Melville Meets Hawthorne

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At Field’s house the host provided some oversize stockings and slippers for Evert Duyckinck’s wet feet, and the proper New Yorker submitted gratefully to the change in footwear. The dinner itself took three hours to move from turkey and beef through ice cream to cigars and brandy. J. T. Headley, who was making the most comfortable living of the three prose authors present by rather shamelessly pandering to public tastes, had shown up for dinner, and it is not difficult to imagine what effect was produced on Melville when Hawthorne and Headley were juxtaposed at the dinner table. The meal had been “well moistened by the way,” Duyckinck wrote his brother, and the men felt up to a good fight. Holmes did not of course believe in the superiority of all things English (a favorite affectation of James Fields), but he guessed that Mathews would probably make a fool of himself arguing the contrary, and he maliciously threw out the opinion to see what the others would do. Melville rallied to Mathews’ predictable defense of the American cause and discovered, perhaps to his surprise, that Hawthorne was willing to split with the New Englanders and lend his vigorous support. But the subject was soon sidetracked into a discussion of the merits of Holmes’s pet theory concerning the relationship between environment and physical size. Reports of a sea serpent spotted in New York Harbor and the gigantic bullock recently born in Great Barrington were half-seriously introduced as evidence to support Holmes’s tongue-in-cheek prediction that “in less than twenty years it would be a common thing to grow in these United States men sixteen and seventeen feet high, and intellectual in proportion.”

The meal, but not the day’s activities, had concluded. Having missed the hike, Headley had not been sufficiently exercised physically and intellectually, so he proposed that the men settle their dinners by walking through the second of Stockbridge’s natural wonders, the “ice glen” whose depth and gloom were such that ice was supposed to last through the summer. Incredibly, the men accepted. They slipped and slid through the late afternoon, Hawthorne lustily shouting out warnings to the astonishment of his publisher, who, puffing along with his plump body far behind the others, was terrified that an accident might lay up one of his prize authors. “Ten per cent more to your authors on your next book,” Holmes called to the repining Fields, “and you’ll have less fat to complain of.” Somehow they all survived without mishap, and came out finally on an open field where they found some scythes someone had left lying about. Each took his turn demonstrating proper mowing technique. Back at the house of their host Harriet Field refreshed the exhausted men with tea and cakes and music, “Fay the Poodle taking an active part on his hind legs, and giving his opinion of the music in a jargonic howl equal to the most learned professor.” Hawthorne had to take his leave early so that he might find his way back to Lenox while it was still light, but before he departed, he asked Melville to pay him an extended visit—a rare invitation, which Melville quickly accepted. Finally it was time for the New Yorkers to say their good-byes and catch the ten o’clock train to Pittsfield. One can only imagine the comparing of notes on the trip home. An obliging conductor agreed to stop on a bridge by Melvill House in order to spare the bone-weary trio yet another long hike, at midnight, and Lizzie Melville had waited up to show them to their rooms.

The events of August 5, 1850, proved most significant for two men who wrote little about the day itself. The waxing and waning of the subsequent relationship between Hawthorne and Melville and its effect on the work of each has been the subject of considerable speculation, and it may be said that no one to date has succeeded in unravelling the mysteries. So impressed was Melville by his new acquaintance that as soon as his duties as a host allowed him the leisure, he read the Mosses from an Old Manse which had lain in a corner of his study since his Aunt Mary had given it to him as a present months before. His sense of the rapport between Hawthorne’s craft and what he wished to be able to do himself was immediate. With great excitement he produced the famous review article “Hawthorne and his Mosses,” in time for Duyckinck to carry it back to New York and include it in The Literary World issues of August 17 and 24, along with Mathews’ account of the excursion.

The essay was a perceptive appreciation of the work of one author by another, and its importance as a piece of literary criticism is over-shadowed only by its revelation that something of crucial importance had happened to Melville’s sense of himself and his vocation. He wrote as though under a spell: “A man of a deep and noble nature has seized me in this seclusion. His wild witch voice rings through me; or in softer cadences, I seem to hear it in the songs of the hillside birds that sing in the larch trees at my window.” Hawthorne had finally produced the evidence that there could be on this side of the Atlantic writing worthy of being called both American and literature. And if this were so, well, “would it, indeed, appear so unreasonable to suppose that this great fullness and overflowing may be, or may be destined to be, shared by a plurality of men of genius?”