The Whale: A Love Story is a fictionalized take on a question that has puzzled literary scholars for more than 150 years. Was the short, intense friendship between two American writers Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne simply a meeting of minds, or something more and – given the times – forbidden?
The two first met at a picnic in the Berkshires in Western Massachusetts in the summer of 1850. Hawthorne lived there in a rustic cottage in Lenox, while Melville stayed at his cousin farm near Pittsfield. By all accounts they hit it off right away so much as that Melville dedicated Moby Dick to his new friend when it was published the following year.
Using surviving letters (mainly those of Melville), as well as letters and diary entries of family and friends, Marc Beauregard presents his own version of what passed between these men during the two years that followed their meeting. What results is a tale of affection that turns into passion and eventually an obsession on the part of Melville.
Crushed by debt and struggling with the demands of what he himself sees as an arranged marriage, Melville is also in the throes of a creative crisis in the summer of 1850. Haunted by the memory of his maritime adventures which he is channeling into his new novel, his entire days are occupied in his own pursuit of the illusive whale, the story that perfectly captures the metaphysical dilemmas inherent to being human.
In the midst of all that, Hawthorne enters his life, with his brilliance, beauty, and his own darkness.
Soon, Hawthorne becomes another obsession, proving as chimerical as the whale, despite his physical proximity to Melville who has decided to buy a home in Pittsfield. For a brief moment, it appears as if a relationship might be possible, but then Hawthorne vehemently rebuffs Melville, crushing his hopes.
Now the only hope left to Melville is Moby Dick‘s commercial success which is essential to his family’s financial well-being, But he struggles with finding a publisher, the first reviews are mixed, and it becomes increasingly clear that his early literary acclaim will not repeat itself. Thus The Whale becomes a tragic tale of unfulfilled passion, both physical and literary, of love withheld and happiness denied.
Though to some degree speculative, the story is a testament to the struggles of those who found themselves on the outside of a heteronormative society in the 19th century America.
The 1850s New England was a particularly difficult place to live with homoerotic attractions, constrained as it was by Puritanism and the nascent Victorian conventions. Hawthorne, whose prose explores the moral issues of sin and redemption, is shown as deeply influenced by his Puritan ancestry, while Melville is more open and irreverent, liberated by his adventurous youth from the prevalent norms governing the era.
In addition to exploring the protagonists’ emotional trajectory, the novel is also a meditation on God, marriage, fidelity, fatherhood, and art, and the challenges inherent in the efforts to cater to their respective, and sometimes contradictory, demands.
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