Book Club of the Heavyweights

Booknotes looks at the relationship between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville

Nathaniel Hawthorne (left) and Herman Melville.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (left) and Herman Melville.

Mike Selby

On August 5, 1850, a freak lightning storm struck Monument Mountain (Great Barrington, Mass.), forcing a group of hikers into a cave for safety. The small group was a book club, and they had set out on their hike for literary reasons.

A century before, a Mohican woman had thrown herself off of the summit, after being forbidden to marry the man she loved (unfortunately for her he was her cousin). When her body was found, members of her tribe covered her in rocks, simultaneously creating a monument to the tragedy and a name of the mountain.

Poet William Cullen Bryant had immortalized the story in his poem ‘Monument Mountain,’ writing “There is a tale about these reverend rocks / A sad tradition of unhappy love / And sorrows borne and ended, long ago.”

Inspired by Bryant’s poem, the book club members had come to retrace the woman’s steps up the mountain.  The plan was to reach the summit, and toast the Mohican woman with the champagne they had brought.

Forced into the cave by the storm, the book club members got to know each other a bit better, as they had never met until that morning. Instead of attending regular meetings, this group discussed books through the mail. Another odd characteristic of was that each member rarely discussed books each of them had read. They only discussed books they had written.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Oliver Wendell Holmes had begun corresponding with each other at the suggestion of David Dudley, a lawyer known to all three.  Dudley had invited all three to meet each other on the August 5 hike.

Holmes was a Boston physician, poet, novelist, and medical reformer. The first physician to use a stethoscope in the U.S., he is best remembered for his books ‘The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table,’ and ‘Elsie Venner’ — the first of what would later become known as the medical thriller genre.

Hawthorne was a highly successful short story writer and novelist, most famous for ‘The House of the Seven Gables,’ and ‘The Scarlet Letter.’

Melville was the odd man out. He was decades younger than these two great men of American letters, and had not yet found writing success. His first novel, ‘Typee,’ was one of those much talked about but seldom read books, and he was having difficulty getting any other work published.

What Holmes said in the cave remains unknown, but the usually reserved Melville unburdened all that was in heart to Hawthorne.  Hawthorne in turn offered the young man encouragement, and to not give up.

After this momentous hike (which they did complete after the storm abated), Melville moved his wife and children across the state into a house next door to Hawthorne’s. Hawthorne’s words of inspiration in the mountain cave had meant everything to Melville, who was finally able to begin and finish his own monument —’Moby Dick.’

The first page of ‘Moby Dick’ even opens with: “To Nathaniel Hawthorne: In token of my admiration for his genius.”

And if only the story ended there. Although neighbours, the two men continued to write constantly to each other.  These letters have been pure gold to literary biographers, critics, students and fans of each or both writers.

What was always noticed but never quite admitted to until recently is that Melville’s letters appear gay.

Passages such as “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,” and “[Hawthorne put] his strong New England roots in the hot soil of my Southern soul,” have fuelled much speculation over the years.

Speculation is the key word here, as the letters are all that remains. There is no evidence of a relationship between the two men, and only Melville’s letters have the hint of homoeroticism to them.

While Holmes and Hawthorne died as celebrated authors, Melville sadly did not. ‘Moby Dick’ was seen as a disaster when it first appeared, and the publisher had to destroy thousands of unsold copies. Melville died destitute, lonely, and forgotten.  It wasn’t until the generation after his that the book was seen to be one of genius.

One that wouldn’t have been written if he hadn’t poured his heart out to Hawthorne that day in the cave.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library