nancy caldwell sorel | herman melville & nathaniel hawthorne

20 01 2010

Illustration by Edward Sorel

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND # 206 | January 21, 2010

First Encounters:

HERMAN MELVILLE and NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE

by Nancy Caldwell Sorel

THE time was midsummer, midcentury, and the place—the Berkshires—was a magnet for the literati. Mr. D. D. Field, a mere lawyer, had conceived of a social climb up Monument Mountain and collected a few illustrious residents of the area for that purpose. Among them were poet-raconteur-physician-on-occasion Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Mr. James T. Fields, publisher to Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne, novelist, also present. Then there was young Mr. Herman Melville—known as “the man who had lived among the cannibals”—author of books with strange titles like Omoo and Typee, and current¬ly at work on a tale of his whaling voyage. Two young women were in attendance, as was—in spirit only—William Cullen Bryant, poetical elegist of an Indian maiden thwarted in love who, legend said, had thrown herself off a precipice of this same mountain.

After ascending as far as they could by carriage and wagon, the party set off on foot. It was a jolly venture. A thunder shower was not allowed to dampen spirits: sheltered under an overhang, the climbers sipped iced champagne from a silver mug and heard a recitation of Bryant’s poem, made more dramatic by thunder and flashes of lightning. When the rain stopped, they trekked on. At the summit an exuberant Melville stood boldly on a projecting ledge as on a ship’s deck and demonstrated hauling in sail, while the usually reserved Hawthorne playacted at scanning the horizon for a whale’s hump.

A three-hour dinner laced with wines and fine conversation followed, and by day’s end the very private Hawthorne, age forty-six, had invited Melville, thirty-one, to spend a few days with him. As it turned out, the man whose life had been defined by Salem’s insularity, but whose just-published novel, The Scarlet Letter, explored the depths of the human psyche, had a lot to offer the man whose formulating experience was “the sky above, the sea around, and nothing else.” Under the spell of Hawthorne’s bent toward allegory and the seductive persuasiveness of his handsome person, Melville rewrote his whaling story and dedicated Moby-Dick to his friend.

[from THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY, January, 1993]








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