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“The great and awful book of human folly”: Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions

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The South Sea Bubble, a Scene in ‘Change Alley in 1720, Edward Matthew Ward, 1847

By Hector Kociak

In modern Britain, where bold and successful inroads upon public credulity seem to be a daily occurrence, it’s natural to look for some wisdom on how to avoid financial, intellectual and moral ruin. The godly would make a sign of the cross and reach for the Good Book; Ecclesiastes 1:9 informs us in Morrissey-like fashion that “What has been will be again / what has been done will be done again / there is nothing new under the sun.” You don’t have to go back that far, however. As the Black Monday crash of 1987 wreaked devastation across world markets, many a clammy-handed trader would have felt a chill of recognition listening to the frontman of the Smiths echo their thoughts on the A-side ‘Panic’, from the aptly titled ‘The World Won’t Listen’: “I wonder to myself / could life ever be sane again?”.

If you’d travelled back a hundred and something years and asked the journalist Charles Mackay, the author of the compendium of human folly Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, the answer would probably be that life was never sane to start with, wherever you look in the historical record. From the crusades, to witchcraft, alchemy, magnetism, haunted houses and more, Mackay’s masterwork sets out in crystalline and quotable prose how men and women throughout history have been hustled, scammed, bamboozled and willingly led astray by themselves or others.

Charles Mackay

The work is an interesting combination of humour and reflection. We laugh along through the chapters on ludicrous prophecies, alchemy, “The Influence of Politics and Religion on the Hair and Beard” and “Popular Follies of Great Cities” (a riff on absurd street slang). Treatment of the Crusades and other destructive superstitions is more sober. Mackay’s exhaustive (and somewhat exhausting) treatment of European beliefs in witchcraft is suffused with clear authorial horror at a “frightful catalogue of murder and superstition”. The reader is made aware that the horrible reality really was no laughing matter.

On beliefs in hauntings and ghosts, Mackay tells explanatory stories of draughty hallways, trapped rats, and human roguery with the relish of an Arthur Conan Doyle. Amongst tales of “hams, cheeses, and loaves of bread [disporting] themselves upon the floor as if the devil were in them”, particularly relatable to the modern reader is Gilles Blacre of Tour. A candidate for patron saint of all tenants, Mackay recounts how Monsieur Blacre almost managed to convince local courts in 1580 that his insufferable tenancy should be annulled on account of his home having become (in his words) “the general rendezvous of all the witches and evil spirits of France”. A worthy excuse for turning down that next unwelcome dinner party, perhaps.

Mackay does not miss the chance to draw a progressive and paternalistic lesson from these tales of folly and superstition. He highlights that the reason they appear absurd to the modern reader is because over time, modern lawmakers “by blotting from the statute-book the absurd or sanguinary enactments of their predecessors, have made one step towards teaching the people”. If ghosts and witches still remain in the popular imagination, it is the fault “not so much of the ignorant people, as of the law and the government that have neglected to enlighten them”.

The witch no. 1, J.E. Baker, c1892.

Some lessons are proving harder to learn, however. Most famously, and at the core of the book’s reputation as one of the first treatments of crowd psychology in the financial markets, Mackay recounts the absurd and entertaining details of three of history’s most notorious economic disasters, the Dutch Tulipomania, the South Sea Bubble and the Mississippi Scheme. If you’ve paid attention to any recent financial manias, the features of the delusions Mackay describes are startlingly and depressingly familiar.

The description of the Dutch Tulipomania in Chapter 3 reads almost like an instruction manual for a financial crisis. First, take a rather sub-prime asset. Make it really desirable. Let middle class vie with each other to possess as much of it as possible in the belief that prices will rise forever. Draw in the cut-throat speculators, wait until the markets hit their peak, then inject a large dose of cold sobriety. Mackay’s reportage is pithy: “It was seen that somebody must lose fearfully in the end. As this conviction spread, prices fell, and never rose again…”.

Mackay’s account has remained so influential that it was often quoted in descriptions of the recent Bitcoin bubble. In July 2010, one was worth 8 US cents. Nobody cared, until everyone cared. On 15 December 2017, a Bitcoin was worth over $19,000 and was being touted as the future of global currency. The cryptocurrency has since fallen sharply, leaving only a group of true believers and fringe speculators to tend to it. Mackay would probably point out that at least a tulip is pleasantly fragrant.


Satire of Tulip Mania, Jan Brueghel the Younger, 1640.

 

Mackay also repeatedly highlights how some of humanity’s greatest follies spring from a desire to solve its greatest problems. The South Sea Bubble arose from a simple and perhaps slightly too elegant scheme by the Earl of Oxford in 1711 to reduce the crushing national debt. The British government agreed to compensate (at 6% per annum) a mysterious group of merchants for taking on the debt by granting a monopoly of the South Seas trade and certain taxes to the South Sea Company. With the promise of inexhaustible riches from South America funding all of this (bearing an uncanny resemblance to the indefatigable gains of the housing market in 2000s North America), what could possibly go wrong?

Everything, frankly. By dint of its power the South Sea Company prompted stratospheric speculation in its shares and a mushrooming of fraudulent joint stock companies, plunging large numbers of the public into speculative ruin as they indulged their acquisitive instincts wherever they could. The Company itself was embroiled in a scandal of cooked books, and Mackay concludes the saga with Parliament and the Bank of England intervening shamefacedly to fix and find scapegoats for the godforsaken mess. It’s rather tempting to draw parallels with more recent financial disasters, botched investments, and political movements. Mackay’s comments are quietly scathing: “The English commenced their career of extravagance somewhat later than the French; but as soon as the delirium seized them, they were determined not to be outdone…” – a familiar sentiment for the modern reader.

The story of Extraordinary Popular Delusions as a literary object however is not one told entirely by what is between the covers, or by its popular reputation as an instructive warning from the past. Recent scholarship has pointed out that, curiously, Mackay himself was a cheerleader for a contemporary infrastructure investment bubble of the 1840s known as the Railway Mania, which saw frenzied investment in a new disruptive transport technology end with losses for many Victorian luminaries such as Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, and the Bronte sisters.

Extraordinary Popular Delusions does not mention the scheme except in passing – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Mackay’s aggressive promotion of railway development schemes in the Glasgow Argus at this time (even prompting a spat with William Wordsworth). The Railway Mania only merits a carefully worded footnote where it is in fact placed above the South Sea project as evidence of the “infatuation of the [British] people for commercial gambling” –  but Mackay takes it no further.

It’s quite a glaring omission. One can only guess that Mackay’s enthusiasm for free markets and the progressive powers of new transport technology led him to think, quite wrongly, that things would be different this time. Perhaps that inherent optimism explains why for its length, Extraordinary Popular Delusions reads fairly lightly even today. Neither a haughty assault on human stupidity, or an exacting work of historical scholarship, Mackay describes the work as “more of a miscellany of delusions than a history — a chapter only in the great and awful book of human folly which yet remains to be written…”. It is not a great leap to suppose Mackay knew that while he may have been a chronicler of popular delusions, it was deceptively easy to become a willing participant.

While the popular perception of Mackay’s work today is as a knowing 19th century guidebook to financial crises, its power as a starter in crowd psychology comes from Mackay’s insistence on humanising the follies he describes. No macroeconomic constructs here – just good old greed, optimism, superstition and cunning plans. Perhaps the final words should be left to the author, describing here the history of the study of the follies of magnetism with a sentiment that could well be applied to Extraordinary Popular Delusions as a whole:

It [affords] an additional proof of the strength of the unconquerable will, and the weakness of matter as compared with it; another illustration of the words of the inspired Psalmist, that ‘we are fearfully and wonderfully made.’”

Related items:

Hector Kociak is a lawyer and writer based in London. 

The post “The great and awful book of human folly”: Charles Mackay’s Popular Delusions appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.

Contraception and Control: two early advocates of reproductive rights

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Annie Besant and Marie Stopes

By Thea Hawlin

In 1877 a woman stood up in a courtroom and became the first female to publicly endorse the use of birth control in the United Kingdom. The Freethought Publishing Company were being prosecuted using the Obscene Publications Act for issuing a pamphlet on contraception. The woman who defended the writing was Annie Besant. She argued that birth control had the power to alleviate poverty. No one listened. The next year her own essay The Law of Population was published: she kept talking.

Besant risked a lot by authoring her essay. In the wake of its publication her ex-husband claimed her radical views made her unfit as a mother. He won the case and Besant was separated from her daughter. The experience was excruciating, and one that saw Besant dedicate her life to “cure the pain at my own heart by soothing the pain of others”. She openly dedicated her work to the poor, specifically mothers “that it may make their lives easier”. In fact the most compelling argument within her essay revolves around her concern for the increased rate of “prolapsus uteri, or falling of the womb” in poorer communities, due to poor women being unable to rest after giving birth and returning to work immediately to feed growing families. For Besant the conditions of poverty were linked inextricably with a lack of choice with regard to reproduction, consequently her argument for contraception focused on how it was better to prevent birth than watch the living suffer.

BESANT, Annie. The Law of Population: Its Consequences, and Its Bearing upon Human Conduct and Morals. One hundred and fifty-fifth thousand. London: Freethought Publishing Company, 1889.

Despite Besant’s seeming progressiveness, it must be noted that her advocacy for contraceptive rights is one rooted in fear, and the classist prejudices of her time. Some of her views are unambiguously problematic: to say her comparisons of the poor to unchecked rabbits or insects feel jarring is an understatement. For her, having many children was a luxury that the poor couldn’t afford.

However uncomfortable, Besant’s work highlighted the vast chasm of experience between those wealthy enough to nurture families and those too poor to do so. Health was a class matter, just as it is today with the privatisation of the NHS and American health insurance. Parallels with the one-child policy in China and the rolling back of reproductive rights in the US show us just how conflicted a modern outlook on population control and contraception are even today. A lot has changed since Besant wrote her essay, yet many of the concerns she addresses have remained resolutely unchanged. She notes herself how a system of complete control on who is deserving to reproduce, and when, would merely: “replace one set of evils by another”.

Though areas of her thesis remain dubious – one method of contraception she advocates involves a wad of cotton that can be replaced as easily as “an old slipper” – Besant busts important myths of the time, including the idea that nursing a child prevented the conception of another, as well as highlighting the dangers of abortion – at the time an unregulated and often risky procedure. As she notes “surely the prevention of conception is far better than the procuring of abortion.” It’s the key argument that pushes her polemic forward. She is perhaps a little too optimistic; theorising that with contraception “the root of poverty would be dug up”. Though she was against abortion she clarified that preventing conception was not morally evil: “an extraordinary confusion exists in some minds between preventive checks and infanticide. People speak as though prevention were the same as destruction.” Again, it is an argument that rages on in contemporary societies. Besant assured her readers “no life is destroyed by the prevention of conception, any more than by abstention from marriage”; a progressive argument that established a framework whereby contraception could be seen in a positive light.

Following in Besant’s footsteps in 1918 Marie Stopes published Married Love, a book so popular it would be reprinted nineteen times. The first female academic on the faculty at Manchester University, Stopes also edited Birth Control News, a newsletter which gave explicit practical advice, and went on to found the first birth control clinic in Britain; a foundation bearing her name, which offers women support in their reproductive health, continues to this day. The first manual of its kind, it sought to rectify the wrongs she had suffered in her first marriage. The book was a means of saving others from divorce: “to increase the joys of marriage, and to show how much sorrow may be avoided.” Information which “may save them years of heartache and blind groping in the dark.” Controversially, Stopes advocated the use of birth control within marriage.

She opens the book: “more than ever to-day are happy homes needed”. Today, with growing divorce rates, some of Stopes’s words sound just as relevant for newlyweds: “It is never easy to make marriage a lovely thing; and it is an achievement beyond the powers of the selfish, or the mentally cowardly. Knowledge is needed, and as things are at present, knowledge is almost unobtainable by those who are most in want of it.” Her assertions are astute: “They ask: Is not instinct enough? The answer is: No, instinct is not enough. In every other human activity it has been realised that training is essential”.

STOPES, Marie Carmichael. Married Love. A new contribution to the solution of sex difficulties. Fifteenth edition. London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, [1925]

Despite dated ideas and references (a point made especially uncomfortable knowing Stopes was a supporter of eugenics), the book does offer advice as kindly and lyrically as it can. There’s often a poetry to the way that Stopes writes about marriage and love: “The search for a mate is a quest for an understanding soul clothed in a body beautiful, but unlike our own.” It still feels at least partially accurate. The famously dubbed “honeymoon phase” is instead a “celestial intoxication”. The text itself is peppered with glorious metaphors, sex compared to everything from music lessons: “Only by learning to hold a bow correctly can one draw music from a violin” to electricity: “To use a homely simile – one might compare two human beings to two wires through which pass electric currents. Isolated from each other the electric forces within them pass uninterrupted along their length, but if these wires come into the right juxtaposition, the force is transmuted, and a spark, a glow of burning light arises between them. Such is love.” She identifies hormonal “sex tides” in women and openly rejects the idea that sex should be for men’s pleasure alone: “The supreme law for husbands,” she writes, is to “remember that each act of union must be tenderly wooed for and won, and that no union should ever take place unless the woman also desires it”.

These early works are compelling examples of how instrumental the voices of women were in creating a dialogue around birth control and how crucial they were in transforming the climate of that conversation. The discourse of sex and the teacherly pragmatism with which both approach their subject are prime examples of how woman’s voices were essential in normalising the narrative around the control of their bodies, but also vital in recognising female voices as worthy of a place within that conversation. For Besant contraception was a political issue that has radical implications for society at large. For Stopes it was personal, a vital part of sustaining a healthy and happy relationship in which both parties are equal. Contraception is revealed ultimately as an issue of addressing power dynamics, a means of establishing control, both within the domestic sphere and beyond it.

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Anne le Fèvre Dacier: Homer’s first female translator

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Penelope and her Suitors (1912) by John William Waterhouse

by Lauren Hepburn

The last ten years have brought particular focus to women’s engagement with the Classics. 2017 saw Emily Wilson publish her much-lauded translation of the Odyssey, and much of the press surrounding the publication focused on her status as a rare female translator of Homer’s work. She was, however, by no means the first to blaze this trail: 300 years previously, the first woman to translate Homer was a prolific but now largely forgotten scholar named Anne le Fèvre Dacier.

Dacier grew up in Saumur in the Loire region of France, where she was taught Ancient Greek and Latin by her father, Tanneguy Le Fèvre, a professor of classics. That he educated his daughter during the 17th century was unusual, and, happily, prepared her to become one of the foremost classical scholars of her day, as well as one of the most inspiring since.

Anne le Fèvre Dacier

It is a testament to her talent that Dacier’s ouvre has been held in high regard, and remained academically relevant for centuries. Even before her best-known work was published, French academic Gilles Ménage had dedicated his 1690 Historia Mulierum Philosophorum (The History of Women Philosophers) to Dacier, describing her as ‘the most learned of women, whether in the present or the past’. Touchingly, there is a school in Angers, France, where Ménage was born, named after her. Over a hundred years later, in 1803, she was again listed as one of history’s great female intellectuals by British writer Mary Hays. Hays included Dacier in her 300-entry encyclopedia of the most ‘illustrious and celebrated women’ of all time, alongside figures such as Agrippina the Elder and Queen Elizabeth I. More recently, in Harvard University Press’s The Classical Tradition, a 1,000-page volume that explores the legacy of the ancient world, Dacier is credited with popularising the classics during the Neoclassical period (particularly with women) and, through her championing of the poet, returning Homer to the literary foreground. The editors of the tome note that after Dacier’s proficient versions of the Iliad and Odyssey were published, no one else ‘dared to translate Homer for half a century’ .

But the admiration Dacier’s translations received from her male contemporaries is perhaps the best evidence of their quality. That she was considered an eminent scholar in an era that was hostile towards learned women was a considerable anomaly, so much so that she is said to have become quite the topic of conversation in Parisian salons. Her first published volume, translations of the Hellenic poet Callimachus, is what catapulted her to success. It impressed fellow academics and caught the attention of the Dauphin’s assistant tutor, Pierre Daniel-Huet, who became her patron. Huet invited Dacier to contribute to – and even co-edit – the Dauphin’s selected reading of Latin texts, Ad usum Delphini (also known as The Delphin Classics), which were subsequently read by circles beyond the royal household and helped promulgate ancient literature. Simultaneously, she had a number of Greek and Latin prose and poetry translations published independently, meaning that between 1674 and 1684, over ten of her editions were made available for purchase.

(DACIER, Anne Lefèvre, trans.) HOMER. 
L’Iliade d’Homere, traduite en françois, avec des remarques par Madame Dacier. 
Paris: Rigaud, 1711.

(DACIER, Anne Lefèvre, trans.) HOMER.
L’Odyséé d’Homere, traduite en françois, avec des remarques par Madame Dacier.
Paris: Rigaud, 1716

Then came the first of her famed translations: Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. Dacier was the first woman to tackle the dactylic hexameter poem, which was first written down in the 8th century BC. Her interpretation captures the essence of the original, with an emphasis on accurate translation over artistic license. At the same time, Dacier’s Iliad is a beautiful example of Neoclassical French prose. Her translation nine years later of the Odyssey was equally admired and was even used by Alexander Pope as a helpful reference when writing his own. Ironically, his was decried by Dacier as being unfaithful to the original.

The difference in style between Dacier and Pope’s Odysseys typified a long-standing academic debate at the time – the querelle des anciens et des modernes (the ‘ancients versus moderns’ debate). In 1714, Dacier published a treatise entitled Des Causes de la Corruption du Goût (On the Causes of the Corruption of Taste), which firmly established her position as a proponent of classical literature’s superiority. She argued that it need not be ‘improved’ and scathingly reviewed what she saw as the deterioration of aesthetic taste since ancient times. Translators such as Antoine Houdar de la Motte disagreed: what he perceived as Homer’s primitive poetic style should be updated to suit cultivated modern tastes. Dacier so opposed this view that she produced an additional two commentaries on the topic, Une Défense d’Homère (A Defence of Homer, 1715), which directly rebuffed scholars’ criticisms of the poet, and Réflexions sur la Préface de Pope (Reflections on the Preface of Pope, 1719). The latter critiqued Pope’s liberal approach to translating Homer’s Odyssey, which was a looser reproduction of the poem written in verse. ‘Whereas Pope’s translation claimed to restore Homer’s brutality, Anne Dacier saw in the poet only harmony and regularity… and in what her contemporaries found shocking, she found traces of the golden age’ (Grafton and others). This veneration of Homer is evident in the multitudinous explanatory notes that accompany her translation: for Dacier, translating the Iliad was not just an academic challenge or means for an income, it was a deeply-felt passion project.

Other female retellings of Homer have appeared in recent years. In 2011, Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles reimagined the Trojan War from the perspective of the hero’s friend and lover, Patroclus. Just last year, Pat Barker told the story of the Trojan War in The Silence of the Girls, this time through the eyes of its female victims. What Dacier would have made of these retellings, we cannot know, but it seems apt that we should revisit her work now and celebrate her as a brilliant scholar – and, of course, as a spirited female pioneer.

If you’d like any further information on any of the books mentioned in this blog, please email us: mail@peterharrington.co.uk or call one of our booksellers on 020 7591 0220

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A shanty-song to otherness: Herman Melville and Charles Stoddard

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By Andy Stewart MacKay

“I have written a blasphemous book” said American novelist Herman Melville (1819-91) of his best-known work, Moby Dick, first published in 1851. Narrated by Ishmael, the biblically-resonant mariner afloat a “wilderness of waters”, ostensibly it’s the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for a giant whale – the eponymous Moby Dick. Set on the high-seas of the South Pacific, it’s a novel that’s rich in metaphor and – as in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness – becomes for the main characters a psychological journey into the unknown. The elusive Moby Dick is, according to author Peter Hoare, “an icon of otherness”. Indeed, the novel itself reads like an old shanty-song to “otherness” and one that takes a special place in the canon of queer literature.

Despite the early privileges of a Classical education in upstate New York, after his father’s bankruptcy and death, adolescent Melville became a bank clerk, a shop assistant and a teacher. But it was an appetite for adventure that led him in the early 1840s to find work on a merchant ship between New York City and Liverpool – and then on whaling missions into the Atlantic to The Bahamas and around Cape Horn into the South Pacific to the Galapagos Islands. In July 1842 he and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, broke their contract by jumping ship at the Marquesas Islands. A month later, finding passage on an Australian whaling ship bound for Tahiti, upon arrival Melville was jailed – albeit briefly – for his apparent part in a mutiny. Eventually winding up in Hawaii, he a became a recruit to the United States Navy, again serving for a year in the South Pacific – or, more romantically, the “South Seas”. Upon returning home, Melville began writing his first novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published with great success in 1846, and married – albeit “unexpectedly” according to his wife Elizabeth – in 1847.

Critics often credit Melville’s modernity – his curiosity for the ‘unknown’, sympathy with the dispossessed, lack of religious conviction and keenness to see American culture with an ‘outsiders’ eye – to his experiences at sea. Over the last few decades, readers and critics have in particular highlighted the intensity of the male relationships depicted in his novels – and particularly in Moby Dick. Melville’s work suggests that, in the all-male environment of a ship upon the ‘savage’ high-seas, there may have been a greater variety of social and sexual roles available to men than on ‘civilized’ land.

With his sensitive and unprecedented depiction of a ‘marriage’ between two men – the American sailor-narrator Ishmael and the Polynesian whaler Queequeg, both crewmen and ‘outsiders’ far from home – Melville was a literary radical. Initially forced to share a bed with a drunken Queequeg, Ishmael wakes with pleasure the following morning to find the whaler’s arm slung warmly around him in a “loving and affectionate manner”, just as if Ishmael had been his “wife”. Living and working together, the pair soon develop a passion for one another. Ishmael tells us that Queequeg “pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said henceforth we were married”. The idealized, uncomplicated and unselfconscious love of a foreign or working-class man would henceforth pervade queer colonial English literature for at least a century. The queer subtext of Melville’s unfinished high-seas novella Billy Budd famously inspired composer Benjamin Britten and novelist E. M. Forster – himself the author of cross-cultural love stories between men – to adapted it as an opera that premiered in 1951.

Inspired by Melville’s adventures and by the romantic example of Ishmael and Queequeg, American author Charles Warren Stoddard (1843-1909) developed a consuming passion for the South Seas and its native island cultures. Leaving San Francisco in his early 20s, a place he adored for its brash mid-century newness, Stoddard set out for Polynesia. Immediately enamored of the people and the cultures he encountered Stoddard would return for extended visits a further four times over the coming decades. The result was several successful travel books, including The Island of Tranquil Delights, that contributed to Stoddard becoming one of the most prolific American travel writers of his day. South Sea Islanders were, for Stoddard, free of Christian dogma and prejudice and joyfully open to love between men. He even began to write poetry – sending a collection of his efforts to Melville himself in 1866 – and, later, the explicitly queer vaguely-autobiographical novel For the Pleasure of his Company, published in 1903. Sexually confident, he enjoyed romantic relationships with men all over the world – and at the opera in Venice in the winter of 1874 began a relationship with the American artist Francis Davis Millet (1848-1912). In Moby Dick Stoddard found not only a reason to travel the world but a joyful way to love other men.

Andy Stewart MacKay is an author and cultural historian.

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A shanty-song to otherness: Herman Melville and Charles Stoddard

Peter Harrington Bookseller Blog -

By Andy Stewart MacKay

“I have written a blasphemous book” said American novelist Herman Melville (1819-91) of his best-known work, Moby Dick, first published in 1851. Narrated by Ishmael, the biblically-resonant mariner afloat a “wilderness of waters”, ostensibly it’s the story of Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for a giant whale – the eponymous Moby Dick. Set on the high-seas of the South Pacific, it’s a novel that’s rich in metaphor and – as in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella Heart of Darkness – becomes for the main characters a psychological journey into the unknown. The elusive Moby Dick is, according to author Peter Hoare, “an icon of otherness”. Indeed, the novel itself reads like an old shanty-song to “otherness” and one that takes a special place in the canon of queer literature.

Despite the early privileges of a Classical education in upstate New York, after his father’s bankruptcy and death, adolescent Melville became a bank clerk, a shop assistant and a teacher. But it was an appetite for adventure that led him in the early 1840s to find work on a merchant ship between New York City and Liverpool – and then on whaling missions into the Atlantic to The Bahamas and around Cape Horn into the South Pacific to the Galapagos Islands. In July 1842 he and a friend, Richard Tobias Greene, broke their contract by jumping ship at the Marquesas Islands. A month later, finding passage on an Australian whaling ship bound for Tahiti, upon arrival Melville was jailed – albeit briefly – for his apparent part in a mutiny. Eventually winding up in Hawaii, he a became a recruit to the United States Navy, again serving for a year in the South Pacific – or, more romantically, the “South Seas”. Upon returning home, Melville began writing his first novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, published with great success in 1846, and married – albeit “unexpectedly” according to his wife Elizabeth – in 1847.

Critics often credit Melville’s modernity – his curiosity for the ‘unknown’, sympathy with the dispossessed, lack of religious conviction and keenness to see American culture with an ‘outsiders’ eye – to his experiences at sea. Over the last few decades, readers and critics have in particular highlighted the intensity of the male relationships depicted in his novels – and particularly in Moby Dick. Melville’s work suggests that, in the all-male environment of a ship upon the ‘savage’ high-seas, there may have been a greater variety of social and sexual roles available to men than on ‘civilized’ land.

With his sensitive and unprecedented depiction of a ‘marriage’ between two men – the American sailor-narrator Ishmael and the Polynesian whaler Queequeg, both crewmen and ‘outsiders’ far from home – Melville was a literary radical. Initially forced to share a bed with a drunken Queequeg, Ishmael wakes with pleasure the following morning to find the whaler’s arm slung warmly around him in a “loving and affectionate manner”, just as if Ishmael had been his “wife”. Living and working together, the pair soon develop a passion for one another. Ishmael tells us that Queequeg “pressed his forehead against mine, clasped me round the waist, and said henceforth we were married”. The idealized, uncomplicated and unselfconscious love of a foreign or working-class man would henceforth pervade queer colonial English literature for at least a century. The queer subtext of Melville’s unfinished high-seas novella Billy Budd famously inspired composer Benjamin Britten and novelist E. M. Forster – himself the author of cross-cultural love stories between men – to adapted it as an opera that premiered in 1951.

Inspired by Melville’s adventures and by the romantic example of Ishmael and Queequeg, American author Charles Warren Stoddard (1843-1909) developed a consuming passion for the South Seas and its native island cultures. Leaving San Francisco in his early 20s, a place he adored for its brash mid-century newness, Stoddard set out for Polynesia. Immediately enamored of the people and the cultures he encountered Stoddard would return for extended visits a further four times over the coming decades. The result was several successful travel books, including The Island of Tranquil Delights, that contributed to Stoddard becoming one of the most prolific American travel writers of his day. South Sea Islanders were, for Stoddard, free of Christian dogma and prejudice and joyfully open to love between men. He even began to write poetry – sending a collection of his efforts to Melville himself in 1866 – and, later, the explicitly queer vaguely-autobiographical novel For the Pleasure of his Company, published in 1903. Sexually confident, he enjoyed romantic relationships with men all over the world – and at the opera in Venice in the winter of 1874 began a relationship with the American artist Francis Davis Millet (1848-1912). In Moby Dick Stoddard found not only a reason to travel the world but a joyful way to love other men.

Andy Stewart MacKay is an author and cultural historian.

The post A shanty-song to otherness: Herman Melville and Charles Stoddard appeared first on Peter Harrington Blog.