Up Late with The Whale: A Love Story
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book, an imagining of Herman Melville’s romantic obsession with Nathaniel Hawthorne, since I heard it was coming out last year. My students were so curious about what they’d read about Melville’s bromance (their word) with Hawthorne. Since Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, the question of what their relationship was is still a little foggy. Beauregard used actual letters and journals from Melville and Hawthorne and Oliver Wendall Holmes in the text to explore the question of their relationship. It makes it hard to pull the fiction away from the fact, but I’m not sure it matters, really. This book captures the difficulty of being an author who is in debt, an author who desperately needs a muse, an author struggling with early copyright laws, and an author who feels isolated in a full house.
Beauregard also captures the zeitgeist of the time–this was a new America, with a literature that needed to reflect this new country. In this novel, Melville is a believable man with flaws. A man who has found an obsession, much like Ahab does, and pursues it, although it may lead to his undoing. At one point, he thinks: “destroying oneself, he thought ruefully, should always be done at a deliberate pace.”
The very process of writing is considered in the text as well as what it means to be human. At one point, Melville says to Hawthorne: “in your stories, you seem to understand that the dramatic moments come not when a character must choose between right and wrong but when he must choose between two wrongs.” As Melville delves deeper into his writing and his obsession with Hawthorne, he has a moment of clarity where “he suddenly saw the enterprise of literature as essentially mad.”
In addition to the glimpse into writers and writing, there are some funny parts. I admit, when the two men first interact and have a discussion about metaphysics, and they use cheese as an example, I just laughed aloud at this discussion of the metaphysics of cheese. It is an awkward social situation and speaks to how Melville so desperately wants to impress Hawthorne, and perhaps vice versa: “I have been considering the possibility that the facts that can be ascertained about this cheese fail to satisfy because the facts themselves mask a metaphysical truth that can be known only through the transcendent, poetic expression of the cheddar. That is, though the world itself can never truly be known, one might begin to know some truth about the world through a metaphysical cheese.” Of course, it also reminds me of me when I’m at parties, but that’s an entirely different post.
I don’t think you have to be a huge Melville/Hawthorne fan to like this book. You might enjoy historical fiction, or fiction that considers the lives of writers. I loved the way Beauregard wove in the actual journals into the text. It reminded me a little of The Secret of Lost Things, which considers what it might be like to find a lost Melville manuscript.