Melville Meets Hawthorne


The two men corresponded regularly for a while longer, with Melville even—without success—suggesting a story idea to his friend. But the older man’s appointment by his long-time friend and new President Franklin Pierce to serve as the American consul in Liverpool placed an even greater distance between them. From this time on, the edge of disappointment and bitterness was never to leave Melville’s writing. He launched into Pierre without even a pause after his exhaustive labors with Moby Dick . While the latter had received greatly mixed reviews, the former impressed many critics as a deliberate exercise in self-destruction. Melville had increased financial worries as his family grew and his literary reputation declined. Continuous attempts were made to secure for Melville, too, a consulship —in Brussels, Rome, or Hawaii —all without success. He tried to make enough from magazine articles and short stories to keep from having to borrow heavily from his relatives, and although he produced some of his very best writing in this way, he was not breaking even.

Finally, health broken in the process of writing what would be his last novel, The Confidence Man , he sailed again for Europe with the idea of touring Egypt and the Near East. In Liverpool he met his friend for what would prove to be their last extended visit together. They walked along the coast among sand dunes and smoked their cigars, Hawthorne, as always, profoundly silent and observant. Hawthorne wrote an extraordinary account of the meeting in his journal:

Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken.… It is strange how he persists—and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before—in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.

Melville’s journey provided the geography and mood for Clarel , the long, difficult, and little-read narrative poem he wrote years later. His writings have always suggested to commentators a sense of yearning for an ideal companion, personified by Toby in Typee , Jack Chase in White-Jacket , Billy Budd, and Bulkington, who may have been intended as a dominant figure in the original version of Moby Dick but is reduced to a walk-on player in the final draft. Clarel includes a not-quite-consummated friendship between “Rolfe,” generally conceded to resemble Melville, and “Vine,” thought by critics to be Melville’s idealized picture of Hawthorne. By now it could only be a dream.

Hawthorne returned from England to an America at war. He could not begin to comprehend what was happening, and his profound confusion added to the fading of his creative powers. He aged prematurely, became more reclusive than ever, and died in his sleep in 1864. The truth about his failure to respond to Melville’s overtures died with him. Julian Hawthorne, who had listened wide-eyed to Melville’s stories of the cannibals, visited the old man while collecting material for a biography of his father. It is hard to miss, in the account of that visit, Melville’s bitter sense of regret:

In 1883, when I was writing a biography of my father, I called on him in a quiet side street in New York, where he was living almost alone. He greeted me kindly, with a low voice and restrained manner; he seemed nervous, and every few minutes would rise to open and then shut again the window opening on the courtyard. At first he was disinclined to talk; but finally he said several interesting things, among which the most remarkable was that he was convinced Hawthorne had all his life concealed some great secret, which would, were it known, explain all the mysteries of his career…

I … had applied to him for any letters that Hawthorne might have written to him in reply to several of his own during the 1850’s. But he said, with agitation, that he had kept nothing; if any such letters had existed, he had scrupulously destroyed them.… When I tried to revive memories in him of the red-cottage days—red letter days too for him—he merely shook his head.

Melville aged quickly also. He finally succeeded in obtaining a government appointment and spent the last third of his life as a customs agent for the port of New York. He wrote poems and stories quietly and without regard for any readership—often without any thought of publication. At the last he achieved a homely tenderness for his wife that he had not shown during the long, difficult years of his middle age, and when he died in 1891 and was buried quietly by his family and a few close friends, his obituary suggested that readers would be less surprised by the announcement of his death than by the realization that he had actually been alive during the past twenty-five years. He was remembered, as he had prophesied, as “the man who had lived among cannibals,” the author of Typee .