Book review: 'The Whale: A Love Story'

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Set in the Berkshires, Mark Beauregard's "The Whale, A Love Story," is based on the oft-told tale of Herman Melville and the writing of "Moby-Dick," which he completed while living at Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, during the early 1850s.

But Beauregard's novel is anything but a retread account of that golden era in Berkshires literary history, when Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in Lenox, Catharine Sedgwick and her family held court in Stockbridge, and others in that world, such as Oliver Wendell Holmes — with a summer home in Pittsfield — vacationed.

This book portrays, instead, what the author imagines was the true nature of the intense relationship between Melville and his neighbor in a rented cottage on what is now the grounds of Tanglewood Music Center — named after Hawthorne's book, "Tanglewood Tales."

In an interview distributed by his publisher, Viking Press, Beauregard says he was researching a book on Holmes, when "I came across Herman Meville's letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne and couldn't believe how frank and provocative they were."

He read passages to friends, he said, and asked whether that sounded like a love letter. "The answer was always, resoundingly, 'yes,'" Beauregard said.

What he has created in "The Whale, A Love Story," is also a vivid depiction of rural, mid-19th century Berkshire County and these famous events and personalities.

The book could be considered provocative, but it's also conceivable because of the historical research behind it, which Beauregard discusses in an epilogue.

What had long been noted as a homoerotic component in the relationship between the two writers is imagined here through all its anguished and erotic moments.

Beauregard sets the stage with the meeting of Melville and Hawthorne during a hike up Monument Mountain during the summer of 1850. Hawthorne was famous for "The Scarlet Letter" and other works, and Melville had written the popular "Typee" and "Omoo," based on his adventures on whaling ships, but subsequent novels had failed to advance his literary reputation or financial condition; and he was struggling with another sea tale, tentatively called "The Whale."

Melville could sense something deeper in his long, muddled novel, but it wasn't until after he met Hawthorne — and went through the emotional turmoil of an obsessive, thwarted affair — that "Moby-Dick" rose up from the depths of his tumultuous mind.

Berkshire residents and visitors alike should enjoy being immersed in a universe in which nature — not the cacophonous industrial age — still dominated and allowed a slower, more humane pace.

And the literary crowd attracted to the Berkshire summers included publishers and well-known playwrights of the era, fiction writers and poets from this country and occasionally from Europe. They provide lively, witty conversation throughout the novel, as the characters explore and dissect the great and small philosophical, artistic and political issues of their time.

Among literary types and average readers, Melville had a reputation of being "the man who lived among cannibals," and with Pacific islanders with open and — to 19th century America — shocking sexual practices.

Hawthorne, meanwhile, was, according to a character in the book, "a Puritan," a man as obsessed with the idea of sin as Melville was with the idea of unfettered love. Beauregard has Melville's attorney's niece — who sees through the writer's attempts to hide his intense feelings for Hawthorne — warn him that either his reputation or his heart — or both — will be broken in the long run.

Shortly after Melville meets Hawthorne on the mountain hike in the rain, he begins to look for a home in the Berkshires, and that was Arrowhead, then a farmhouse and today a museum operated by the Berkshire County Historical Society on Holmes Road.

Melville is, in this novel, extremely sensitive and perceptive, as well as emotionally unstable, obsessive or depressed, and prone to breaking into tears. He remarks at one point how he had endured life aboard a whaling ship with stoicism but on land could not control his emotions.

But it is the intense relationship he and Hawthorne share that spurred completion of Melville's towering work in 1851 and led to the most productive period of Hawthorne's writing career.

Within just a few years, both had moved away from the Berkshires — Hawthorne to Concord and Melville back to his native New York, after he was forced to sell Arrowhead.

Melville, of course, experienced only failure in terms of public or literary acceptance for "Moby-Dick" and his subsequent works, and he eventually gave up writing fiction.

Sadly, it wasn't until the 100th anniversary of his birth in 1919, long after Melville's death, that he began to be recognized as one of the greatest, possibly the greatest, American novelist.

Jim Therrien covers city government for the Berkshire Eagle.

Book signing

What: Reading and book signing with Mark Beauregard, author of 'The Whale: A Love Story'

When: 7 p.m., Thursday, June 23

Where: The Bookstore, 11 Housatonic St., Lenox

Information: www.bookstoreinlenox.com, 413-637-3390


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