Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne

A page from The Life and Works of Herman Melville

In the summer of 1850 Melville purchased an eighteenth-century farmhouse in the community of Pittsfield in Berkshire County, Massachusetts. Berkshire was then home to a number of prominent literary figures such as Fanny Kemble, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and, in Lenox, less than six miles from Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The two authors met for the first time in Stockbridge on August 5, 1850, on a picnic excursion hosted by David Dudley Field. Hawthorne was forty-six and was familiar with at least a portion of Melville's work, having favorably reviewed Typee in the Salem Advertiser (March 25, 1846); Melville was thirty-one and had just written or was about to write an exceedingly warm and enthusiastic piece on Hawthorne's Mosses From an Old Manse, a copy of which had been given to him by an aunt a few weeks before.

Early in the course of the excursion, a sudden thunderstorm forced the party to take shelter, giving Melville and Hawthorne an opportunity to become better acquainted. The two men took to each other at once, and as their conversation continued were delighted to discover a growing bond of mutual sympathy and comprehension. Two days later Hawthorne wrote to a friend "I liked Melville so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me." This would be the first of a series of visits, supplemented by written correspondence, that would continue until the gradual cooling off of the friendship late in 1852.

In the beginning the relationship was a great source of comfort and intellectual stimulation to Melville, who believed he had finally found the soul mate for whom he had been yearning. As Sophia Hawthorne observed, "Mr. Melville, generally silent and uncommunicative, pours out the rich floods of his mind and experience to [Nathaniel Hawthorne], so sure of apprehension, so sure of a large and generous interpretation, and of the most delicate and fine judgment." Hawthorne's influence, in fact, is credited as the prime catalyst behind Melville's decision to transform what originally seems to have been a light-hearted whaling adventure into the dramatic masterpiece that is arguably the greatest American novel of all time.

In August of 1852 Melville wrote to Hawthorne about the true story of a New England woman who had taken in and married a shipwrecked sailor only to be abandoned by him. "The Story of Agatha", Melville thought, would be a perfect subject for the application of Hawthorne's talents; the older man, however, felt little enthusiasm for the project and after a few desultory attempts suggested that Melville write the story himself. Melville agreed, but it is uncertain now whether he ever actually did anything with the material; at any rate, no published version of the story by him has been discovered.

The "Agatha" correspondence marks nearly the end of the Melville - Hawthorne relationship, which had lasted only a little over two years. The initial abundance of warmth and fellowship had faded for reasons which can only be conjectured. Melville may have come to feel that Hawthorne was not as profoundly sympathetic and responsive as he had at first seemed; for his part, Hawthorne was unsuccesful in using his long-established connections with Franklin Pierce to secure a government post for the impoverished Melville, a failure that left him "embarrassed and chagrined" and probably made him reluctant to pursue further encounters. The two men met for the last time in November 1856: en route to the Mediterranean Melville stopped in Liverpool, where Hawthorne had been appointed American Consul; the two spent several days together, which Hawthorne recorded in his journal as follows:

"Herman Melville came to see me at the Consulate, looking much as he used to do (a little paler, and perhaps a little sadder), in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner.... [W]e soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence. Melville has not been well, of late; ... and no doubt has suffered from too constant literary occupation, pursued without much success, latterly; and his writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.... Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had "pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists -- and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before -- in wondering 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; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us."

Although Melville never corresponded with Hawthorne again, he did not forget him. He continued to read and annotate Hawthorne's works after the latter's death in 1864 (Melville's copies of Hawthorne texts are preserved in Harvard's Houghton Library); the reserved and finally unresponsive traveler Vine in Clarel is widely considered to have been based on Hawthorne; and the poem "Monody" from Timoleon is almost certainly about him.

Return to Melville Home Page

Please address all correspondence on this Site to
The Life and Works of Herman Melville is brought to you by Multiverse.