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Hawthorne and His Mosses


On Monday, 5 August 1850, several writers and their editors gathered together in the Berkshire Mountains for what turned out to be a historic meeting: Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864), author of the acclaimed The Scarlet Letter, published just five months earlier (and the only novel Hawthorne acknowledged having written) was introduced to Herman Melville (1819–1891), himself the author of five books, including his best-selling Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), which Hawthorne had reviewed. Both writers were then living in the Berkshire Mountains—Melville in Pittsfield, Hawthorne in a small cottage in Lenox—but had not yet encountered one another. They did, however, share a friendship with the editor, publisher, and bibliophile Evert Augustus Duyckinck (1816–1878), who indirectly brought the two men together.

Exercising the literary arm of the Young America movement, Duyckinck had issued Melville's Typee as one of Wiley and Putnam's Library of American Books, a series that intended to promote national authors in affordable editions and thereby compete with the cheap British books flooding the American market. That there was no international copyright law vexed the literary members of the Young America movement, who made copyright reform one of their chief issues. First in the series was Hawthorne's edition of the Journal of an African Cruiser (1845), written by his college friend Horatio Bridge, and soon after Duyckinck published Hawthorne's second collection of stories, Mosses from an Old Manse (1846).

Four years later, while Duyckinck and the essayist Cornelius Mathews (c. 1817–1889) were visiting the Melvilles in Pittsfield, James T. Fields (1817–1881), the Boston publisher of The Scarlet Letter, and his wife were scheduled to stop by the Hawthornes' house. A Berkshire neighbor, learning of the coincidence, arranged an outing for a group that also included the poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894) and the Young American historian Joel Headley (1813–1897). On 5 August the party gathered to climb Monument Mountain and enjoy a hilarious day of rainstorms, champagne, and good conversation about, among other things, the importance of an American literature.

The topic had bothered American writers for almost half a century and certainly ever since the journalist Sydney Smith (1771–1845), in the pages of the Edinburgh Review in 1820, had condescendingly wondered, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" Authors as various as the novelist John Neal (1793–1876) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) had risen to the challenge. Neal replied that people want American, not English, books from America. In 1836, in Nature, Emerson enjoined American writers to enjoy an original relation to nature, by which he meant to depend on themselves, not European models, for inspiration. By that time, Hawthorne had already been in search of local materials for his stories in early histories of New England, such as Cotton Mather's (1663–1728) Magnalia Christi Americana (1702) and William Sewell's (1653–1720) History of the Quakers (1728).

Although Melville had already been given a copy of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse, it is not certain whether he had begun reading it before he met Hawthorne. Nor is it certain when exactly he began to review it. But when Duyckinck returned to New York City the week of 12 August, he carried with him the first installment of Melville's essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses," which he immediately printed in his journal, the Literary World. Shortly thereafter, Melville supplied the second installment of the essay, and the two sections, published on 17 and 24 August, still constitute one of the most probing commentaries on Hawthorne ever written.

Pretending to be a Virginian on summer vacation in Vermont, Melville claimed to have just read Hawthorne's Mosses while lying outdoors in the open air. It was an ecstatic experience. "His wild, witch voice rings through me," Melville declared ("Hawthorne and His Mosses," p. 239). "Already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul," Melville resumed in distinctly erotic prose. "He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul" (p. 250).

So unmistakable is Melville's ebullient eroticism that some scholars consider it a sign of Melville's uncategorizable sexuality (at least as evinced in his novels), his likely homosexual experiences, and his obvious infatuation with the handsome Hawthorne, his senior by fifteen years. No evidence, however, suggests that Melville's homoerotic response to Hawthorne translated into action; nor do Hawthorne or Melville seem troubled by it. Admissions of love, between men or between women, were not yet taboo or titillating, either culturally or medically. Whatever his erotic motivation, Melville's shrewd analysis and unconditional support of Hawthorne's work were gratefully appreciated by the elder author.

Despite the success of The Scarlet Letter and his reputation as a writer of unerring elegance, Hawthorne long considered himself "for a good many years, the obscurest man of letters in America" ("Preface," p. 1150). In fact, just five years earlier, in 1845, Duyckinck himself had proposed that the government establish a literary pension fund for such indigent, neglected writers as Hawthorne, and just two years later, in 1847, Edgar Allan Poe hailed Hawthorne as "the example, par excellence, in this country, of the privately admired and publicly under-appreciated man of genius" (p. 242). Now here was Melville, a published author willing and capable of seeing that under Hawthorne's "mild moonlight of contemplative humor" lay "a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet" ("Hawthorne and his Mosses," pp. 241, 242). For in "spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul," wrote Melville, "the other side—like the dark half of the physical sphere—is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black" (p. 243).

"Certain it is," Melville continued in his now-famous formulation,

that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance. (P. 243)

This formulation influenced early Hawthorne biographers, such as Newton Arvin, who emphasized his Puritan inheritance and somber estimation of human perfectibility, as well as literary critics, such as F. O. Matthiessen, whose American Renaissance (1941) largely shaped canonical thinking about Hawthorne and Melville for several decades.

Yet according to Melville, not everyone reading Hawthorne comprehends him, "for it is, mostly, insinuated to those who may best understand it, and account for it" (p. 245). Actually many of Hawthorne's champions had preferred more insubstantial sketches, such "Buds and Bird-Voices," to the somberness and ambiguity of "Young Goodman Brown." "It is the least part of genius that attracts admiration," Melville explained (p. 242). Consoling Hawthorne on his obscurity and poor sales, Melville acknowledged that "few men have time, or patience, or palate, for the spiritual truth" (p. 245).

In "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville recognized in Hawthorne the same outsized literary ambition he himself harbored—and the same frustrations. "In this world of lies," Melville averred, "Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other great masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth—even though it be covertly and by snatches" (p. 255). The public wants entertainment, not truth, and even Shakespeare, according to Melville, could but insinuate "the things, which we feel to be so terrifically true, that it were all but madness for any good man, in his own proper character, to utter, or even hint of them" (p. 244).

The comparison of Hawthorne and Shakespeare was meant to startle Melville's readers, particularly those, as Melville said, whose "absolute and unconditional adoration of Shakespeare has grown to be part of our Anglo Saxon superstitions" (p. 245). Such blind hero worship is distinctly unrepublican—un-American; "men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio," exclaimed Melville (p. 245). Stumping for an American literature in the manner of the nationalistic Young American and sounding much like Emerson—"the world is as young today, as when it was created" (p. 246)—Melville enjoined his reader to "contemn all imitation . . . and foster all originality" (p. 248), to take risks, speak without bounds, and to support American authors. That is, declaiming that the American must seize the moment, write in and of the present, not sound like anyone else, not play lackey to what Emerson called the courtly muses of Europe, and scrap all "leaven of literary flunkeyism towards England," Melville was staking out his own literary territory in the expansionist terms of Young America: "We are rapidly preparing for that political supremacy among the nations, which prophetically awaits us at the close of the present century" (p. 248).

By presenting himself as a southerner linked indissolubly to Hawthorne the New Englander, Melville also suggests that an American literature contains multitudes, as Walt Whitman would say. Surely they contain Melville, for he believed he found a quality of genius in Hawthorne that both men shared. "I somehow cling to the strange fancy," Melville wrote near the conclusion of his essay, "that, in all men, hiddenly reside certain wondrous, occult properties—as in some plants and minerals—which by some happy but very rare accident . . . may chance to be called forth here on earth" (p. 253). "For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand," Melville affirmed, "and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round" (p. 249).

Yet more and more, Melville was apparently feeling that he could not write as he wished and remain the solvent, popular author of Typee; the book had catapulted him to dubious fame as the man who had lived among cannibals. "What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay," he would regretfully confide in Hawthorne while finishing Moby-Dick (1851). "Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot" (Correspondence, p. 192).

Because Melville wrote few reviews and scant criticism and because a very limited correspondence survives, his "Hawthorne and His Mosses" has become a window into Melville's literary intentions, particularly regarding his next novel and masterpiece, Moby-Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne. There, in magniloquent prose, Melville merged adventure story with metaphysical quest, history of whaling with philosophical meditation. But Moby-Dick confounded reviewers, some of whom considered it blasphemous or baffling. Still, Melville believed his brooding insights could be approached only through indirection; and so he aspired to utter the "madness of vital truth"—albeit covertly and in snatches—much as his character Pip, a black cabin boy, does.

Evert Duyckinck, Melville's friend and publisher, responded so tepidly to the book that Hawthorne chastised him. But if Hawthorne suggested he himself review Moby-Dick, Melville rejected the offer, and Hawthorne took him at his word. Yet much to Melville's delight, Hawthorne had appreciated Moby-Dick so much that, as Melville wrote to Hawthorne, he believed that Hawthorne's "heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God's" (Correspondence, p. 212). Unfortunately, Hawthorne's letter of praise for Moby-Dick has never been discovered, and the correspondence between the two dwindled after the Hawthornes returned to eastern Massachusetts. Hawthorne was then appointed American consul in Liverpool, England, by his college friend, Franklin Pierce (1804–1869), recently elected president of the United States, and left America for seven years.

The friendship between Hawthorne and Melville subsequently cooled, although Hawthorne clearly perceived, both in Moby-Dick and Melville himself, a penchant for a restless, yearning inquiry into the nature of things. Hawthorne shared it. And later, when the two men were briefly reunited in England, Hawthorne with his own eloquent acumen described his unhappy friend as one who "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" (English Notebooks, p. 163).

See alsoCalvinism; English Literature; Literary Criticism; Literary Marketplace; Literary Nationalism; Moby-Dick;Same-Sex Love; Young America


Primary Works

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. English Notebooks. 1870. Edited by Thomas Woodson and Bill Ellis. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Preface to Twice-Told Tales." In Tales and Sketches, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce. New York: Library of America, 1996.

Melville, Herman. Correspondence. Edited by Harrison Hayford. Northwestern-Newberry Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville, vol. 14. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1993.

Melville, Herman. "Hawthorne and His Mosses." 1850. In The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839–1860, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Northwestern-Newberry Edition of the Writings of Herman Melville, vol. 9. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Poe, Edgar Allan. "Tale-Writing—Nathaniel Hawthorne." Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book 35 (November 1847).

Secondary Works

Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville, A Biography: 1819–1851. Vol. 1. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996.

Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne: A Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

Brenda Wineapple

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