Melville Meets Hawthorne

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A little group of American men of affairs and letters met along with their ladies on the morning of August 5, 1850, to hike up Monument Mountain, one of the more prominent features of the landscape surrounding Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The intention was purely social, and socially the day proved a smashing success, leading five of the ten hikers to record the event in letters, journals, articles, and books. For two of them, however, the climb was the beginning of one of the strangest episodes in the history of American literature. It was on Monument Mountain that Herman Melville, who had paused before putting the finishing touches on a new novel based upon the whaling industry, met Nathaniel Hawthorne, fresh from the critical success of The Scarlet Letter . The meeting led to a deeply important relationship between the two men that caused Melville to recast his novel as the great Moby Dick . It also set in motion a succession of missed personal opportunities, false starts, and misunderstandings that were the source of great bitterness for the remainder of his life.

Melville had returned from abroad in February of 1850 to his home in Manhattan with greatly mixed feelings about the course his writing career was taking. His first novel, Typee (1846), had been an auspicious entry into the treacherous waters of American publishing. It was a good book, and it sold well enough; if Melville was almost immediately to complain that he would be remembered forever after as the “man who lived among the cannibals” for his adventure story based upon his experiences at the hands of the natives of the Marquesas Islands in 1842, the success of his book nonetheless convinced him that he could make his living as a writer. A sequel, Omoo , followed in 1847, and again Melville was hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as a promising new author. But he was after bigger game than recognition as an entertaining sea romancer. He plunged into quite a different kind of writing with his next book, Mardi (1849), m search of a style and message that would extend his own artistic sensibilities and possibilities rather than satisfy readers eager for more exciting but undemanding adventure stories. But most reviewers overlooked the sparks of genius in the wild and difficult Mardi and pronounced the book an unqualified disaster. Readers who had been delighted by Typee and Omoo angrily deserted the author of Mardi and left Melville with the problem of repaying to his publishers the royalties they had optimistically advanced him.

 

Melville’s frustration was evident in his letters, where he alternated between pronouncing the critics dunces and deprecating the hook himself. To meet his financial obligations he had to forgo the further development of his art and mine his sailing experiences for “two jobs , which I have done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.” Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) brought him money and restored his prestige with the readership he did not want—the adventure lovers.

Throughout this period Melville’s intellectual and literary encouragement came from a man he had first met during the preparation of the proofs for Typee —Evert Duyckinck, an editor for Wiley and Putnam, Melville’s first publishers. Duyckinck was only a few years older than Melville, but he possessed a college education (which Melville did not) and a large store of experience with the greater and lesser literary lights of New York, to whom he was able, as the host of countless lively dinners and smokers, to introduce the young author. His well-stocked library and the generosity with which he lent his books was a great help to Melville, with his insatiable appetite for English literature. Urbane, polished, and amiable, Duyckinck was the well-connected promoter of the small circle of New York writers and artists to which Melville was now welcomed. The editor-patron refused to be intimidated by the awesome collection of talent in proud Boston. His energetic efforts to promote the arts and letters of his own city were not completely unnoticed by the Bostonians, who snickered when James Russell Lowell twitted the upstart New Yorkers in the Fable for Critics :

Good day, Mr. D——, I’m happy to meet, With a scholar so ripe, and a critic so neat, Who through Grub Street the soul of a gentleman carries; What news from that suburb of London and Paris Which latterly makes such shrill claims to monopolize The credit of being the New World’s metropolis?

Toward the close of the 1840’s Duyckinck forged his most formidable weapon for promoting the arts generally, and dealing with the New Englanders in particular, when he bought The Literary World , a journal that was to have considerable importance in shaping American literary life.