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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
A little group of American men of affairs and letters met along with their ladies on the morning of August 5, 1850, to hike up Monument Mountain, one of the more prominent features of the landscape surrounding Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The intention was purely social, and socially the day proved a smashing success, leading five of the ten hikers to record the event in letters, journals, articles, and books. For two of them, however, the climb was the beginning of one of the strangest episodes in the history of American literature. It was on Monument Mountain that Herman Melville, who had paused before putting the finishing touches on a new novel based upon the whaling industry, met Nathaniel Hawthorne, fresh from the critical success of The Scarlet Letter . The meeting led to a deeply important relationship between the two men that caused Melville to recast his novel as the great Moby Dick . It also set in motion a succession of missed personal opportunities, false starts, and misunderstandings that were the source of great bitterness for the remainder of his life.
Melville had returned from abroad in February of 1850 to his home in Manhattan with greatly mixed feelings about the course his writing career was taking. His first novel, Typee (1846), had been an auspicious entry into the treacherous waters of American publishing. It was a good book, and it sold well enough; if Melville was almost immediately to complain that he would be remembered forever after as the “man who lived among the cannibals” for his adventure story based upon his experiences at the hands of the natives of the Marquesas Islands in 1842, the success of his book nonetheless convinced him that he could make his living as a writer. A sequel, Omoo , followed in 1847, and again Melville was hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as a promising new author. But he was after bigger game than recognition as an entertaining sea romancer. He plunged into quite a different kind of writing with his next book, Mardi (1849), m search of a style and message that would extend his own artistic sensibilities and possibilities rather than satisfy readers eager for more exciting but undemanding adventure stories. But most reviewers overlooked the sparks of genius in the wild and difficult Mardi and pronounced the book an unqualified disaster. Readers who had been delighted by Typee and Omoo angrily deserted the author of Mardi and left Melville with the problem of repaying to his publishers the royalties they had optimistically advanced him.
Melville’s frustration was evident in his letters, where he alternated between pronouncing the critics dunces and deprecating the hook himself. To meet his financial obligations he had to forgo the further development of his art and mine his sailing experiences for “two jobs , which I have done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.” Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850) brought him money and restored his prestige with the readership he did not want—the adventure lovers.
Throughout this period Melville’s intellectual and literary encouragement came from a man he had first met during the preparation of the proofs for Typee —Evert Duyckinck, an editor for Wiley and Putnam, Melville’s first publishers. Duyckinck was only a few years older than Melville, but he possessed a college education (which Melville did not) and a large store of experience with the greater and lesser literary lights of New York, to whom he was able, as the host of countless lively dinners and smokers, to introduce the young author. His well-stocked library and the generosity with which he lent his books was a great help to Melville, with his insatiable appetite for English literature. Urbane, polished, and amiable, Duyckinck was the well-connected promoter of the small circle of New York writers and artists to which Melville was now welcomed. The editor-patron refused to be intimidated by the awesome collection of talent in proud Boston. His energetic efforts to promote the arts and letters of his own city were not completely unnoticed by the Bostonians, who snickered when James Russell Lowell twitted the upstart New Yorkers in the Fable for Critics :
Toward the close of the 1840’s Duyckinck forged his most formidable weapon for promoting the arts generally, and dealing with the New Englanders in particular, when he bought The Literary World , a journal that was to have considerable importance in shaping American literary life.
Duyckinck never allowed his interest in Melville’s unpredictable talent to flag, even when his prudishness winced at the young author’s frequently gamy taste in allusions and metaphors. He was, by all accounts, a loyal and helpful friend. But the pleasant Clinton Place soirees and whist parties could hardly satisfy Melville’s growing hunger for someone to talk with at the most intimate level of his feelings, hopes, and fears. He may once have entertained the notion that his wife, Elizabeth, could fill the empty place in his inner life, but she had tried and failed to comprehend Mardi , written during the first months of their married life. Elizabeth Melville found a house and a new baby as much as she could manage of her husband’s expectations, and he returned from England early in 1850 to shut himself up alone in his study with his new novel about whaling.
He received encouragement from Richard Henry Dana, Jr., whose Two Years Before the Mast had first suggested to Melville that this kind of experience could be written about. At the beginning of May he wrote Dana that although he was “half way” through what would be “a strange sort of book,” he meant “to give the truth of the thing.” He seemed resigned to limit his ambition to what could more easily be managed rather than risk another Mardi .
The onset of summer in New York made the desk-bound Melville long for a climate more congenial than the “Babylonish brick-kiln,” and in July he packed up Lizzie, young Malcolm, his long-widowed mother, Maria, and a sister or two and set out in search of “the grass-growing mood” that he hoped to find in the declining rural grandeur of his late uncle’s farm at Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Robert Melvill, a cousin, was operating the farm as an inn until its purchasers, the J. R. Morewoods, could take it off his hands in the fall. Herman had known and loved the place as a boy and young man, and in the familiar and pleasant surroundings he expected no difficulty in quickly tidying up the loose ends of his book and sending it off to the publishers, with whom he was already bargaining. He determined to relax a bit and persuade Duyckinck to allow him, for once, to play host. On August a, the day after Melville’s thirty-first birthday and two days before his third wedding anniversary, his friend arrived, along with a colleague, Cornelius Mathews.
Melville had laid grand plans for some heroic parties in the old homestead, unaware that an ambitious plan had already been hatched during the train ride up the Hudson while Duyckinck and Mathews had smoked their cigars and chatted with Dudley David Field, a well-known lawyer on his way back to his habitual summer in Stockbridge. Field obliged the two travellers with anecdotes about the summer literati of the Berkshires —William Cullen Bryant and, from time to time, Longfellow; Oliver Wendell Holmes, of greater fame for his witty prose and poetry than for his deanship of Harvard Medical School; J. T. Headley and G. P. R. James, whose names were often linked with Melville’s as “talked-about authors”; doughty Catherine Sedgwick, one of the first successful American women writers; James T. Fields, the Boston publisher, said to be visiting in the area with his new bride … As Field went on, his reputation as a party giver suggested to him the possibility of engineering the social coup of the season. He proposed a gigantic feast at his Stockbridge home, preceded by a hike up a local mountain made famous by a Bryant poem, which would include every literary lion he could catch in his net. If he was very lucky, the party might include the shy Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had just located himself with his wife, Sophia, and two young children in a small red farmhouse in Lenox, only seven miles from Melvill House.
Clearly the New Yorkers had gotten themselves into something. Dudley Field’s renown as a host was such that the people he invited were likely to show up. This meant that the trio from Manhattan would be matched against some very impressive talent from Boston. James Fields, the publisher, was just Duyckinck’s age but had already maneuvered himself into the venerable House of Ticknor as the partner who made all the important decisions. His good judgment was legendary. He had a diplomatic, persuasive manner, an unerring eye for good copy, and a reputation for fair dealing with his authors—qualities that in a few short years had won away from other publishers every important literary name in New England. Fields had shared greatly in the creation of The Scarlet Letter by encouraging a despondent Hawthorne to turn it from a short story into a novel. Its immediate success was a tribute to Fields’s shrewdness. And it was his literary salon—far outclassing Duyckinck’s in brilliance and importance—that was largely responsible for the awesome cultural power of Boston.
Cornelius Mathews must have been more than a little apprehensive over the prospect of matching wits with Holmes. Mathews had founded and edited Yankee Doodle , a humorous child of The Literary World with pretensions of being for America what Punch was for England. But in spite of some good moments, including a Melville series lampooning Zachary Taylor, Yankee Doodle had proved rather vapid. Lowell’s Fable for Critics sentenced petty thieves to an indefinite term of reading “that American Punch, like the English, no doubt—Just the sugar and lemons and spirit left out.” Mathews himself was skewered as Duyckinck’s court jester, “a small man in glasses … dodging about, muttering ‘Murderers! asses!’ ” Now he would be expected to hold his own with Oliver Wendell Holmes, who by repute possessed the sharpest tongue and the most mischievous pen in New England.
Undaunted, Duyckinck, Mathews, and Melville picked up Holmes —a slight but energetic little man carrying an India-rubber doctor’s bag full of provisions—at the Pittsfield station -on August 5. After the short trip on the jolting Housatonic railroad car, they arrived in Stockbridge Village, where they were met by Dudley Field. The men took a playful practice run up the hill in back of Field’s home and upon their return found the party organized. Hawthorne, who usually avoided such gatherings if he could possibly help it, had arrived—no doubt to the delight of James Fields, who never missed an opportunity to show off his most successful authors. Fields, with his curly brown whiskers, was there with his bride, Eliza, “the violet of the season in Berkshire”—though she was doubtfully dressed for mountain climbing with her blue silk and crinoline. As they were preparing to leave—James and Eliza Fields, Mr. and Mrs. Field with daughter Jenny, Hawthorne, Melville, Holmes, Mathews, and Duyckinck —one Henry Sedgwick appeared on horseback, in time to save Melville from being the youngest male of the company and to represent the large and energetic Stockbridge family Dudley Field knew so well. Sedgwick was just establishing himself in the law firm in which Field and the elder Sedgwick were partners, and he had been on hand four years before to escort visiting James Russell Lowell up the same mountain.
The weather was not altogether cooperative, but the party decided to make a go of it and tumbled into the conveyances for the three-mile trip to the foot of the mountain. Bravely, the group began the scramble up the side. Duyckinck and Hawthorne led the way, with the former asking questions and making polite observations about The Scarlet Letter . The others fell quickly into the mood of “glorious exercise” for body and wit, which was vigorous indeed. “Stealing glances through the trees at the country underneath,” Mathews recalled, they were “rambling, scrambling, climbing, rhyming—puns flying off in every direction like sparks among the bushes.” Once Mathews had difficulty keeping a straight face as Holmes, in mid-pun, stumbled and came near to dropping a thousand feet.
“A swift-sailing thunder cloud, like a black pirate-ship,” was now “scudding past directly alongside,” lending authority to Mathews’ stated opinion that he felt as though they were all passengers on a sea voyage. This inspired Melville to clamber onto a jutting pinnacle of rock and, standing precariously on its tip, begin hauling in sail. Holmes, who had been subdued since his wit had faltered along with his footing, pantomimed seasickness and asked for ipecac. These antics brought out a deeply buried sense of humor in Hawthorne, who, for his part, launched a search for the fictitious “Great Carbuncle” (supposedly a beautiful garnet hidden on this very mountain) about which he had once written a story.
But now the rain began to come down in earnest, and the company expressed concern for the finery worn by the newlyweds. Holmes produced a penknife and fashioned an umbrella out of some tree branches, and an indentation in the cliffs was located that, with its mossy undergrowth and cover of brush, afforded adequate shelter. The downpour proved but a shower, the clouds cleared, and the procession moved on toward the top.
The reading of William Cullen Bryant’s “Monument Mountain” from the top of the original had been proposed earlier in the day, and diplomacy had dictated that the honor be given to one of the guests who, like Bryant, had his name associated with New York. When the time came, it was Mathews who rose to the occasion, producing the volume from his jacket pocket and adjusting his spectacles. The damp company squinted and dried out in the noon sun, now quite bright and warm, as he put his heart into the reading:
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:
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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 .
It is attractive to speculate that when, shortly after Hawthorne’s death, Melville wrote the poem believed to refer to his friend, his thoughts went back to the silent passage by the rock cairn on Monument Mountain a lifetime earlier. Summer had now turned to winter, the thundershower and sun to drifting snow, the mood of expectation for what would be to regret for what had not been and now could never be: