A rich and captivating novel set amid the witty, high-spirited literary society of 1850s New England, offering a new window on Herman Melville’s emotionally charged relationship with Nathaniel Hawthorne and how it transformed his masterpiece, Moby-Dick
In the summer of 1850, Herman Melville finds himself hounded by creditors and afraid his writing career might be coming to an end—his last three novels have been commercial failures and the critics have turned against him. In despair, Melville takes his family for a vacation to his cousin’s farm in the Berkshires, where he meets Nathaniel Hawthorne at a picnic—and his life turns upside down.
The Whale chronicles the fervent love affair that grows out of that serendipitous afternoon. Already in debt, Melville recklessly borrows money to purchase a local farm in order to remain near Hawthorne, his newfound muse. The two develop a deep connection marked by tensions and estrangements, and feelings both shared and suppressed.
Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne, and Mark Beauregard’s novel fills in the story behind that dedication with historical accuracy and exquisite emotional precision, reflecting his nuanced reading of the real letters and journals of Melville, Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and others. An exuberant tale of longing and passion, The Whale captures not only a transformative relationship—long the subject of speculation—between two of our most enduring authors, but also their exhilarating moment in history, when a community of high-spirited and ambitious writers was creating truly American literature for the first time.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.80(h) x 0.70(d)|
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"We'll have to cancel the picnic, Doctor. It's going to rain."
"No, it isn't."
Herman Melville sat fidgeting in a railway car next to Oliver Wendell Holmes, as their train chugged toward Stockbridge. The morning, which had started sunny and calm, was now turning melodramatic, with dark storm clouds clustering overhead like bunches of black grapes ready to spill their juice. The falling air pressure reminded Herman of Indian Ocean typhoons, where the barometer would drop and drop until the ocean seemed to suck the sky down into its depths and then spit it back out again, the exploding rain churning the watery world into chaos above and below. He gazed out the train's window, trying to find some comfort in the bilious clouds.
Herman was staying at his cousin Robert's bed-and-breakfast in the nearby town of Pittsfield, just down the road from Dr. Holmes's summer estate. He had brought his family to the Berkshires to escape the stifling, malarial heat of Manhattan (and his creditors) while he finished his latest novel, which was all but done-but he could not bring himself to write "The End." He had spent most of the last week just sitting at his cousin's desk, harpooning whales in his head the way insomniacs counted sheep. His English publisher had agreed to purchase the novel for one hundred fifty pounds upon delivery of the manuscript, and the cash would keep the Melville family afloat for another few months; but now that he had almost completed the book, he saw that it was badly conceived and poorly written. He could not 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. Even the title seemed calculated for failure: The Whale, as blank and prosaic as its subject, but he could think of nothing better.
On the bench across from Herman and Dr. Holmes sat Evert Duyckinck, the publisher of Literary World magazine, and Cornelius Mathews, the Broadway playwright, who had arrived together from Manhattan the day before, to visit Dr. Holmes. Duyckinck was long and thin and looked like an advertisement for South America, in black cotton breeches festooned with silver conchos. Mathews was a short, spherical man with robin's-egg glasses that emphasized the pudginess of his cheeks.
Duyckinck kicked Herman's foot. "Do you not like picnics, Melville? You act as if we were dragging you to a funeral."
"What?" Herman said distractedly. "No, I enjoy funerals as much as the next man."
Duyckinck gave Mathews a sidelong glance, and Mathews rolled his eyes. To pass the time, Mathews had been asking Duyckinck riddles, which Duyckinck solved immediately.
"Without a bridle or a saddle, across a thing I ride astraddle. And those I ride, by help of me, though almost blind, are made to see."
"Eyeglasses," said Duyckinck. "Next."
Dr. Holmes's lawyer, Dudley Field, and Dudley's seventeen-year-old sister, Jeanie, sat across the aisle from them. It was Dudley who had organized today's hike up Monument Mountain, as a kind of mixer for his literary clients. In Stockbridge, they would rendezvous with another of Dudley's clients-Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was riding up from Lenox to meet them. Hawthorne was by far the most famous writer among them, even more so than Holmes, owing to the sensational success of The Scarlet Letter earlier that year.
Mathews said, "I know a word of letters three; add two, and fewer there will be." He withdrew a flask from his waistcoat pocket, unscrewed the cap, and took a sip before offering it to Duyckinck.
"The answer is few," said Duyckinck. "Add 'er' to make 'fewer.'" He drank from the flask and offered it to Melville, who squinted at him without registering the proffered brandy.
Herman's mind always drifted far out to sea when he was working on a novel, and he could not quite make sense of the everyday world. The gray ghosts of the whales in his imagination seemed far more real than Duyckinck and his flask-massive blots of darkness adrift in the darker sea of his mind, each leviathan a horror with one giant eye on each side of its unknowing head, looking into the past and the future at once.
The Whale was a picaresque tale set aboard a Nantucket whaling vessel, an attempt to recapture the simple magic of Herman's early, popular seafaring books. In the novel, a pair of mismatched friends-a New England greenhorn named Ishmael and a Fijian harpooner named Queequeg-found adventure in the blubber and brine of the South Seas whale fishery. The story contained an unlikely quest, in which a monomaniac captain obsessively hunted a single albino whale called Moby Dick through all the wide oceans of the world. When Ahab found the whale and killed it, the adventure ended and Ishmael returned to New England.
He had intended the book to be a grand farce, full of slapstick capers and irreverent jokes; but bawdy stories of sailors cavorting with half-naked islanders, which had seemed so easy and fun to write in his first two books, held no interest for Herman anymore, and he could not make his current subject-slaughtering whales-appealing at all. The manuscript wasn't droll enough, vivid enough, outrageous enough, anything enough. Even the climax seemed to fall flat: all the elements of a rousing chase were there-the whaleboat seething through the vortex of water created by the harpooned monster; the line rasping and smoking through the chocks; the whale's immense blunt head surfacing in frantic throes; the waves foaming with blood; the crew, panting and exhausted, flinging themselves overboard to avoid the great beast's thrashing tail-but somehow, when Queequeg threw the final harpoon and hauled in the defeated whale, when the blood subsided and Moby Dick rolled dead in the ocean, the story died along with it.
Duyckinck kicked Herman's foot again. He waved his hand in front of Herman's face and whistled, but Melville looked right through him.
Apropos of nothing, Herman said, "Holmes, I wish you would write a poem for me, such as the one you wrote about my grandfather."
"Your grandfather's poem was a eulogy," Holmes replied. "Wouldn't you rather be dead first?"
"I am. The Post buried me in April."
"So we're going to a funeral after all," Duyckinck said merrily, and he and Mathews drank.
Dr. Holmes's first literary success, twenty years before, had been a poem called "The Last Leaf," which celebrated Major Thomas Melville, a leader of the Boston Tea Party. In his later years, Major Melville had often tottered back and forth through Holmes's neighborhood in Boston, wearing the tattered tricornered hat he had worn during the Revolutionary War. The poem had been reprinted widely, and Edgar Allan Poe had extolled it as an example of true American versification, bringing fame to Holmes and a last moment of notoriety to the old major.
"Perhaps we can all give it a go," Mathews said. "A poetic eulogy for the great Herman Melville, hero of the . . . what was it you were hero of, again? Well, we must work it out in the rhymes, I suppose."
Holmes sighed. "We have only ten minutes till we reach Stockbridge."
"Coleridge wrote 'Kubla Khan' in fifteen," Mathews said.
"But he had the advantage of opium," Holmes said. "And he never did finish it."
"Don't be a spoilsport, Doctor," said Duyckinck. "You won't ruin your reputation by writing one bad poem. Or one more, I should say."
Jeanie leaned across the aisle and said, "Shall I begin by reciting the original, Dr. Holmes, if we're going to use it as a model?"
"You know it?" said Holmes.
"Are you joking? We memorized it in school, alongside 'Yankee Doodle' and the Ten Commandments." Jeanie was a slender, gray-eyed redhead, dressed in the outfit favored by politically progressive women at the moment: a plain, knee-length dress over loose trousers gathered at the ankles. She stood, cleared her throat, and announced, "The Last Leaf."
I saw him once before,
As he passed by the door,
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o'er the ground
With his cane.
They say that in his prime,
Ere the pruning-knife of Time
Cut him down,
Not a better man was found
By the Crier on his round
Through the town.
Mathews yawned loudly. "How long is this poem, exactly?"
Holmes said, "Your recitation is admirable, Miss Field, but perhaps it would be better to skip ahead a bit."
Jeanie gave Mathews an evil look but did as Holmes requested.
I know it is a sin
For me to sit and grin
At him here;
But the old three-cornered hat,
And the breeches, and all that,
Are so queer!
And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring,
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.
Jeanie sat down, and Mathews applauded and huzzahed ironically; then Duyckinck joined in, clapping and hooting, until other passengers craned their necks and peered down the aisle. Jeanie said, "Pearls before swine, Doctor." Holmes shrugged. In his mind, Herman heard the hungry cries of albatrosses wheeling above dead whales shackled to ships.
"Very well," said Mathews. "Let us memorialize our favorite mariner, as he commands. Shall we each take a verse?"
Duyckinck declared that he would start. He looked off into the middle distance just beyond Herman's head for a moment to set the mood and declaimed theatrically, "I saw him in a car / with the window ajar / on a train / he asked Holmes for a verse / suitable for his hearse / thus we sang."
Mathews scoffed. "You can do better, Evert. Train does not rhyme with sang, for instance." And then he cleared his throat ostentatiously and took his turn: "His luxuriant beard / with peach marmalade smeared / from breakfast / he'll taste his peach all day / that's why he seems so fey / and jaundiced."
Duyckinck said, "Breakfast does not rhyme with jaundiced."
"Not only that, but the verse isn't true," Jeanie exclaimed.
"I had not thought truth the object," said Mathews.
"Look at Mr. Melville's fine, wavy, red beard," Jeanie went on. "It's beautiful. And anyway, even if there were jam in it, how would that make him jaundiced? He's the very picture of health." Her cheeks flushed.
"It's only a joke, Miss Field," Mathews said. "Peach marmalade sometimes has a yellow tinge."
"I have seen peach marmalade, Mr. Mathews," Jeanie said. "And I know what a joke is. But perhaps something like this would be better." Jeanie stood up again and recited directly at Herman. "Sometimes when one is strange / he's obliged to arrange / little lies / to hide his truest thought / behind some overwrought / alibis."
Mathews snorted. "Are you entirely sure you know what a joke is?"
Herman forgot about the dead whales in his head, in favor of a panic over Miss Field. He stood up, slipped between Mathews's and Duyckinck's knees and crossed the aisle to Jeanie's bench. He took Jeanie's left hand between both of his.
"What do you mean, strange?" he said.
"Why, your demeanor, of course. You seem very far away from our little group this morning." Jeanie held Herman's gaze just long enough to let him know that she had noticed something else peculiar about him, beyond his distraction. Herman's heart raced. "Consider it a compliment," she said.
"Melville has shipwrecked his brains against the rocks of his new novel," Duyckinck said.
The train slowed. A porter appeared in the car to announce the town of Stockbridge.
"Thank God," said Dudley. He stood up and said, "Will you kindly unhand my sister, Mr. Melville!"
Herman looked at him a moment before quite understanding, and then said, "Of course." He let go of Jeanie's hand and took Dudley's instead, who grudgingly shook it; but Herman continued to hold Dudley's hand in both of his and stared enigmatically into Dudley's eyes. Herman said, "Everyone is a little strange."
"Don't be so sure," Mathews said, and he broke up their hand-holding tfite-ˆ-tfite before Dudley could attempt violence. Mathews slapped Herman hard on the back and led him off down the aisle. Dr. Holmes chivalrously offered Jeanie his arm, and Dudley found himself alone with his indignation when the train came to a full stop at Stockbridge.
As they walked away from the station, Holmes took a pinch of snuff from his medical bag. The doctor was a short, slight apparition of a man with a narrow peanut of a skull, and he appeared even smaller than usual strolling beside the athletic Jeanie, who was skipping and humming a little tune. Herman, still nettled by Jeanie's comments, glanced around miserably at the quaintly gabled houses and shops, hoping that pirates or brigands would suddenly charge out.
At times like this, he wished he had stayed with his friend Toby Greene, on Nuku Hiva Island, the tropical paradise where they had deserted their whaler together many years before; or that he had remained on the Navy frigate United States with Jack Chase, the gallant foretopman he had fallen in love with after shipping out from the Sandwich Islands in '45. Instead, he had chosen respectability, and family, and a literary career that now seemed even more fleeting than the long-ago adventures upon which it was based.
Herman's first two books, Typee and Omoo-which he had dashed off with the braggadocio of a sailor on shore leave-had become surprise sensations among the ladies' book clubs. Flush with fame, he had attempted something grander in his third book, an allegory whose scope and beauty he thought would rival Milton; but critics had viciously mocked Mardi, and it had failed to sell out its first printing. For his next two books, he had returned to telling more straightforward tales based on his own journeys at sea, but he had lost his easy confidence and his stories had veered into dour social commentary. Redburn featured graphic scenes of babies starving to death on the Liverpool docks; and White-Jacket, his most recent book, detailed the brutality of life in the United States Navy so vividly that it had spurred Congress to abolish shipboard flogging-but flogging victims had apparently been the only people who had bought it. Sales of White-Jacket had failed to cover the publisher's modest advance, which Herman now owed back to the Harper brothers.
The rain clouds bore down upon them. "We're going to get wet, and no doubt of it," Duyckinck called over his shoulder.
"No, we're not," said Holmes.
"Actually, Evert," Dudley said, adopting a lawyerly tone, "nothing is sure in the Berkshires. Those clouds may hold their rain all day, or they may drop it all in Lenox and nowhere else, possibly on a single rooftop, or the whole mountain range may be under water within the hour. In the Berkshires, as in life, one sometimes must sail with the wind and sometimes against it, but the important thing is to keep your sails full."