Melville Meets Hawthorne

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Duyckinck never allowed his interest in Melville’s unpredictable talent to flag, even when his prudishness winced at the young author’s frequently gamy taste in allusions and metaphors. He was, by all accounts, a loyal and helpful friend. But the pleasant Clinton Place soirees and whist parties could hardly satisfy Melville’s growing hunger for someone to talk with at the most intimate level of his feelings, hopes, and fears. He may once have entertained the notion that his wife, Elizabeth, could fill the empty place in his inner life, but she had tried and failed to comprehend Mardi , written during the first months of their married life. Elizabeth Melville found a house and a new baby as much as she could manage of her husband’s expectations, and he returned from England early in 1850 to shut himself up alone in his study with his new novel about whaling.

He received encouragement from Richard Henry Dana, Jr., whose Two Years Before the Mast had first suggested to Melville that this kind of experience could be written about. At the beginning of May he wrote Dana that although he was “half way” through what would be “a strange sort of book,” he meant “to give the truth of the thing.” He seemed resigned to limit his ambition to what could more easily be managed rather than risk another Mardi .

The onset of summer in New York made the desk-bound Melville long for a climate more congenial than the “Babylonish brick-kiln,” and in July he packed up Lizzie, young Malcolm, his long-widowed mother, Maria, and a sister or two and set out in search of “the grass-growing mood” that he hoped to find in the declining rural grandeur of his late uncle’s farm at Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Robert Melvill, a cousin, was operating the farm as an inn until its purchasers, the J. R. Morewoods, could take it off his hands in the fall. Herman had known and loved the place as a boy and young man, and in the familiar and pleasant surroundings he expected no difficulty in quickly tidying up the loose ends of his book and sending it off to the publishers, with whom he was already bargaining. He determined to relax a bit and persuade Duyckinck to allow him, for once, to play host. On August a, the day after Melville’s thirty-first birthday and two days before his third wedding anniversary, his friend arrived, along with a colleague, Cornelius Mathews.

Melville had laid grand plans for some heroic parties in the old homestead, unaware that an ambitious plan had already been hatched during the train ride up the Hudson while Duyckinck and Mathews had smoked their cigars and chatted with Dudley David Field, a well-known lawyer on his way back to his habitual summer in Stockbridge. Field obliged the two travellers with anecdotes about the summer literati of the Berkshires —William Cullen Bryant and, from time to time, Longfellow; Oliver Wendell Holmes, of greater fame for his witty prose and poetry than for his deanship of Harvard Medical School; J. T. Headley and G. P. R. James, whose names were often linked with Melville’s as “talked-about authors”; doughty Catherine Sedgwick, one of the first successful American women writers; James T. Fields, the Boston publisher, said to be visiting in the area with his new bride … As Field went on, his reputation as a party giver suggested to him the possibility of engineering the social coup of the season. He proposed a gigantic feast at his Stockbridge home, preceded by a hike up a local mountain made famous by a Bryant poem, which would include every literary lion he could catch in his net. If he was very lucky, the party might include the shy Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had just located himself with his wife, Sophia, and two young children in a small red farmhouse in Lenox, only seven miles from Melvill House.

Clearly the New Yorkers had gotten themselves into something. Dudley Field’s renown as a host was such that the people he invited were likely to show up. This meant that the trio from Manhattan would be matched against some very impressive talent from Boston. James Fields, the publisher, was just Duyckinck’s age but had already maneuvered himself into the venerable House of Ticknor as the partner who made all the important decisions. His good judgment was legendary. He had a diplomatic, persuasive manner, an unerring eye for good copy, and a reputation for fair dealing with his authors—qualities that in a few short years had won away from other publishers every important literary name in New England. Fields had shared greatly in the creation of The Scarlet Letter by encouraging a despondent Hawthorne to turn it from a short story into a novel. Its immediate success was a tribute to Fields’s shrewdness. And it was his literary salon—far outclassing Duyckinck’s in brilliance and importance—that was largely responsible for the awesome cultural power of Boston.