Melville Meets Hawthorne

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As he read of the Indian maiden who, unable to many her true love, hurled herself from these very cliffs, the company drank in the surroundings and the view and imagined themselves figures in some German romantic painting of a mountain hike, leaning on their walking sticks and shutting out the pettiness of the ordinary life down below. The air was intoxicating, and the mood was helped along hy the champagne that Holmes began to pass around in a silver mug he suddenly produced. Mathews tried to recapture the moment later:

Behold, now! the panorama spread out like a sea. At that height it occurs to us all, at once, that we have passed the previous parts of our lives in very small matters. What is Trade to us at that elevation! Business is referred to with disgust. Wall street and Washington (supposed to be of some importance down below) are mere alleys and dogpaths. Even the writing of Hooks and Poems is child’s play—regarded from that watch-tower, so near up towards heaven.… The storm had passed away, hut there still lingered in the thoughts of the mountain-climbers a remembrance of the sad daughter who, in default of love, cast herself from this lonesome height and perished on the rocks below. We walk about, in the new sun, upon the mountain top, as though we were the angels of the lime, and as (hough these airy ridges were our natural promenade.

In “silence and sighing,” Mathews brought the poem to its close:

And o’er the mound that covered her, the tribe Built up a simple monument, a cone Of small loose stones. Thenceforward, all who passed, Hunter, and dame, and virgin, laid a stone In silence on the pile. It stands there yet. And Indians from the distant West, who come To visit where their fathers’ bones are laid, Yet tell the sorrowful tale, and to this day The mountain where the hapless maiden died Is called the Mountain of the Monument.

The applause was genuine, and someone proposed “long life to the dear old poet.” This was the favorite toast during the lunch the ladies then spread, and as James Fields later recalled, “it took a considerable amount of Heidsieck to do it justice.”

It is probable that it was during the lunch and the walking about atop the mountain that Hawthorne and Melville got acquainted. They may have compared notes on the books each had in progress. Hawthorne had just begun his stories based upon the old seven-gabled house in the Salem he had just departed (”forever,” he was saying at the time), and Melville was near the end of what Duyckinck had described as “a romantic, fanciful & literal & most enjoyable presentment of the Whale Fishery.” Whatever they might have discussed, the professional and life situations of the men and the mood of the day rendered them particularly vulnerable to what Melville would, in a few days, call “the shock of recognition.” Hawthorne was in an unusually expansive mood; Fields, who saw his author often through the years, said almost thirty years later that he had never seen Hawthorne in better spirits than on that fifth of August in 1850. Henry James, Sr., once described Hawthorne’s bearing in society as that of “a rogue who suddenly finds himself in a company of detectives,” and John Greenleaf Whittier once mused that Hawthorne “never seemed to be doing anything, and yet he did not like to be disturbed at it.” This was certainly the impression Melville had received from literary gossip. “Where Hawthorne is known,” he wrote a few days after their meeting, “he seems to be deemed … a sequestered, harmless man, from whom any deep and weighty thing would hardly be anticipated—a man who means no meanings.” Perhaps it was this universal characterization that had kept Melville from reading, or at least from reading with any real interest, Hawthorne’s work. But for once he was “among the most enterprising of the merry-makers” and “rayed out in a sparkling and unwonted manner.”