Whale of a Tale

A journalist turned novelist reads between the lines of two local literary icons’ letters.


The Whale: A Love Story by Mark Beauregard

Published by Viking, 288 pages, $26

Though we think of Moby-Dick as a masterpiece of American fiction, in fact it flopped and wasn’t recognized as a classic until 70 years after its publication. And Herman Melville was suffering both financial strain and literary turmoil while trying to capture that mythic whale on the page.

But a surprising spark changed things for the dark writer when he met Nathaniel Hawthorne during an 1850 vacation in the Berkshires. In this novel, Melville falls head over heels for the author of The Scarlet Letter, though both are married. Mark Beauregard’s fictionalized characters brilliantly inhabit the language of the time—swirling, metaphorical, romantic. For Melville, as in his iconic book, the style is almost biblical. He’s the desperate pursuer of the more cautious Hawthorne, though eroticism is in the air between them in meetings and in letters—some invented, others actual missives written by the two men. Melville manipulates his family into moving to Pittsfield to be near Hawthorne, who becomes his literary mentor through writing and publishing travails. Yes, there is a kiss that Melville would like to take to the next level, but the more ambivalent Hawthorne draws away.

They do, however, overlap in their literary endeavors: Hawthorne is at work on The House of the Seven Gables while the floundering Melville dives into the manuscript that will become Moby-Dick. The actual Melville dedicated that book to Hawthorne, and this novel about novelists deliciously blends the real with the imagined.

From Page 150: How could two such diametrically opposed beings live simultaneously in the same Hawthorne—this casual, congenial soul standing before Herman speaking frankly about his friends and optimistically about the future; and the tortured, inward-gazing seer of doom, obsessed with his own sins and the sins of his forefathers?

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