The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America

The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America

The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America

The Horrors of the Half-Known Life: Male Attitudes toward Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century America

Synopsis

Now a classic in the field, The Horrors of the Half-Known Life is an important foundational text in the construction of masculinity, female identity, and the history of midwivery.

Excerpt

The title of this book is taken from Chapter LVIII of Moby Dick:

Consider…the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey on each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find it a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!

Melville's work suggests that this psychological bifurcation, and its geographical expression, had particular significance for American men. It suggests, too, that the relation between the sexes corresponded to the same split. Ishmael's preservation followed his determination to separate himself from "the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, laden with fire…the material counterpart to her monomaniac commander's soul." Ishmael placed his "conceit of attainable felicity" in "the wife, the heart, the bed…the country," even if, in some way, he reserved homosexual fantasies to himself. So Melville deplored the effects on men of the separation of the sexes, even if in his later work, especially Billy Budd, he showed he could not escape them.

That view of Melville was the starting point of this book. Its subject is a conventional one; it is WASP males, the physiological minority who have

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