(Originally published in Boston Magazine, April 1996)
Until now, Herman Melville has been read as the ultimate macho writer, with his harpoons and his great white whale. But that view is being challenged by three Boston-area Melville scholars who have published books on the great nineteenth-century American novelist in recent months: Laurie Roberston-Lorant, whose Melville: A Biography re-examines his life in light of 500 newly discovered family letters; Wyn Kelley, whose Melville’s City re-defines the great glorifier of seafaring life as an urban writer; and Sheila Post-Lauria, whose Correspondent Colorings places his Moby-Dick and his other books the context of the best-sellers of his era. Her title comes from a poem by Melville:
Whereas great geniuses are parts of the times,
they themselves are the times,
and possess a correspondent coloring.
The three authors are good friends — a rarity in the cut-throat publish-or-perish world of academic publishing. We all got together over lunch and talked about the road to Melville.
Wyn Kelley: The men in my family were all into Melville. My father was an English professor, and there was an uncle who painted the sea. They saw him as tragic and isolated — the whole 50’s New Criticism view. For years I thought there was something wrong with me for liking Melville. Then I met Laurie and Sheila.
Sheila Post-Lauria: I saw Ishmael as this guy who celebrates multicultural bonds with people from all over the world: native Americans and Africans. Moby Dick is a book against patriarchy and against patriarchal modes of action. It’s full of the sky and the water, images of male and female blending together.
Laurie Roberston-Lorant: Women are ready to see in Melville a man who was sensitive to masculine roles in the nineteenth century. Women respond to the wounded side of Melville — his experience in the Navy, the floggings, the abuse of men by men. Women respond to the feminine and almost maternal undercurrent in his writing about the sea, in the wonderful language of passion and inclusiveness.
Wyn Kelley: Just call us Women Who Run With The Whales.