Dear Herman Melville,
Maybe you’ve felt your ears burning recently. This is because I am composing my dissertation on your emblematic American novel, Moby-Dick. After close-reading your sensual descriptions of nautical apparatus and such interesting seafaring phenomena as ambergris and latent homosexuality, I feel like I understand you better than I understand myself.
In my dissertation, “Melville’s Surging Blowhole,” I discuss the gender politics of your novel. It is my theory that your phallocentrism can be chalked up to your socio-historical context, which includes your experience as a seaman on an all-male whaling boat, the hetero-patriarchal norms of your era, and your sexually ambiguous “friendship” with your contemporary, Nathanial Hawthorne. (You are the better writer, by the way, and Hawthorne didn’t appreciate what he was passing up, but that is simply my opinion, which is informed by my own socio-historical context, which includes my experience of reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter with an English teacher, Mrs. Wexler, whose socio-historical context didn’t include a commitment to personal hygiene.)
In short, I argue that the absence of women in your book is due not to underlying misogyny but to your deep yearning to explore the supple contours of virile masculinity with the able hands of a mariner.
This is obvious to anybody with a brain, but, unfortunately, certain professors, whose socio-historical contexts have transformed them into insufferable assholes, are not convinced. Last week, I received initial feedback on my dissertation. I was told that “Melville’s Surging Blowhole” is “a lurid and incoherent misapplication of Queer Theory’s most basic tools” that “reads more like the gushing insinuations of a slobbering fanboy than actual scholarship.” My dissertation advisor wrote, “I can’t help thinking that the cautionary tale of Ahab’s self-destructive pursuit of his white whale might prove instructive to you as you enter your twelfth year in this program. Perhaps it is time to admit defeat. And, on a personal level, I am beginning to worry about your mental and physical health. When have you slept last?”
Ha! Though I can see the laughableness of these comments now, Mr. Melville, when I first received this feedback, I was distraught. So, I left a note for my wife and drove immediately to the only place that could give me solace: your home in Pittsfield, MA, which has today been furnished by the Massachusetts Historical Society with era-appropriate antiques. The leaves were yellow-red and gold-orange, Mount Greylock was a breaching whale on the horizon, and I was transported, Mr. Melville. I was a first mate. I reached out to touch your dining room table, in spite of various placards that warned against such an action, and imagined you there with me. I could feel your ancient breath on my cheek and the pressure of your mizzenmast against my thigh.
O, Mr. Melville! I will not deny that this was extremely moving and that feeling your presence just off my port bow has given me the strength to pursue my goals. I sometimes think about you as I drift to sleep in the evening — and sometimes, when I wake, I know that you have swabbed my decks in the night.
This is my discursive way of saying thank you. When the entire world is against me, I know that I can rely on you. In fact, one might even say I love you. Not in the way I love my wife, of course (don’t get any ideas, mister!), but in a deeper and more transcendent way that only you could possibly comprehend. Thank you for guiding my harpoon, Mr. Melville. Thank you for being my north star.
Nicolas A. Sansone, Ph.D. candidate in American Romanticism at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst