Melville Meets Hawthorne


Melville thought it not unreasonable to suppose just that, and he began to rework his book without fear and with a new appreciation for the dark side of his vision that corresponded to Hawthorne’s “blackness.” It would now be more than a year before the once nearly completed novel would appear in print. In the meantime, when he was not writing, Melville was attempting to be with Hawthorne and, when he could not be with him, composing lengthy, rambling letters to his chosen companion of the way. During his first visits to Lenox he told stories of the valley of the Typee with great dramatic effect, making a particular impression upon young Julian Hawthorne. But when the children were in bed, he poured out his soul to the attentive Hawthorne. Sophia was enchanted:

Nothing pleases me better than to sit & hear this growing man dash his tumultuous waves of thought up against Mr Hawthorne’s great, genial, comprehending silences—out of the profound of which a wonderful smile, or one powerful word sends back the foam and fury into a peaceful, booming calm—or perchance not into a calm—but a murmuring expostulation—for there is never a “mush of concession” in him. Yet such a love & reverence & admiration for Mr Hawthorne as is really beautiful to witness —& without doing anything on his own part, except merely being , it is astonishing how people make him their innermost Father Confessor. Is it not?

Melville firmly believed that Hawthorne shared his apocalyptic vision and communicated with him at his profoundest emotional and artistic level, and in this faith he found the inspiration and courage to write Moby Dick as we have it. Throughout the year letters and visits were exchanged. But Melville’s frustration grew as he began to fear that Hawthorne radiated no more than affirmation in his “comprehending silences.” He confessed his first irritation to Duyckinck: “Still there is something lacking—a good deal lacking—to the plump sphericity of the man. What is that?—he doesn’t patronize the butcher—he needs roast-beef, done rare.” Hawthorne began to beg off requests to visit Melville’s new farm next door to the old homestead, “Arrowhead.” As Moby Dick moved toward completion Melville felt the need for his unresponding friend the more desperately. His letters became more wild and the imagery more sensual. He imagined sitting down with Hawthorne in paradise, “and strike our glasses and our heads together, till both musically ring in concert—then, O my dear fellow-mortal, how shall we pleasantly discourse of all the things manifold which now so distress us.…” He dreamed of “men like you and me, and some others, forming a chain of God’s posts round the world.…” Hawthorne’s responses to his friend’s strange scenarios have not survived the years, but from all we know about Hawthorne it is difficult to imagine that he was not put on his guard.

When at last Moby Dick was done, Melville rushed a copy to his friend, with its dedication to Nathaniel Hawthorne, “in token of my admiration for his genius,” and a playful nudge in the ribs with the Hakluyt quote that began the “Etymology” section:

While you take in hand to school others, and to teach them by what name a whale-fish is to be called in our tongue, leaving out, through ignorance, the letter H, which almost alone maketh up the signification of the word, you deliver that which is not true.

Hawthorne wrote an appreciative letter, now lost, and Melville was beside himself:

But I felt pantheistic then—your heart beat in my ribs, and mine in yours, and both in God’s…

Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips—lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces…

Ah! It’s a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold. But with you for a passenger, I am content and can be happy. I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.

…I should write a thousand—a million —billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question—they are One .

There can be little doubt that Hawthorne genuinely liked Melville and that his appreciation of his genius was as real as Melville’s for his own. But he could only feel, at last, as though he had been assaulted by a strange, wild, demanding man. Hawthorne had not written or received words such as these since the celebrated correspondence between himself and Sophia during their courtship and early married life. It was, indeed, Hawthorne’s carefully nurtured solitude-à-deux that now seemed to be under siege. Perhaps, then, it was more than coincidence that the Hawthornes rather abruptly moved to West Newton a few months after the appearance of Moby Dick , with Hawthorne saying that he heartily disliked Lenox.