This summer marks the 165th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick. Two fascinating new books—one a historical novel, the other nonfiction—each identify a different person as the inspiration behind Herman Melville’s iconic novel.
In his debut, The Whale: A Love Story, former journalist Mark Beauregard supposes what many have speculated: that the brief but intense friendship between Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne went beyond camaraderie.
The novel opens on August 5, 1850, with Melville and Hawthorne meeting for the first time while on an excursion with mutual friends in the Berkshires. Hawthorne is fresh off the success of The Scarlet Letter and living in Lenox, Massachusetts, while Melville is visiting his cousin Robert in nearby Pittsfield. Melville’s career is waning, and he is in a bit of a rut working on a novel about the whaling industry.
Though both are married, Melville instantly falls for the handsome, congenial Hawthorne. Shortly afterward, Melville moves his family to a modest farm six miles from Lenox. Hawthorne keeps Melville at arm’s length to resist his attraction to the younger writer, and so Melville funnels his yearning into his work. In effect, Beauregard presents Hawthorne as Melville’s own white whale, the object of his obsession.
Beauregard consulted biographies, journals and letters in crafting his clever and engaging, if unconfirmed, account. While the physical aspect of the relationship is limited to a couple of charged caresses and a drink-fueled kiss, the emotional toll of the affair—which ends when Hawthorne moves away from Lenox in 1852—is high, particularly for Melville.
In Melville in Love, Michael Shelden—a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Orwell: The Authorized Biography—presents another candidate for Melville’s muse, one whose importance has been entirely overlooked for the past 165 years.
Among the guests at cousin Robert Melville’s house in Pittsfield during the summer of 1850 were the Morewoods of New York City. Sarah Morewood was the “bookish and beautiful, intelligent and inquisitive, creative and compassionate” wife of a wealthy merchant. That summer, the vivacious Sarah organized picnics, hikes and other jaunts, which Melville enthusiastically joined. The attraction between Sarah and the dashing writer was immediate and mutual, and Shelden asserts that Melville moved his family to Pittsfield to be close not to Hawthorne, but to Sarah, who was in the process of purchasing Robert’s estate.
Shelden argues that the ensuing affair energized Melville, and the passion that Sarah stirred in him flowed through his pen onto the pages of Moby-Dick. Unlike Hawthorne and Melville in The Whale, Shelden claims that Sarah and Melville consummated their relationship, during an overnight trek to the summit of Mount Greylock.
While there is no definitive proof of the affair, Shelden offers compelling evidence supporting his theory, including clues in Melville’s works. Melville in Love is a beautifully written, captivating story that may also be one of the most surprising literary revelations of our time.