Melville Meets Hawthorne

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Cornelius Mathews must have been more than a little apprehensive over the prospect of matching wits with Holmes. Mathews had founded and edited Yankee Doodle , a humorous child of The Literary World with pretensions of being for America what Punch was for England. But in spite of some good moments, including a Melville series lampooning Zachary Taylor, Yankee Doodle had proved rather vapid. Lowell’s Fable for Critics sentenced petty thieves to an indefinite term of reading “that American Punch, like the English, no doubt—Just the sugar and lemons and spirit left out.” Mathews himself was skewered as Duyckinck’s court jester, “a small man in glasses … dodging about, muttering ‘Murderers! asses!’ ” Now he would be expected to hold his own with Oliver Wendell Holmes, who by repute possessed the sharpest tongue and the most mischievous pen in New England.

Undaunted, Duyckinck, Mathews, and Melville picked up Holmes —a slight but energetic little man carrying an India-rubber doctor’s bag full of provisions—at the Pittsfield station -on August 5. After the short trip on the jolting Housatonic railroad car, they arrived in Stockbridge Village, where they were met by Dudley Field. The men took a playful practice run up the hill in back of Field’s home and upon their return found the party organized. Hawthorne, who usually avoided such gatherings if he could possibly help it, had arrived—no doubt to the delight of James Fields, who never missed an opportunity to show off his most successful authors. Fields, with his curly brown whiskers, was there with his bride, Eliza, “the violet of the season in Berkshire”—though she was doubtfully dressed for mountain climbing with her blue silk and crinoline. As they were preparing to leave—James and Eliza Fields, Mr. and Mrs. Field with daughter Jenny, Hawthorne, Melville, Holmes, Mathews, and Duyckinck —one Henry Sedgwick appeared on horseback, in time to save Melville from being the youngest male of the company and to represent the large and energetic Stockbridge family Dudley Field knew so well. Sedgwick was just establishing himself in the law firm in which Field and the elder Sedgwick were partners, and he had been on hand four years before to escort visiting James Russell Lowell up the same mountain.

 

The weather was not altogether cooperative, but the party decided to make a go of it and tumbled into the conveyances for the three-mile trip to the foot of the mountain. Bravely, the group began the scramble up the side. Duyckinck and Hawthorne led the way, with the former asking questions and making polite observations about The Scarlet Letter . The others fell quickly into the mood of “glorious exercise” for body and wit, which was vigorous indeed. “Stealing glances through the trees at the country underneath,” Mathews recalled, they were “rambling, scrambling, climbing, rhyming—puns flying off in every direction like sparks among the bushes.” Once Mathews had difficulty keeping a straight face as Holmes, in mid-pun, stumbled and came near to dropping a thousand feet.

“A swift-sailing thunder cloud, like a black pirate-ship,” was now “scudding past directly alongside,” lending authority to Mathews’ stated opinion that he felt as though they were all passengers on a sea voyage. This inspired Melville to clamber onto a jutting pinnacle of rock and, standing precariously on its tip, begin hauling in sail. Holmes, who had been subdued since his wit had faltered along with his footing, pantomimed seasickness and asked for ipecac. These antics brought out a deeply buried sense of humor in Hawthorne, who, for his part, launched a search for the fictitious “Great Carbuncle” (supposedly a beautiful garnet hidden on this very mountain) about which he had once written a story.

But now the rain began to come down in earnest, and the company expressed concern for the finery worn by the newlyweds. Holmes produced a penknife and fashioned an umbrella out of some tree branches, and an indentation in the cliffs was located that, with its mossy undergrowth and cover of brush, afforded adequate shelter. The downpour proved but a shower, the clouds cleared, and the procession moved on toward the top.

 

The reading of William Cullen Bryant’s “Monument Mountain” from the top of the original had been proposed earlier in the day, and diplomacy had dictated that the honor be given to one of the guests who, like Bryant, had his name associated with New York. When the time came, it was Mathews who rose to the occasion, producing the volume from his jacket pocket and adjusting his spectacles. The damp company squinted and dried out in the noon sun, now quite bright and warm, as he put his heart into the reading:

There is a tale about these gray old rocks, A sad tradition of unhappy love, And sorrows borne and ended, long ago…