When Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was first published, in 1851, mainstream literary critics didn’t immediately embrace it as the Great American Novel. It was just a matter of a few decades, however, before the word “dick” became a coarse synonym for “penis” and Melville finally got his lucky break.
At least that’s the premise of Arlington-based literary critic Ken Schellenberg’s new book, The Gay Herman Melville Reader: Blazing a campy, sex-obsessed trail a century before John Waters, Melville won a loyal, word-of-mouth following among gay men that eventually helped secure Moby Dick its esteemed place in American culture.
Schellenberg, 45, says that he was first struck by the homoeroticism of Melville’s work when he read Moby Dick in college in the ’70s. “I was the only person in my class who really liked it,” he recalls. Over the years, gay-related themes in Melville’s work have gotten more and more attention, most visibly in novelist Elizabeth Hardwick’s biography of Melville, published by Penguin two years ago. The recent reprinting of the original version of Pierre, a lesser-known Melville work, has also inspired discussion among literary critics about Melville’s possible homosexuality.
Schellenberg, a computer programmer who writes book reviews for The James White Review and The Gay & Lesbian Review, says that even before the recent spate of interest in Melville, the idea of putting together some kind of gay Melville reader had been “brewing in the back of my mind for years.” “I wanted to make a case for Melville’s homoeroticism in Melville’s own words,” he says.
As evidence, Schellenberg presents passages such as this one from Redburn, in which an Italian boy named Carlo entertains the crew of a ship with a “hand organ”: “I love my organ as I do myself, for it is my only friend, poor organ!” Carlo proclaims to the book’s narrator. “[I]t sings to me when I am sad, and cheers me.” The description of Carlo’s performance that follows reads almost like bad porn: “[F]or as Carlo now turns his hand, I hear the gush of the Fountain of Lions, as he plays some thronged Italian air—a mixed and liquid sea of sound, that dashes its spray in my face.”
The book also quotes a scene from Moby Dick in which Ishmael gets so excited squeezing whale sperm that he cries, “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.”
Schellenberg says that he wants to help repitch Melville to the general reader, who may have been put off by the writer in high school. To that end, he made sure to keep the book under 200 pages and his own accompanying texts as short as possible. “I wanted something accessible,” he says. “I thought these short excerpts might excite people and get them to read the original works again.”
Unlike many literary critics, however, Schellenberg isn’t dogmatic about his interpretation. “Maybe camp is something that happens in the reader themselves. Maybe camp is something we’ve invented and imposed on [Melville],” he muses. “Then again, he goes into this ecstatic mode about the joy of squeezing whale sperm. I read this and I say, ‘C’mon! I can’t take this at face value!’” —Annys Shin
Schellenberg signs copies of The Gay Herman Melville Reader before and after the 5 p.m. Reel Affirmations Film Festival screening of The Business of Fancydancing Saturday, Oct. 19. For more information, call (202) 682-0952.