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When Nathaniel met Herman
Herman Melville's letters and Nathaniel Hawthorne's just-released memoir of a summer romp with his son may hold the keys to the complex, sexually fraught relationship between these two giants of American literature

AMERICANS LOVE happy endings. Yet in the world of great American literature, there are so very few. That’s so not only in the novels — Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter, The Portrait of a Lady, An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises — but in the lives of American authors themselves, which have often been beset by personal and economic failure, melancholia, alcoholism, money problems, suicide, and general misery. Maybe that is why the recent publication of Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa (New York Review Books Classics) by Nathaniel Hawthorne — perhaps America’s greatest, and most depressive, genius — has generated such enormous critical praise and popular enthusiasm.

Introduced by novelist Paul Auster, this 72-page "lost" memoir — it was essentially an unnoticed sketch in Hawthorne’s 800-page American Notebooks — delightfully chronicles the 46-year-old author’s 20 days caring for his five-year-old son, Julian, at home in Lenox, Massachusetts, from July 28 to August 16, 1851, while his wife was visiting her family near Boston. Nothing much happens here — they get up and wash, they pick currants, Julian gets stung by a wasp, they keep a sweet (if slightly demanding) pet rabbit named Bunny, Julian wets the bed, and Papa has trouble curling the boy’s hair in the morning — but specialists and general readers alike are entranced by Hawthorne’s loving tone and tender attentiveness to detail. It is warm, silly, lighthearted, and charming — in short, everything Hawthorne is decidedly not in his great novels.

But lurking within this family romance of nature walks and berry picking is a darker story — possible material for another version of The Scarlet Letter — which critics seem to want to avoid: the complex, sexually fraught relationship that summer between Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The 31-year-old author of the soon-to-be-published Moby-Dick (it would be released, and critically dismissed, in November of that year) visited Hawthorne and Julian several times over the course of their summer idyll. But as felicitous as Melville’s cameo appearances were in Hawthorne’s retelling, they were in reality complicated by the younger writer’s idealization of the distinguished author 15 years his senior. What is only hinted at in Hawthorne’s memoir — which, after all, was intended to be read principally by his wife — becomes more clear in correspondence. We have only Melville’s letters to Hawthorne (the older man’s responses were destroyed or did not survive), but boy, are they letters.

THE ROMANCE — there is no better word for it — between Hawthorne and Melville can be understood only in the context of a particular moment in each man’s life and career. In 1851 they were in quite different places, both professionally and domestically; they hailed from different backgrounds too. Born in 1804, Hawthorne was the product of an old New England family — his ancestors were judges in the Salem witch trials. He was burdened by history, and all his life he was given to brooding melancholia. As a writer he had achieved some notice with his stories Twice-Told Tales and Mosses from an Old Manse in the 1830s, but it was not until 1850, with the publication of The Scarlet Letter, that he found the fame he so desired. His renown was secured with the publication of The House of the Seven Gables in 1851. In 1842, at the age of 38, he had married Sophia (Phoebe) Peabody, and by all indications it was a happy union despite Hawthorne’s recurrent depressions.

The younger Melville's life and career was already on a more unconventional path. Born in 1819, the son of a once-distinguished but now-impoverished New York family, Melville went to sea as a young man. He returned to make a name for himself writing the popular, yet controversial, South Sea–adventure novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), which deal, to no small degree, with intensely emotional, and in some cases obviously sexual, relationships between men. As he notes in White-Jacket (1850), "The sins for which the cities of the plain were overthrown still linger in some of these wooden-walled Gomorrahs of the deep." There’s no direct evidence that Melville had full sexual relationships with men, but from his early novels through his later works, such as Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, it’s clear that his literary imagination was drenched in homoeroticism.

In 1847, at the age of 28, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, but their relationship was never particularly happy; indeed, there are stories of verbal and possibly physical abuse on the part of the husband. They stayed together, however, until his death in 1891.

If Hawthorne was the older, brooding intellectual writer, Melville, was the dashing young adventurer — at least at the point in their lives when they first crossed paths. The two writers did not meet until August 1850, and their friendship bloomed a year later. But by November 1952, it was essentially over, ended abruptly — from all we can tell — by Hawthorne. So what happened between these two men of such different temperaments? What was the nature of their connection? Why did it end?

THE FIRST CLUE to understanding their relationship appears in a two-part review Melville wrote of Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse in the August 17 and 24, 1850, issues of a popular and influential magazine, the Literary World. Melville wrote the piece after meeting Hawthorne for the first time on August 7, and, interestingly, did not sign his own name to it. Indeed, the review was not only anonymous, but obscured Melville’s identity even further by claiming that it was penned by "a Virginian spending July in Vermont" (Melville was from New York). He wrote the review in the voice of someone reading Hawthorne’s book in an empty barn:

A man of deep and noble nature had seized me in this seclusion.... The soft ravishments of the man spun me round about in a web of dreams.... But already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. 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.

Even by the florid standards of 19th-century prose — for which Melville was not known — this highly sexualized, over-the-top hero worship is, well, excessive. Let's face it, there isn’t much need for Freudian interpretation here. The review is, by most readings, a love letter to the author, and a pretty steamy one at that.

At this time Hawthorne, Sophia, and their two children, Julian and Una, lived in a small Lenox farmhouse they had rented in June of 1850. In October of that year — two months after meeting Hawthorne — Melville bought a house in nearby Pittsfield, where he lived with his wife and their son, Malcolm. There doesn’t seem to have been much face-to-face contact between the two men at first — Sophia Hawthorne was pregnant with their third child, Rose, who was born in May of 1851; in January of that year, Elizabeth Melville was pregnant with their third child, Stanwix.

In January 1851, Melville began writing to Hawthorne in the fevered tone of someone in love, or at least in the midst of a tremendous crush. Here he bemoans the postponement of a visit:

That side-blow thro’ Mrs Hawthorne will not do. I am not to be charmed out of my promised pleasure by any of that lady’s syrenisms. You, Sir, I hold accountable, & the visit (in all its original integrity) must be made. — What! spend the day, only with us? — A Greenlander might as well talk of spending the day with a friend, when the day is only half an inch long....

Fear not that you will cause the slightest trouble to us. Your bed is already made, & the wood marked for your fire. But a moment ago, I looked into the eyes of two fowls, whose tail feathers have been notched, as destined victims for the table. I keep the word "Welcome" all the time in my mouth, so as to be ready on the instant when you cross the threshold....

Another thing, Mr Hawthorne — Do not think you are coming to any prim nonsensical house — that is nonsensical in the ordinary way. You must be much bored with punctilios. You may do what you please — say or say not what you please. And if you feel any inclination for that sort of thing — you may spend the period of your visit in bed, if you like — every hour of your visit....

Come — no nonsense. If you dont — I will send Constables after you....

By the way — should Mrs Hawthorne for any reason conclude that she, for one, can not stay overnight with us — then you must — & the children, if you please.

H. Melville.

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Issue Date: August 22 - August 28, 2003
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