History’s Dick Jokes: On Melville and Hawthorne

By Jordan Alexander SteinDecember 15, 2015

History’s Dick Jokes: On Melville and Hawthorne

“ALREADY I FEEL that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul,” exults Herman Melville, in an anonymous 1850 review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story collection Mosses from an Old Manse. Hawthorne, Melville breathlessly continues, “expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further, and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.”

Melville’s sentences burst with erotic double entendres that only the most willfully tone-deaf modern reader could miss. His homoerotic images leave so little to our contemporary sexual imaginary that they’re almost inelegant. The argot of 2015 abounds in more linguistically concise ways of explaining the same point. One might casually say, for example, that Melville wanted to bottom Hawthorne so hard.

In less casual registers, however, one sometimes strains for what to say about Melville and Hawthorne’s relationship. Was it love? Lust? Something else? Melville’s review is often enough discussed, because Melville and Hawthorne’s relationship draws together two of 19th-century America’s currently revered authors, and the review is thus routinely anthologized in undergraduate-friendly places like the Norton Anthology of American Literature.

But if you think back to American Lit 101, you almost certainly learned about the desire this review expresses in the demure idiom of friendship. Scholars and teachers are hesitant to expound much more — to speculate, in the austere registers of literary criticism, about a possible sexual connection or attraction between these two canonical authors. Ultimately, we have no idea whether Melville and Hawthorne had sex. Despite the suggestive explicitness of texts like Melville’s review, scholars lack the evidence to definitively conclude what Melville and Hawthorne felt about each other, or what they did about those feelings.

Part of the problem is that writers of the mid-19th century did not have available to them the same expressive concision as those of us today who might speak glibly of topping and bottoming. Though in 1850, some men did pursue the kinds of social and erotic lives that historically anticipated the ones we now call “gay,” neither Melville nor Hawthorne was among them — both were married to women and lived what seem like “straight” lives. Sure, those two might have eventually pursued dalliances on the side, as some functionally heterosexual married men, then as now, surely did. But any such dalliances cannot be what Melville’s erotic metaphors refer to, at least in this letter, if only for reasons of chronology: the two men did not meet until 5 August 1850, three weeks after the publication of Melville’s tantalizing review.

If then we are concerned with Melville and Hawthorne’s relationship — if we believe it will tell us something about these two authors, or about American literature, or about, perhaps most compellingly, the history of desire — we have no access to that desire itself. All we are left with are representations of Melville’s feelings, tantalizingly expressed without being particularly easy to pinpoint. Melville wrote of Hawthorne with undeniably sexy language. What proves more elusive are the feelings to which, with any precision, this language can be said to refer.

Careful readers scan Melville’s prose for glimpses of the unconscious desires he may have buried there. This work, though not exact, is often a lot of fun. The prose style of much of Melville’s writing is effusive, metaphor-rich, and expansive — given the language of the review quoted above, one is tempted to say, tumescent. Whether or not we agree on that last adjective, it is arguably worthy of a writer who was never shy about tucking bawdy jokes into even his most serious contemplations. Like Moby-Dick. As in “dick.”

Are jokes different than reviews, than letters, than literature? Do they imply a different kind of intentionality — a different kind of access to desire? If the reference points for bawdy jokes and double entendres could be fixed, once and for all, then we might learn something we don’t already know about the nature of Melville’s and Hawthorne’s feelings. For scholars trying to reconstruct the more elusive details of their relationship, Melville’s dick jokes, properly understood, may supply evidence that no other source can confirm or deny. These jokes could become the kind of documentary sources that form the building blocks of any historical reconstruction, literary or otherwise.

The issue, then, is whether serious scholars writing about famous authors can reasonably deign to take dick jokes as evidence. And if we are indeed willing to take them as evidence, just how do we go about determining what kind of evidence they are?


Whether Melville ever found Hawthorne’s penetrating powers to be corporeal as well as intellectual remains a detail lost to history. That Melville’s writings were not also lost to history is almost an accident. When he died in September 1891, Melville had long since switched careers and had not published a novel in almost 35 years. His surviving family — especially his widow, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Shaw Melville, and his cousin Catherine “Kate” Gansevoort Lansing — did what they could to preserve and promote the memory of his art. Their task was continued by the next generations of women in the family, and when university professors began to take an interest in Melville after the centenary of his birth in 1919, it was his youngest daughter’s oldest daughter, Eleanor Melville Thomas Metcalf, who retained possession of his papers, including the manuscript of his final, unpublished tale, Billy Budd.

The first generation of Melville scholars spared little attention for these women’s saving labors. Instead, in their efforts to establish Melville’s greatness, they only had eyes for Hawthorne. It was Hawthorne, after all, who worked in the greatest modern literary form, the novel, and it was Hawthorne who chose America and American history as his theme. It was Hawthorne whose works had never been out of print, whose style inspired the next generation of realist writers, whose biography had been penned by Henry James. And, by a wonderful coincidence, it was Hawthorne to whom Melville dedicated Moby-Dick — “In token of my admiration for his genius.” If Hawthorne, who had never been forgotten, could be associated with his friend Melville, who had nearly been eclipsed, surely that eclipse was an awful mistake. Their relationship was copiously documented during the so-called “Melville revival” of the 1920s — the publishing events that returned his works to print and the scholarly endeavors that cemented his literary reputation. The scholars’ eyes for Hawthorne became silently, totally Melville’s eyes for Hawthorne.

Though thereby tainted by something like projection, the documentation the scholars marshaled was nonetheless powerful. It rested mostly on Melville’s letters. At the height of their friendship, during the period in 1850–1851 when Melville was writing Moby-Dick, he was writing to Hawthorne as well. These letters are rich in metaphor and guileless in their meanderings, giving their reader glimpses of feelings that often look astonishingly unguarded. Scholars seized on them for what they could be said to detail about Melville’s state of mind during the composition of his masterpiece. But as later readers have gradually accepted, such interpretations are a little like standing in the Sistine Chapel only to measure the height of the ceiling. It is the musing and poetic artistry of these letters that ranks them among Melville’s most extraordinary works. For example, an epistle from 17(?) November 1851, responding to Hawthorne’s praise of Moby-Dick, reads in part:

Your letter was handed me last night on the road going to Mr. Morewood’s, and I read it there. Had I been at home, I would have sat down at once and answered it. In me divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous — catch them while you can. The world goes round, and the other side comes up. So now I can’t write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic then — your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb. Ineffable socialities are in me. I would sit down and dine with you and all the gods in old Rome’s Pantheon. It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.

Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. Now, sympathizing with the paper, my angel turns over another page. You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the book — and that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul. Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demon, — the familiar, — and recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes.

In paratactic sentences whose images twist almost indiscriminately from metaphor to metaphor, Melville finds himself interpenetrated with Hawthorne, sharing a single heart beating in a single bosom, belonging to either of them, or to God. If these paragraphs appertain to any genre, it is surely that of the love letter. And so if early Melville scholars imagined that Melville desired the affiliation with Hawthorne that the scholars themselves were all too eager to pronounce, who can blame them? What Melville expressed to Hawthorne was, to say the least, “not of an incidental feeling.”


The record of any great love affair teases posterity with its incompleteness. Lovers feel more than they can express, and they express more than they preserve. It falls upon historians and biographers to piece together what is missing and not to despair of the likelihood that the most private, the most deeply felt expressions are what is lost.

The problem in this particular case, however, is that the documentation of Melville and Hawthorne’s friendship is uncommonly partial. Indeed, what is missing from the Melville-Hawthorne correspondence is Hawthorne’s entire side of it. His letters to Melville were lost or possibly destroyed, either by Melville or by someone into whose custody they fell. Only 12 letters exist from their correspondence, 11 of which were written by Melville, and all of which were written in the space of two years. The 12th, written half by Hawthorne and half by his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, was discovered in 1983 in an upstate New York barn. In it, Hawthorne betrays only the emotions that appropriately accompany asking someone to go to the post office for you. Melville’s expressions of feeling to and for Hawthorne are extraordinary. They are also, so far as the extant letters reveal, entirely one-sided.

The fact that we have no evidence for what Hawthorne felt raises the somewhat awkward question of whether we have enough evidence about what Melville felt. His letters to Hawthorne are the most stunning of those of his that still exist. But there is every reason to suppose that Melville wrote many more letters than those that still exist. Having died near the nadir of his fame, Melville’s letters and papers did not find their posthumous home assembled in the neat catalogs of rare-book libraries, but instead moldered for years in disparate locations, including a tin box in Eleanor Metcalf’s attic. (The chief exception are the Melville letters that numbered incidentally among the family records that his cousin Kate bequeathed in 1919 to the New York Public Library, which, subsequent to the Melville revival of the 1920s, amassed one of the most significant collections of Melville’s papers. True to the pre-revival conditions of their provenance, this collection is not named the Herman Melville Papers but the Gansevoort-Lansing Papers.) Among collectors and scholars alike, Melville’s correspondence was not sought, was not valuable. Common sense dictates that aggravatingly large numbers of not-valuable things might fall to dust in the three decades between a writer’s death and his scholarly revival.

When Melville’s literary fortunes did begin to change definitively toward the mid-20th century, collecting, editing, and publishing his correspondence became a small cottage industry for scholars of American literature. These efforts eventually culminated in an authoritative edition of Melville’s Correspondence, published in 1993, which included a total of 313 letters and an impressive textual apparatus noting when letters received by Melville or his correspondents make mention of missives written by Melville (those, for example, to which they are responding) that are as yet unlocated. While the actual number of missing or destroyed letters is a matter for pure speculation, the incompleteness of this posthumously assembled corpus comes into relief with simple arithmetic: 313 letters would mean that on average Melville wrote fewer than six letters a year for every year of his adult life. For a 19th-century literary man and head of household, even double that figure is improbably small.

The smallness of this figure means, quite simply, that posterity is almost certainly missing most of Melville’s letters. So much is probably missing that it’s anybody’s guess whether the letters that do still exist are representative or anomalous. In much the same way that a single fossil can reveal the existence of a whole new species, an undiscovered Melville letter could perhaps show that he sometimes felt tepid toward Hawthorne, or, indeed, that he sometimes felt exuberant toward other correspondents. The effusive tone of an existing May 1850 letter to novelist Richard Henry Dana already holds in the estimation of many scholars a distant second place to the Hawthorne letters for what it suggests about Melville’s feelings. (Reading Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, Melville was, he writes to Dana, “tied & welded to you by a sort of Siamese link of affectionate sympathy.”) How many letters like the one to Dana are missing?

Yawning absence isn’t the only thing that makes Melville’s correspondence inconclusive, however. Were a box containing dozens of new Melville letters discovered tomorrow, what they told us would still be a matter for some exposition. If Melville’s letters to Hawthorne are striking for what we might summarize as their exuberance, it remains to be determined whether that exuberance represents the truth of Melville’s feelings. The additional evidence dozens of new letters could provide would surely help that determination. But no such determination is ever final. Letters, like all kinds of writing, have a way of offering imperfect distillations of deeply felt emotion. Melville himself seems to have known as much: “In me divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneous — catch them while you can.”

Melville’s statement could serve as an epigram not only for feelings, but also for the work of literary historians who must reconstruct them. It offers an especially poignant summary for the challenges of writing queer literary history, one of whose enduring difficulties is a scarcity of evidence. Two men may have loved one another, but love, however powerfully felt, doesn’t archive well. Scholars are left instead to reconstruct other people’s relationships and feelings and desires and pleasures from the fragments that blow across the Maginot Line our modern world calls privacy. Letters are prized among such fragments, for their circumscribed audiences and the ephemeral occasions of their composition make them precisely the kinds of representations that promise to record private moments for historians’ prying eyes. Those same qualities that authorize the privacy of letters, however, also render them unofficial records. The ephemerality of letters makes them only loose guides; the fact that they are representations only exacerbates the problem.


Though Melville’s private letters prove frustratingly inconclusive, his public dick jokes curiously endured. Indeed, Melville’s dick jokes probably did much more for his posthumous reputation than most later scholars would admit. Melville’s pre-revival readers did not have the benefit of reading his letters, but many of them picked up on the queer vibes of Melville’s prose all the same. To choose a few examples: sexologist Havelock Ellis (credited with the first English use of the word homosexual) corresponded with Melville in the last years of the latter’s life; the editions of Melville’s early novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) that his widow brought back into print in 1893 were passed from hand to hand in some of New York’s nascent homosexual communities; Hart Crane penned “At Melville’s Tomb” in 1926, in a complex tribute to a queer literary predecessor (even the most attentive Melville scholars would not take his poetry seriously until decades later); Benjamin Britten and E.M. Forster collaborated on a 1951 opera based on Melville’s most exquisitely homoerotic tale, Billy Budd (c. 1891, pub. 1924); and Roger Austen’s post-Stonewall, labor-of-love critical study, Playing the Game: The Homosexual Novel in America (1977) seated Melville at the head of its literary tradition. None of these men were academically credentialed as post-revival Melville scholars were. But all of them built artistic and intellectual homes out of Melville’s dick jokes, whose referent, as the 20th century wore on, ever more clearly became legible as the modern version of homosexuality.

We have now arrived at the moment in the story where an attentive historian would remind us of the likelihood that such a coming-into-legibility may be a distortion. To be sure, the antebellum US had both a high tolerance for male-male eroticism and a largely unpunishing naïveté about the homoerotic subcultures that were beginning to take shape in its urban settings. Melville’s letters accordingly speak in terms of an unflinching eroticism that may not entirely have meant, in the moment of its articulation, what it came to mean for readers more than a century later. For all kinds of reasons, it may be historically irresponsible to mistake Melville’s exuberant words to Hawthorne for the kinds of things one perhaps dreams of hearing whispered in one’s ear in a backroom at The Eagle on a Wednesday. This is the moment in the story, in other words, where we are reminded that dick jokes aren’t transhistorical, aren’t the kind of thing that serious scholars can make much of, aren’t, in short, evidence.

If there is a case to be made for Melville’s dick jokes, however, it inheres in the sizable number of Melville’s readers who have seemed to feel something about them. Dick jokes may not traditionally count as scholarly evidence, but evidence is sifted and meanings are made in communities other than scholarly ones. And it was these non-scholarly communities (of turn-of-the-century homosexuals who kept alive Melville’s reputation, as well as the women of the family who preserved Melville’s papers and republished his texts) whose labors many scholars have failed to keep in focus. Both Melville’s female relatives and his queer admirers were initially represented at academic meetings and in publications as scholars began to take over the enterprises of preservation and recovery. And then, gradually, both camps were edged out by the social and intellectual priorities of masculinity and heterosexuality that asserted themselves with the force of weaponized normalcy in the post–World War II decades of academic boomtime. The story of Melville’s recovery that scholars and textbooks now repeat typically begins with the 1921 publication of Raymond Weaver’s Herman Melville: Mariner and Mystic, the critical-biographical study that is said to have launched the Melville revival. The story that scholars tell, in other words, begins with scholars.

Such a narrative endures, even as the queers and the women once edged out of custodial and interpretive responsibility for Melville’s works have found their way back to them and pronounced the significance of his sexier words. Studies like Robert K. Martin’s pathbreaking Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville (1985), Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s magisterial Epistemology of the Closet (1990), or indeed Harold Beaver’s unjustly forgotten 1981 essay “Homosexual Signs,” all put the vernacular knowledge available to and safeguarded by Melville’s early readers to legitimate scholarly ends. The appearance of this work was deservedly hailed as cutting edge, but largely because by the 1980s so few people recognized that these discoveries were once, in other quarters, known.

It is not easy to write history without distortions, not least because no writing happens unaffected by forces that will in the future become someone else’s history. Queer readers overvaluing Melville’s dick jokes, whether now or at the turn of the century, may indeed distort the historical referents of those jokes by aligning them with modern homosexuality. Yet some amount of wishful projection always colors even the most responsible historical interpretations — a fact already suggested by the early Melville scholars who used his friendship with Hawthorne to justify the recovery of his works. Distortion is the inevitable double of interpretation. Distortion is a record of how things that happen in history — which is to say, a record of how everything — feels.

While such distortions are necessarily present in any attempt to reconstruct any kind of private feeling, investigations into queer history bear a particularly heavy burden of proof. For example, if we know that both Melville and Hawthorne were each married to women, and we can infer that both had enough sex with those women to have fathered good-sized 19th-century families, then it would seem that whatever Melville’s one-sided exuberance for Hawthorne amounts to, it is probably not homosexuality in the typical sense. Most historiographic conventions privilege such biographical facts over the fugitive expressions of feeling that one finds in Melville’s review of or letters to Hawthorne. This smaller evidence of dick jokes is no match for the abundant evidence of both men’s public lives.

And yet the jokes sit there on the page. Even if we are not sure what these jokes refer to — and I cannot with any finality tell you — we readers of Melville are faced with the choice between ignoring something we don’t understand or recognizing at least that its presence complicates the conclusions (about Melville, about Hawthorne, about 19th-century sexuality and friendship, about letter writing) at which we may too hastily have arrived. Dick jokes provide an obscure kind of evidence, but it is evidence just the same. Indeed, their obscurity may be the very reason why they can begin to tell us something we don’t already know.


Jordan Alexander Stein teaches at Fordham University and tweets @steinjordan

LARB Contributor

Jordan Alexander Stein teaches in the English Department at Fordham University. He is co-editor of Early African American Print Culture (U Penn Press, 2012) and a contributing writer at Avidly.


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