Fifty Shades of Moby-Dick

Think 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.

Where other biographers see friends, he sees fornicators; instead of affection, he sees infatuation. And since he can’t shake his romance-novel mood, you’ll have to endure sentences such as, “She would always be restless and dreamy, a bright woman with endless curiosity searching for an elusive happiness,” and the faux-suspenseful query: “She may have been eager to cross the line into adultery, but was he?” You’ll have to hear of Melville’s lust for a “dreamy realm of lovesick heroes and heroines,” but it should be tormentingly clear by this point that Shelden himself is the one salivating for such sickness. He believes that Moby-Dick was written for Morewood, “to amaze her, amuse her, and to conquer the world for her,” and it’s hard to overstate how hokey that is. Worse, he’s consistently inept at handling Melville’s language; the best he can do with Moby-Dick is to say that it has “passages of prose like the best poetry,” a nonstatement. The writer who won’t be bothered with the integrity of his sentences won’t be bothered with much of anything else either, proof included.

Melville might have been charmed by the attractive Morewood, and he might have referred to her as “Thou Lady of All Delight” and other pet sobriquets, but flirting is not fucking, and is very often an indication of its absence. Imagine the Ahabian effort it would have taken to keep such an affair from their families and the prying citizens of Pittsfield. As Shelden himself admits, Hershel Parker “dismisses any chance of a romance” between Melville and Morewood. Andrew Delbanco allots Morewood only four unmemorable sentences in his 400-page biography of Melville. Newton Arvin, in his 1950 Herman Melville, a bio-critical beauty of uncommon acuteness, mentions her only three times in passing. The 16 scholars in The New Cambridge Companion to Herman Melville mention her not at all. It didn’t seem to occur to Shelden that those scholars and writers don’t mention her because there’s nothing of substance to mention, no there there. Whatever might have happened between Melville and Morewood is the province of gossip, and that’s what Shelden has whipped up here: an extended gossip column for those voyeurs who believe that every Melville needs an inamorata.

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