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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Dinner with Nathaniel Hawthorne to celebrate the publication of Moby-Dick:
“The happiest day in Herman Melville’s life”

Hershel Parker closes volume one of his magisterial two-volume biography of Herman Melville with an account of the American publication of Moby-Dick: “Melville paid for his own publication party, to which he invited one guest.” That one guest was neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom Melville had met fifteen months earlier and whose influence on the novel’s revision led the younger writer to add a dedication page:

This Book is Inscribed

The American publication date for Moby-Dick was November 14, 1851. The two writers had agreed to meet as soon as copies of the book arrived, but their wives were both nursing newborns and the Hawthornes were in the midst of packing to leave Lenox. Neither household could host the other, so Melville invited Hawthorne to a formal farewell dinner at Curtis’s hotel in Lenox on the night of publication.

A letter by “Maherbal,” a Lenox resident, published months later in the Windsor Journal testifies to the gossip this curious dinner date aroused.
Not very long ago the author of The Scarlet Letter and the author of Typee having, in some unaccountable way, gotten a mutual desire to see one another, as if neither had a home to which he could invite the other, made arrangements in a very formal manner to dine together at a hotel in this village . . . In the small talk of the flippant beaux and the light-headed belles of Berkshire, the solemn attempt of two of the greatest characters of which the country could boast, towards an acquaintance, was a subject of infinite merriment.
Hotels at the time were frequented mostly by travelers. Seeing two local residents, especially such famous recluses, dining at a hotel was considered quite unusual. In Parker’s words:
To [older Lenoxites] and to the younger onlookers, [Melville] was now the recluse of Pittsfield—the man who drove hell-for-leather into the village for his mail and hell-for-leather home, the man who had scarcely seen the inside of a church since he had moved to the Berkshires . . . Hawthorne was the even more peculiar recluse of Stockbridge Bowl, the man who might be glimpsed ducking behind trees and rocks when encountered out of doors.
However strange the sight of the two men dining together may have appeared to locals, Parker imparts great meaning to the event for the diners:
At some well-chosen moment Melville took out the book whose publication they had both been awaiting and handed his friend an inscribed copy of Moby-Dick, the first presentation copy. In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon, one that he had read by the fifteenth or sixteenth, in time to have written a letter Melville received on the sixteenth. Here, in the dining room, Hawthorne for the first time saw the extraordinary dedication and tribute to his genius – the first book anyone had dedicated to him. Never demonstrative, he was profoundly moved. . . .

The flippant beaux and the light-headed belles were witnessing a sacred occasion in American literary life, as the men lingered at the table, drinking, soothed into ineffable socialities, obscured at times from view by their tobacco smoke. They lingered long after the dining room had emptied, each reverential toward the other’s genius . . . Take it all in all, this was the happiest day of Melville’s life.
Of related interest:
Related LOA works: Herman Melville: Complete Fiction and Other Prose Works; Nathaniel Hawthorne: Collected Novels


  1. This bit "as if neither had a home to which he could invite the other" strikes me as just a little bit too prescient, no?

    Another wonderful post.


  2. It's terrific how Herman Melville, a very gifted and high powered intellect, invited just one person to his party for the publication of the "greatest novel ever written," but Chad Ochocinco finds it necessary to take out 85 fans of the other team for dinner the night before the Bengals play their opponent. Somehow the publication of Moby Dick seems a tad more important.

    Matt Hamdan

  3. Notice that someone corrected Parker on the last sentence. They could not let him say in a free offhand way, "Take it all in all . . . .!!!!

  4. Professor Parker: That was an inadvertent transcription error. We have corrected it to match your original text; thanks for the catch!


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