Melville Meets Hawthorne
HOW A CHAMPAGNE PICNIC ON MONUMENT MOUNTAIN LED TO A PROFOUND REVISION OF Moby Dick —AND DISENCHANTMENT
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
Caught at one of the few moments in his life when he was willing to entertain the notion that someone he did not already know might be worth knowing, Hawthorne allowed Melville to stake his claim within the territory that the older man valued above all else—his privacy. No man could have been a better choice to provide Melville with the thread to follow out of his frustration and sense of isolation. Hawthorne was forty-six, just old enough to provide a fatherly aspect to a relationship with the younger man. His personality and his writing were of one piece —as anyone who met him readily testified—and would have suggested to Melville that his own internal confusions could be appropriately and artistically externalized in the exercise of his craft. Hawthorne was an excellent listener. And perhaps most important of all for Melville, he almost always wrote exactly what he intended to write, in spite of the dictates of fashion. If Hawthorne was not financially well off (indeed, at the time of their meeting Melville was probably doing a bit better), he nevertheless presented to his new acquaintance the picture of an author who had not had to sacrifice his integrity as an artist in order to get by.
Let Sophia Hawthorne’s words describe what the two men saw in each other from the time of their first meeting. Melville spoke at length with his new friend’s wife only a few weeks later, on the verandah of the Red House in Lenox:
He said Mr Hawthorne was the first person whose physical being appeared to him wholly in harmony with the intellectual and spiritual. He said the sunny hair & the pensiveness, the symmetry of his face, the depth of eyes, ‘the gleam—the shadow—& the peace supreme’ all were in exact response to the high calm intellect, the glowing, deep heart—the purity of actual and spiritual life … he found himself talking to Mr. Hawthorne to a great extent. He said Mr. Hawthorne’s great but hospitable silence drew him out—that it was astonishing how sociable his silence was.… He said sometimes they would walk along without talking on either side, but that even then they seemed to be very social…
Much of that description would have been embarrassing to anyone but Sophia, whose life was dedicated to promoting the use of superlatives whenever anyone introduced the subject of her husband. But that Melville was drawn out in a creative way from the first moment he was struck by Hawthorne’s mysteriousness there can be no doubt. As far as Hawthorne’s initial impression of Melville was concerned, it is likely that—as with most matters—he and Sophia were of one mind. Sophia wrote to her mother:
Mr Melville is a person of great ardor & simplicity. He is all on fire with the subject that interests him. It rings through his frame like a cathedral bell. His truth and honesty shine out at every point…
…a man with a true warm heart & a soul & an intellect,—with life to his fingertips—earnest, sincere, & reverent, very tender & modest .… He has very keen perceptive power, but what astonishes me is, that his eyes are not large & deep. He seems to see every thing very accurately, & how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in any way. [Actually, by this time Melville’s astigmatism was quite pronounced.] His nose is straight & rather handsome, his mouth expressive of sensibility and emotion. He is tall & erect, with an air free, brave & manly. When conversing, he is full of gesture & force, & loses himself in his subject—There is no grace nor 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 himself…
Thus the two men met and began to take each other’s measure. Whatever may have suggested itself by way of serious conversation, however, would have to wait an occasion later than the outing on the mountain. Longfellow had been proposed in a toast, and throats were cleared as it was remembered that New Yorker Mathews had treated the New England bard roughly in a critical review. It was getting late, and someone suggested that it was time to begin the search for the pile of rocks that had given the mountain its name. No doubt imagining themselves “Indians from the distant West,” “Hunter, dame and virgin” silently added their stones to the cairn when it was found, and jovial spirits returned once more for the trip downward.
Many years later Henry Sedgwick recalled that he was “the only male of the party who had not written a book” and that he had listened with astonishment as the great prose poured out in conversation as easily as the puns. At last at the bottom of the mountain, the amiable group climbed into carriages to go back to Stockbridge, where “turkeys and beeves” had been “slaughtered” for the mammoth feast.