As I wrote about a few years ago, it took me a long, long time to come around to enjoying Moby-Dick, the now celebrated tome that destroyed its author’s career when it was published. I left off in the middle of a re-read, but Mark Beauregard’s new novel, The Whale: A Love Story*, has me wishing my copy of Melville’s book weren’t packed away right now.
Known to many of his nineteenth-century readers as “the man who lived among the cannibals,” the summer of 1850 finds Herman Melville struggling with a new book, an adventure story about two unlikely friends who set off on a whaling voyage. The book isn’t taking shape the way he’d like, and since creditors have made his family’s home in New York uncomfortable, he and his wife Lizzie are staying in the Berkshires.
When he meets reclusive Nathaniel Hawthorne (to whom Moby-Dick was dedicated) during a rain- and champagne-soaked picnic, Melville’s life—both personal and creative—takes a turn for the unexpected. Infatuated with the handsome older writer and spurred by his advice and presence to press into strange and fantastical waters in his novel, Melville spends money he doesn’t have buying a farm close to Hawthorne’s cottage, convinced that he’s found his muse—and love.
While I wasn’t convinced by the novel’s proposal regarding Melville and Hawthorne’s relationship (and coincidentally, there’s a apparently a new biography of Melville just out that puts forward a different candidate as Melville’s muse and love interest), I liked the audacity of the theory. Mr. Beauregard undertook extensive research as he wrote the novel (the book is studded with Melville’s actual letters to Hawthorne), which shines in its depictions of everyday life in 1850s Massachusetts, its exploration of passion in its many facets, and especially in its portrayal of the mercurial, exuberant, infuriating Melville.
I’d recommend The Whale to Melville fans, Hawthorne fans, literary friendship enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a LGBTQ spin on literary history. If none of those rings your bell, have a gander at these passages I loved:
Melville’s doubts about the early draft of Moby-Dick:
He couldn’t imagine the genteel, middle-class ladies of America flocking to buy a novel in which frenzied sharks devoured whale gore and seagulls plucked each other’s eyes out fighting for the scraps—and middle-class ladies were the only people who bought books.
On his frenzied revision of the book:
He slopped the pigs, scattered seeds for the chickens, and gave his horse oats; and then he climbed the stairs to his study with a cup of tea and sat scribbling madly about the open seas for six or eight hours in a row, trying to keep the different versions of his story straight in his head. He was writing his whaling adventure at Hawthorne now, channeling all of his frustrations and affections, which he could express to no one in real life, into the operatic desires of his fishy allegory.
Christmas in the Berkshires:
The snow transformed the landscape, at first pleasantly erasing the grass and the dirt and the sharp edges and corners of the house and barn; but then, as the flakes became heavier and bigger and fell faster and faster, the air itself turned white, a blank wall against which Herman’s longing was just another ghost.
I marked a half dozen more passages to return to; there’s some very fine writing in The Whale, and I’d be delighted to read Mr. Beauregard’s next book.
What’s your favorite novel about a well known author?
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.