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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne first meet 160 years ago

On an August day in 1850, one of the most momentous meetings in American literature occurred. During a picnic hike up Monument Mountain, near Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville met for the first time. Hawthorne was 46, Melville fourteen years his junior. Publisher James T. Fields, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and the hike's organizer, Dudley Fields, brought Hawthorne. Editor Evert Duyckinck and writer Cornelius Mathews invited Melville.

David B. Kesterson on Hawthorne in Salem quotes Duyckinck’s colorful account of the hike, which occurred on Monday, August 5:
As we scrambled over the rocks at the summit . . . a black thunder cloud from the south dragged its ragged skirts towards us . . . They talked of shelter and shelter there proved to be though it looked unpromising . . . Dr. Holmes cut three branches for an umbrella and uncorked the champagne which was drunk from a silver mug . . . we scattered over the cliffs, Herman Melville to seat himself, the boldest of all, astride a projecting bow sprit of rock while little Dr. Holmes peeped about the cliffs and protested it affected him like ipecac. Hawthorne looked mildly about for the great Carbuncle . . . ." [Evert Duyckinck to his wife, Aug 6-Leyda, Melville Log, 384]
Hawthorne had reviewed Melville’s novel Typee favorably four years earlier (“The book is lightly but vigorously written; and we are acquainted with no work that gives a freer and more effective picture of barbarian life.”). Within days of their meeting Melville wrote an exultant review of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (a book published four year earlier): “. . . it is that blackness in Hawthorne, of which I have spoken, that so fixes & fascinates me.”

Melville quickly became a frequent visitor at Hawthorne’s home and in conversations that lasted deep into the night he and Hawthorne plumbed what Melville called “ontological heroics.” Hawthorne’s wife Sophia gives a vivid description of Melville in a letter to her mother shortly after their first meeting:
When conversing, he is full of gesture and force, and loses himself in his subject. There is no grace or polish. Once in a while, his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected, an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into itself.
The younger novelist seemed to find in Hawthorne’s writings and companionship the inspiration he needed to recast his work in progress. When he published Moby-Dick in November, 1851, he dedicated it to Hawthorne. Sadly, by then their relationship appears to have mysteriously cooled. After the publication of Moby-Dick they would meet again only twice.

In a recent blog post Caleb Crain, author of American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation, muses on the Melville-Hawthorne relationship and on whether Melville’s elegiac poem, “Monody,” may have been written with Hawthorne in mind.

Related LOA works: Herman Melville: Redburn, White-Jacket, Moby-Dick; American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, volume two: Melville to Stickney, American Indian Poetry, Folk Songs and Spirituals (includes Melville’s poem “Monody”)


  1. A feature on Melville/Hawthorne/Pittsfield:


  2. Such an interesting exposition into the life of Melville. So who exactly is Hawthorne and what caused the friendship to go sour?


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