigate by the premise that the married Melville was made dizzy by a married lover, and that such dizziness had central effects on an American masterwork, you’ll spot support for that premise wherever you glance. Shelden proceeds, page upon page, with the dauntless pluck of a conspiracy theorist out to show that Elvis killed Kennedy. The tenet that bold claims require bold evidence? Shelden is having none of it. He arrives with chatty letters between Melville and Morewood, first- and secondhand accounts of soirees and countryside frolics, and inscribed books they gave to one another as gifts. He arrives, too, with a schoonerful of extrapolation and conjecture.

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