And maybe this was only a mystery to me, but just in case… About a month ago, I was minding my own business reading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding (my review). Early in the novel Harbach presents the President of Westish College’s back story. It discusses how Dr Affenlight discovery of a lost Melville manuscript changed his life. Affenlight became a man of letters:
The dissertation, a study of the homosocial and the homoerotic in nineteenth-century American letters, turned into a book, The Sperm-Squeezers (1987), and the book turned into a sensation: academically influential, widely translated…it wasn’t Moby Dick, but it sold more copies in its first year The Book had, and it became a touchstone in the culture wars.
First thoughts: Sperm-sqeezers? What in the what? Why sperm-squeezers? Is it supposed to be funny? It doesn’t seem to be. I figured that it was either a weird throw-away joke (wink wink) or a reference that I didn’t get and moved on.
It turns out that everything that I needed to get was right there in that paragraph. At the time I was in the middle of an almost year-long slog through Moby-Dick. The Art of Fielding, with its many Melville and Moby-Dick references inspired me to get back to it. No sooner had I returned to the novel than I practically tripped over some sperm squeezers. The sailors on The Pequod were up on deck processing the spermaceti of a slaughtered whale by heating it and squeezing out the lumps. It is also a fairly obviously reference to the homosocial and homoerotic contained in this particular nineteenth-century American letter. Of course!
I thought that I’d share this in the fairly specific off chance that you missed the reference as badly as I did in The Art of Fielding. Here’s Melville’s passage for context:
Understanding all of this better sets up what comes later in Harbach’s novel. Having said all of that, it was really this review in The Guardian that made me see the novel in a different light and underlined what Harbach was up to.