Walking, Talking, Planning: The Friendship of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne
My first year fresh out of college with a dual B.A. in Philosophy and Literature, I headed to Riverside, CA for a year's stay with my sister who was completing her PhD in Dance History and Theory at UC Riverside. One night, while out with her at a graduate student party, I got to talking with a group of PhD candidates reading in American Literature who to my utter shock and astonishment had never read Herman Melville's Moby-Dick. In blinded amazement and energetic fury I directed them to sit down and give American Literature a read! The hyperbole then as now is quite intentional: Melville's book is absolutely that central. While Melville's work forms the literal bedrock of any North American literary tradition worth speaking of, Moby-Dick is generally thought of as nothing but a slog to get through, a rather unbidden chore. Yet having always found it a delight myself, I've located many a friendship along tangential lines of mutual excitement over its soaring vastness.
With Moby-Dick Melville set a forward-looking precedent within American literature, boldly embracing a seer-driven hybrid mixture of forms and styles unlike anything previously gathered between two book covers. It's a bizarrely weird book. There are individual chapters well worth a lifetime's exploration, the one devoted to whiteness for instance. Melville's Shakespearean bent at dialogue set the course for endless writers to follow. In many ways he better fits in twentieth-century novelists, from the likes of William Faulkner to Cormac McCarthy. It is no surprise to discover that, after an initial burst of fame for his early seafaring adventure novels written in a formulaic vein easily grasped on an initial first-read, he went virtually ignored in his own day.
Innumerable books addressing Melville's colossus of a text have appeared over the years. Erik Hage's The Melville-Hawthorne Connection: a Study of the Literary Friendship is hardly the first among them to recognize the vital importance played upon the evolution of Moby-Dick's composition by Melville's concurrently burgeoning friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of several books including that bit of mandatory consumption by every American high-schooler, The Scarlet Letter. Hage admits as much himself. His book, however, is the first to comprehensively sketch out a clear narrative detailing the timeline of the relationship within the framework of each writer's life. Hage's effort goes far toward setting down parameters by which to measure and conceptualize how the lives of these two writers intersect and correlate.
Hage sketches out the specifics of when Hawthorne and Melville first met during a literary group jaunt up Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on August 5, 1850: "Well-known legal scholar and reformer David Dudley Field, Jr., a local who was close to Hawthorne's age, had organized the trip as a way to bring together the worlds of New York City and New England Literary life." In addition to Melville and Hawthorne, local author Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes also took part, bringing along a stash of champagne which cheered the mood as the weather became stormy for a while and the group huddled together under rocky cover. Melville's own houseguests, publisher Evert Duyckinck and writer Cornelius Matthews, "insider hipsters" visiting him from New York City, rounded out the party. Once at the summit, some 1,650 feet up "with all the world falling away below" Melville was ever the showman, "spying a wedge-like and jutting rock at the dizzying, absolute rim of the precipice, he swung himself upon it like a horseman" and without "any paralyzing fear of heights" from time spent atop tall masts at sea he "entertained the others by pretending to be on a ship's bowsprit, tugging and hauling at invisible ropes."
Melville clearly was moved by whatever words he exchanged with Hawthorne on the hike. In coming weeks he finished "Hawthorne and His Mosses" an anonymous lengthy, highly laudatory review "written by a Virginian" of Hawthorne's short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse. This review is not only a literary appreciation of Hawthorne, but a personal statement of Melville's own intentions of developing his poetic vision expressed within Moby-Dick. In the following year he also completed work on his novel. The book had more or less split into at least two competing tales: one a straightforward narrative about a whaling adventure, the other a haunted tale full of philosophical speculation and Shakespearean soliloquy. This fact wasn't missed by contemporary readers. For instance, Duyckinck's own early review of Moby-Dick from November 22, 1851, plainly states that "there are evidently two if not three books in Moby Dick rolled into one [...] romance is made a vehicle of opinion and satire through a more or less opaque allegorical veil" and notes how Melville is infatuated with "the problem of the universe."
Moby-Dick, exactly as it appears, is nonetheless exactly the book Melville intended to write. Hage describes how an argument for the dispersed form of the upcoming novel may be found encouraged within Melville's argument in his review of Hawthorne's stories, alongside his call for the need to break into an "American" form:
[F]ull to bursting with disparate references, modes, and themes, all the product of the author's scattershot, voracious self-studies and hyperactive mind [...] in the composition of the book, Melville doggedly followed his mind wherever it chose to roam [with] so many digressive and plot-less passages, chapters [...] Melville is already anticipating the risks inherent in his muse as he writes of Hawthorne in the "Mosses" piece and, more ostensibly, of himself as he prepares to delve into the furthest reaches of his new book. "[I]t is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation," he preaches. "He who has never failed somewhere, that man can not be great. Failure is the true test of greatness." These lines point to not only the raw nerve and innovative spirit of the Moby-Dick author, but to his idea of an "American" literature, one that must ultimately completely break away from the English mode.
Hawthorne inspired and reinforced Melville's conviction to elevate the writing of Moby-Dick beyond any of the parameters he had previously explored with his earlier work. Melville's "Mosses" review is clearly intoxicating in its display of ambitious declarative and he dedicates Moby-Dick to Hawthorne: "In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne." As a result of clear gaps between what is readily evident and what is clearly unknown, questions swirl regarding the relationship between the two authors. Hage hopes to offer answer to at least some of them. What remains incontestable is that Hawthorne's presence clearly contributed to the final, crucial development of Moby-Dick.
Hage describes a planned visit by Melville to the Hawthorne family lasting several days in early September 1850, flushing out a feeling for how the two spent the time and restating how centrally the experience impacts Melville's struggle over Moby-Dick:
Melville respected the sanctity of Hawthorne's industrious mornings upstairs in his cramped writing space [...] tromp[ing] off for a lengthy walk through the idyllic Indian summer morning or would shut himself in the sitting room to pore over the Hawthornes' copies of Ralph Waldo Emerson's works, sitting beneath an engraving of Raphael's "The Transformation" that Emerson himself had given the couple. Melville had been drawn into an intimate family sphere entered into and witnessed by few. The authors also spent time in long walks and probing conversations. Hawthorne was in the midst of a prolific peak; Melville was poised before a tipping point when the whale book would transmute from simple adventure to something greater and more complex-- the type of mounting work that, he told Hawthorne, he desired to write above anything else. Here, in retrospect, were the seeds of American Literature: walking, talking, planning -- meditating upon things of this life and beyond.
In addition to the "walking, talking, planning" the two literary behemoths apparently came to enjoy casual evenings "fallen into the habits of friendship and an ever-growing closeness cultivated during an Indian summer of dinners, cigars, [and] booze." Melville was clearly smitten and heartily pursued the friendship, reaching out on repeated occasion to the Hawthorne family and going out of his way to spend time in their company. Yet Hawthorne was far more private in nature than Melville. Hage describes an occasion when Melville's garrulousness likely caught Hawthorne off guard and offers some insight into their opposing natures:
[Melville's] performative bent was certainly evident when on the occasion of Melville's 32nd birthday (August 1, 1851) -- three months before the publication of Moby-Dick -- he treated himself to a surprise visit with his friend. On horseback, he encountered Hawthorne and Julian along the road to the red cottage and shouted out a theatrical greeting in Spanish, very much playing the part of the dashing caballero. For his part, Hawthorne didn't at first recognize the horseman as Melville, but was mildly and pleasantly surprised when he did. Hawthorne simply did not bring the same flair, energy, and verve to their interactions, and it was this perceived shortcoming that caused Melville to question the "plump sphericity" of the man's presence and bearing. In person, Melville expected Hawthorne to exude the layers and depths evident in his work, and the disparity between the man and the page was frustrating to Melville, a writer who had so often blurred the lines between non-fiction and literary invention and who had become accustomed to adopting the persona of both sea-adventures writer and sea adventurer.
The absence of Hawthorne's side of the two writers' correspondence, likely destroyed by Melville at Hawthorne's request, leaves a major lacuna in our possible knowledge. Yet where Hawthorne's own words written to and about Melville are rather scant, we are delightfully left with a surprisingly rich record found in the correspondence of Hawthorne's wife, Sophia. Writing to her sister Elizabeth she remarks, "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." And Hage goes on, providing a lengthy list of adjectives from a letter of Sophia's to her mother:
He is "warm," "earnest," "tender," "reverent," and "modest," she tells her mother, and also keenly "perceptive." He is also "tall & erect" and "manly," she writes, with a "straight & rather handsome" nose, a mouth that is "rather expressive of sensibility & emotion," and a "strange, lazy" gaze that is nonetheless powerful, seeming to take "deepest note of what is before him." She also describes how he loses himself in passionate conversation, holding forth with "gesture & force." There is neither "grace nor polish," she notes with a tint of admiration.
More startlingly, Sophia makes the near erotic claim, one again in a letter to her sister: "I see Fayaway in his face" referencing the island native woman character in Melville's novel Typee with whom his thinly veiled, autobiographically based fictional narrator spent several weeks in naked aplomb. For a proper lady of the era, this is a fairly scandalous comment, certainly not one she would dared to have made in the company of men, especially Melville himself. Given that the Hawthornes from all appearances were a very close couple, as opposed to the Melvilles, who were often at odds with one another, it's telling that Sophia would hold Melville in such warm glow.
Hage does of course draw attention to one of the very few passages in Hawthorne's own hand regarding Melville. This is an infamously known passage from Hawthorne's published notebooks coming from his time as American ambassador in England. Melville passed through London in 1856 on his way to visit the Holy Land, a trip which Melville mined in later years for his long poem Clarel. During Melville's brief visit, he and Hawthorne took a stroll along some seaside dunes, and Melville fell into a lengthy monologue, sharing his thoughts with the friend to whom he felt so closely entwined, even if they had rarely seen one another over the years. Hawthorne notes how:
Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and of 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.
The two writers may have only lived in close proximity to each other in Massachusetts for less than two years, visiting on but a handful of occasions, yet Hawthorne's account shows some five years later they wasted no time returning to heady matters of previous conversation.
Hage also cites a well-known 1851 letter of Melville's to Hawthorne, which intimately associates the two authors as one:
I shall leave this world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you [...] Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality.... The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question they are One.
Yet Hage does not cite one of my personal favorite passages from this same letter:
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. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling.
I'm continually bowled over by Melville's referencing the "Godhead" in such context. The passionate power of a friendship bound by imagination permeates the very air around me whenever I read these lines. I'm stirred with rare joy. The potential of such shared vision ignites my mind.
The rich closeness expressed by Melville's language to Hawthorne has spurred several writers to ponder notions regarding a possible romantic tryst between the two. Hage however will have none of it: "Too much has been written about the possibility of romantic involvement between the writers, based on little to no evidence whatsoever." Hage's view is rather staid, even if his own exuberance at times does get the better of him. His own imaginings spill into his retelling, coloring the assured record of known fact that he would appear to favor. There's a steady slide into what may only be seen as a "possibility" continually intruding into his remarks. Hage claims "Hawthorne must have cherished the image of his craft he saw reflected in Melville's eyes" but there is no way for Hage to be so assured of any such thing. What we do have is Hawthorne's response to Moby-Dick from a letter to Duyckinck: "What a book Melville has written!" He clearly appreciated the work as well as the man, but beyond that nearly everything else is an open question.
Hage's study is notably a bit staid. Certainly it lacks the kind of energy readily found in the seminal piece of intuitive and poetic Melville scholarship which he entirely neglects mention: Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael. This is surprising as Hage otherwise offers a concise survey of the rest of the scholarship surrounding these writers -- including many of whom Olson either studied under or who themselves turn to his work in their own writing. It was Olson who, after all, went and physically unearthed much of Melville's library, discovering his Shakespeare marginalia which crucially shapes significant readings of Captain Ahab and the richly impassioned chapters which read more as stage play with soliloquies and asides than as novel. Hage sadly is not the first scholar to ignore Olson's contribution.
Where Olson takes the plunge and makes intuitive claims in his reading and argument, Hage walk a strict line on the safe side of what's available via historic document, hardly vouching for any surprised discovery or insight. Any good reading requires the reader to dive deep, repeatedly sounding the depths of the text, which always surprise. Moby-Dick is just such a text. Two stories I recall hearing from my undergraduate classes have always shaped my appreciation of it in this regard: one, Professor Kevin Harvey speaking of a mid-career televised performance of Elvis dressed in leather, just before his Vegas showman years, on a stage-in-the-round surrounded by young fans, and mid-song Elvis turns aside and out from his lips rambles a raspy: Moby Dick, baby, and two, Professor Don Melander, a lifelong Harley rider, recalling a road trip years prior when he made his way to a remote back-hills cabin off along the Appalachian Trail somewhere to visit a modern day hermit who lived surrounded by piles upon piles of books, and the one book they spent the eight-hour visit discussing: Moby-Dick. Is it any wonder I'm so flummoxed by doctorate students refusing read this wondrous book?