The Straight Dope

Go Back   Straight Dope Message Board > Main > Cafe Society

Thread Tools Display Modes
Old 06-10-2010, 08:33 PM
BrainGlutton BrainGlutton is offline
Join Date: Mar 2003
Location: Tampa, Florida
Posts: 78,508
Was Herman Melville gay?

From Moby-Dick, Chapter 94, "The Squeeze":

Squeeze! squeeze! squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwittingly squeezing my co-laborers' hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say,--Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
Okaaayyy . . .

I wouldn't be tempted to read any double meaning into this, except that I dimly recall an episode of The Sopranos where Meadow and her college classmates are talking about their English prof's lecture on homoerotic themes in the fiction of Herman Melville. (And Carmella says, "Well, maybe he's gay! Ya ever think of that?!" And they all look at her like, "DUH!")

The Wiki article on Melville says nothing about his being gay; but it was at least rumored he was an alcoholic and a wife-beater, so, not too happily married . . .

(BTW, this "sperm" is spermaceti, which is not really whale semen but people used to think it was, despite its being found in the animal's head. It is a form of wax and you can, among other things, make candles out of it. Long, thick candles . . .)

Last edited by BrainGlutton; 06-10-2010 at 08:36 PM..
Reply With Quote
Old 06-10-2010, 08:35 PM
Sampiro Sampiro is offline
Join Date: Aug 2002
Damned near impossible to tell if anybody other than Walt Whitman or Oscar Wilde (who kissed once, incidentally) were gay before the present century, but he does appear on a lot of of LGBT lists and tons has been written about the homoeroticism in his works (not just Moby Dick but his other novels and stories and poems). Wiki.

That said, he did (like most Victorian men regardless of orientation) marry and have children. As good a chance as any I suppose to correct an oft-repeated error: the musician Moby (born Richard Melville Hall) is not a descendant of his- he's descended from Hermann's brother.

Last edited by Sampiro; 06-10-2010 at 08:40 PM..
Reply With Quote
Old 06-10-2010, 09:04 PM
Noel Prosequi Noel Prosequi is offline
Join Date: Aug 2006
Location: In the Ning Nang Nong
Posts: 1,273
In an introduction to an edition of MD I once read, the author of the introduction (some academic) tried to make a point that nothing in MD is accidental - that it all has some deep symbolic significance.

To the point where his assertions were barely sane, for mine. There is a scene early in the book where Ishmael and Queequeg shared a bed in an inn owned by a man named Coffin and his wife Sal.

Now pretty clearly it's not possible to project modern day significance onto a time when sharing a bed out of necessity and poverty might well have been thought normal. Hygeine hadn't even been invented then, after all. The mere fact of sharing a bed = gay is clearly a stretch.

But the author tried to justify inferring the existence of a sexual relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg on the premise that "Ishmael" is an imperfect anagram for "I am Sal" (the "wife" role most closely juxtaposed at that part of the plot).

When this sort of "reasoning" is imposed on the life and text of Melville, absolutely any conclusion at all is possible, and when academics have with straight face resorted to this sort of thing, the field is so fraught with speculation that ISTM the only sensible conclusion is to recognise that the evidence is speculative, and that will never take anyone very far.
Reply With Quote
Old 06-10-2010, 09:08 PM
BrotherCadfael BrotherCadfael is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
I think it was in An Incomplete Education that they said that if Melville was gay, he almost certainly didn't know it.
Reply With Quote
Old 06-10-2010, 09:15 PM
Avumede Avumede is offline
Registered User
Join Date: Sep 1999
I'd just like to say that the passage you quoted is one of my favorite passages of Moby Dick.
Reply With Quote
Old 06-10-2010, 09:19 PM
Sampiro Sampiro is offline
Join Date: Aug 2002
Originally Posted by Noel Prosequi View Post
Now pretty clearly it's not possible to project modern day significance onto a time when sharing a bed out of necessity and poverty might well have been thought normal. Hygeine hadn't even been invented then, after all. The mere fact of sharing a bed = gay is clearly a stretch.
It wasn't even poverty. Ben Franklin and John Adams slept together several nights when on junkets for the Continental Congress; Adams was famously one of the most 'in love with his wife' married men in U.S. history and Franklin was both rich and a hetero horndog. Most taverns rented bedspace, not rooms; it wasn't uncommon for them to only have two sleeping rooms- one for men and one for women. I wonder if the writer didn't know that or if he was just desperate for tenure.
Reply With Quote
Old 06-11-2010, 04:48 AM
Rala Rala is offline
Join Date: Jun 2009
Originally Posted by Noel Prosequi View Post
To the point where his assertions were barely sane, for mine. There is a scene early in the book where Ishmael and Queequeg shared a bed in an inn owned by a man named Coffin and his wife Sal.

Now pretty clearly it's not possible to project modern day significance onto a time when sharing a bed out of necessity and poverty might well have been thought normal. Hygeine hadn't even been invented then, after all. The mere fact of sharing a bed = gay is clearly a stretch.
I thought that scene was homoerotic. Not because they were sharing a bed - as you said, not unusual in that time - but because of lines like these.

Upon waking the next morning, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife.
But at length all the past night's events soberly recurred, one by one, in fixed reality, and then I lay only alive to the comical predicament. For though I tried to move his arm - unlock his bridegroom clasp - yet, sleeping as he was, he still hugged me tightly, as though naught but death would part us twain. I now strove to rouse him - "Queequeg!" - but his only answer was a snore. ... At last, by dint of much wriggling and loud and incessant expostulations upon the unbecomingness of his hugging a fellow male in that matrimonial sort of style, I succeeded in extracting a grunt ...
As I sat there in that now lonely room - the fire burning low, in that mild stage when, after its first intensity has warmed the air, it then only glows to be looked at; the evening shades and phantoms gathering round the casements and peering in upon us silent, solitary twain; the storm booming without in solemn swells - I began to be sensible of strange feelings. I felt a melting in me. No more my splintered heart and maddened hand were turned against the wolfish world. This soothing savage had redeemed it. There he sat, his very indifference speaking a nature in which lurked no civilized hypocrisies and bland deceits. Wild he was; a sight of sights to see; yet I began to feel myself mysteriously drawn to him. And those same things that would have repelled most others, they were the very magnets which thus drew me.
At first he little noticed these advances; but presently, upon my referring to his last night's hospitalities, he made out to ask me whether we were again to be bedfellows. I told him yes; whereat I thought he looked pleased, perhaps a little complimented.
He seemed to take to me quite as naturally and unbiddenly as I to him; and when our smoke was over, he pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said that henceforth we were married; meaning, in his country's phrase, that we were bosom friends; he would gladly die for me, if the need should be.
How it is I know not; but there is no place like bed for confidential disclosures between friends. Man and wife, they say, there open the very bottom of their souls to each other; and some old couples often lie and chat over old times till nearly morning. Thus, then, in our hearts' honeymoon, lay I and Queequeg - a cosy and loving pair.
We had lain thus in bed, chatting and napping at short intervals, and Queequeg now and then affectionately throwing his brown tattooed legs over mine and then drawing them back; so entirely sociable and free and easy were we; when at last, by reason of our confabulations, what little nappishness remained in us altogether departed, and we felt like getting up again, though daybreak was yet some way down the future.
Reply With Quote
Old 06-11-2010, 08:50 AM
Speak to me Maddie! Speak to me Maddie! is offline
Join Date: Aug 2009
I wrote my thesis on some specifics in Moby Dick which also included some biographical research on Melville. I’ve also taught the novel in the classroom a few times.

Anyway, in my opinion there is no evidence that he was gay, while there is plenty of evidence that he was straight. It is also clear, however, that he used homoerotic imagery as well as other non-traditional sexual imagery and themes not just in Moby Dick, but throughout his body of work. Sure, it was common for men, from best friends to complete strangers, to share a bed at the time with no hint of sexual tension of any sort. But Melville, in the "Marriage Bed" passage above for instance, goes well beyond that in his description of the event. Is he suggesting you read the novel as a treatise on homosexual liberation? No. Is he secretly reaching out in a desperate attempt to call attention to his own repressed sexuality? Doubtful. He may just be having a little fun and pushing the envelope a bit.

Again, there is a mountain of material out there discussing all the sexual imagery in Melville’s work if you are interested. Much of it, like much academic work in the humanities, is worthless crap driven more by the personal predilections of the “scholar” than by any merit in the target work itself. I’m not really into Freudian conjecture and such, and I don’t value assigning various hidden sexual identities to people without biographical evidence. One of the problems this creates is evinced by this very discussion; that is the erroneous supposition that using homosexual imagery and exploring homosexual themes is and can be only done by people who are themselves gay. It is a silly, baseless, and perhaps even bigoted assertion that writing about gayness makes you gay.
Reply With Quote
Old 06-11-2010, 09:33 AM
Acsenray Acsenray is offline
Charter Member
Join Date: Apr 2002
Location: U.S.A.
Posts: 32,161
One of my favorite bits is from the meeting with the Rose-Bud:

Instantly the captain ran forward, and in a loud voice commanded his crew to desist from hoisting the cutting-tackles, and at once cast loose the cables and chains confining the whales to the ship.

"What now?" said the Guernsey-man, when the captain had returned to them.
Diddled: cheated, swindled

"Why, let me see; yes, you may as well tell him now that—that—in fact, tell him I've diddled him, and (aside to himself) perhaps somebody else."

"He says, Monsieur, that he's very happy to have been of any service to us."

Hearing this, the captain vowed that they were the grateful parties (meaning himself and mate) and concluded by inviting Stubb down into his cabin to drink a bottle of Bordeaux.

"He wants you to take a glass of wine with him," said the interpreter.

"Thank him heartily; but tell him it's against my principles to drink with the man I've diddled. In fact, tell him I must go."

"He says, Monsieur, that his principles won't admit of his drinking; but that if Monsieur wants to live another day to drink, then Monsieur had best drop all four boats, and pull the ship away from these whales, for it's so calm they won't drift."
Reply With Quote
Old 06-11-2010, 09:37 AM
Dewey Finn Dewey Finn is offline
Charter Member
Join Date: Apr 2003
Posts: 23,891
I read Billy Budd in junior high school, and my entire English class thought that the homo-eroticism was completely blatant (it seemed clear that Captain Vere or Claggart were totally in love with him, and the novel emphasized how beautiful Billy Budd was), but the teacher denied any such thing. And I'm sure that I would have found eroticism in Moby Dick as well, had I been able to get through it. But it was boring as hell. (I remember an entire chapter describing a rope in great detail.)
Reply With Quote
Old 06-11-2010, 09:49 AM
don't ask don't ask is online now
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Sydney, Australia
Posts: 17,585
Well the whale was Moby Dick not Moby Frank.
Reply With Quote
Old 06-11-2010, 10:26 AM
Sampiro Sampiro is offline
Join Date: Aug 2002
His short story "Billy Budd Gets it On With Bartleby the Scrivener, or, I Would Prefer to Know How to Quit You" is unfortunately lost to history but may answer some of the questions.
Reply With Quote


Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump

All times are GMT -5. The time now is 03:50 AM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2017, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to:

Send comments about this website to:

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope?
Write to:

Copyright © 2017 Sun-Times Media, LLC.