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When Nathaniel Met Herman: Lost Hawthorne memoir is published
Americans love happy endings. Yet in the world of great American literature, there are so very few. Thats so not only in novelsMoby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, The Portrait of a Lady, An American Tragedy, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Risesbut 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 has generated such enormous critical praise and popular enthusiasm.
Introduced by novelist Paul Auster, this 72-page lost memoirit was an unnoticed sketch in Hawthornes 800- page American Notebooksdelightfully chronicles the 46-year-old authors 20 days caring for his 5-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 herethey get up and wash, they pick currants, Julian gets stung by a wasp, they keep a sweet pet rabbit named Bunny, Julian wets the bed, and Papa has trouble curling the boys hair in the morningbut specialists and general readers alike are entranced by Hawthornes loving tone and tender attentiveness to detail. It is warm, silly, lighthearted, and charmingin short, everything Hawthorne is decidedly not in his great novels.
Lurking behind this family romance of nature walks and berry picking is a darker story, 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 visited Hawthorne and Julian several times over the course of their summer idyll.
But as felicitous as Melvilles cameo appearances were in Hawthornes retelling, they were in reality complicated by the younger writers idealization of the distinguished author 15 years his senior. What is only hinted at in Hawthornes memoir, which was intended to be read principally by his wife, becomes more clear in correspondence. We have only Melvilles letters to Hawthorne (the older mans responses were destroyed or did not survive).
romancethere is no better word for itbetween Hawthorne
and Melville can be understood only in the context of a particular
moment in each mans life and career. 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 Hawthornes
The younger Melvilles 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. Theres no direct evidence that Melville had sexual relationships with men, but from his early novels through his later works, such as Moby Dick and Billy Budd, 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; 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 first met in August 1850 and their friendship bloomed a year later. By November 1952, it was essentially over, ended abruptly by Hawthorne. So what happened between these two men of such different temperaments?
The first clue to understanding their relationship appears in a two-part review Melville wrote of Hawthornes 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, the review was not only anonymous, but also obscured Melvilles identity 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 Hawthornes 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 sexualized, over-the- top hero worship is excessive. Lets face it, 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, Massachusetts farmhouse they had rented in June 1850. In October of that yeartwo months after meeting HawthorneMelville bought a house in nearby Pittsfield, where he lived with his wife and their son, Malcolm. Sophia Hawthorne was pregnant with their third child, Rose, who was born in May 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 ladys 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....
Another thing, Mr Hawthorne. Do not think you are coming to any prim nonsensical housethat is nonsensical in the ordinary way. You must be much bored with punctilios. You may do what you pleasesay or say not what you please. And if you feel any inclination for that sort of thingyou may spend the period of your visit in bed, if you likeevery hour of your visit....
Come, no nonsense. If you dontI will send Constables after you....
By the wayshould Mrs Hawthorne for any reason conclude that she, for one, can not stay overnight with usthen you must& the children, if you please.
By April, Melvilles letters had gotten gushier. At one point he added a PS, followed by an NB, followed by a PPS. In June 1851, Melville wrote a long letter to Hawthorne in which his hero worship began to blur boundaries, as he discussed their careers in the same breath: Another thing. I was in New York for four- and-twenty hours the other day, and saw a portrait of N.H. And I have seen and heard many flattering (in a publishers point of view) allusions to the Seven Gables. And I have seen Tales, and A New Volume announced, by N.H. So upon the whole, I say to myself, this N.H. is in the ascendant. My dear Sir, they begin to patronize. All Fame is patronage. Let me be infamous: there is no patronage in that. What reputation H.M. has is horrible. Think of it! To go down to posterity is bad enough, any way; but to go down as a man who lived among the cannibals!
On July 22, 1851, Melville wrote of finishing Moby Dick, as he made plans to visit Hawthorne. My dear Hawthorne: This is not a letter, or even a notebut only a passing word said to you over your garden gate.... I am now busy with various thingsnot incessantly though; but enough to require my frequent tinkerings; and this is the height of the haying season, and my nag is dragging me home his winters dinners all the time. And so, one way and another, I am not yet a disengaged man; but shall be, very soon. Meantime, the earliest good chance I get, I shall roll down to you, my good fellow, seeing wethat is, you and I,must hit upon some little bit of vagabondism, before Autumn comes. Graylockwe must go and vagabondize there. But ere we start, we must dig a deep hole, and bury all Blue Devils, there to abide till the Last Day.
On July 28, Sophia Peabody left Lenox to visit her parents in West Newton. Four days later, on August 1, Melville showed up unexpectedly. Melville stayed for dinner and the two men spent much of the night speaking of time and eternity, things of this world and the next, books and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters, according to Hawthorne.
It is possible to read this as a 19th-century version of guys night outthey smoke cigars together in the sacred precincts of the parlor, but there is a comfortable eroticism here that is absent in Hawthornes fiction and other letters. Is it possible that Melville was finally getting through to him; that the younger mans constant attention was melting Hawthornes harsher, more-guarded emotional shell? Notable, too, is that August 1 was Melvilles birthday, a fact Hawthorne never mentioned, possibly because he didnt know. The younger man chose to spend it with his idol rather than with his wife.
Melville persisted. On August 8 he joined Hawthorne, Julian, and his friends George and Evert Duyckinck, publishers of the Literary World, for a picnic, after which they visited the Shaker village in nearby Hancock. In the midst of what had been a nothing-but-happy time since Sophia had been away, Hawthorne suddenly had a fit of anger. He was appalled by the Shakers, calling them a filthy set because of their communal living and bathing facilities. But his anger seems to have had a sexual undertone, which was peculiar, given that the Shakers were committed to celibacy. He was appalled by the separation of the sexes and the fact that two people of the same sex were forced to share particularly narrow beds. He railed away at this close junction of man with man, stating that the sooner the sect is extinct the betterthe consummation which, I am happy to hear, is thought to be not a great many years distant. It is revealing that Hawthorne who carefully chose each word, even in light sketches, would write consummation a word with a clear sexual connotation. Was this a moment of homosexual panic?
On August 9, Hawthorne wrote: Julian awoke in a bright condition, this morning; and we arose at about seven. I felt the better for the expedition of yesterday; and asking Julian if he had a good time, he answered with great enthusiasm in the affirmative; and that he wanted to go again, and that he loved Mr. Melville as well as me, and as mama, and as Una.
Maybe Julians love of Melville had contributed to Hawthornes agitation. On August 10, he wrote a nearly hysterical passage in his journal declaring his love for Julian and his family: Thank God! God Bless him! God bless Phoebe for giving him to me! God bless her as the best wife and mother in the world! God bless Una, whom I long to see again! God Bless little Rosebud! God Bless me, for Phoebes, and all their sake! No other man has so good a wife; nobody has better children. Would I were worthier of her and them!
Its hard to see how Hawthornes affection for Melville, whatever its nature, could survive such an outburst of familial devotion. Sophia returned on August 16, but something had changed. On November 14, at a dinner, Herman Melville presented Hawthorne with a copy of Moby Dick, which was to be published the next day. The dedication read In Token of my Admiration for his Genius. This book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne. In a lost letter Hawthorne responded favorably to the book, which prompted yet another effusive reply from Melville. In a long letter dated November 17, he wrote: Your letter was handed me last night on the road going to Mr. Morewoods, and I read it there. Had I been at home, I would have sat down at once and answered it. In me divine magnanimities are spontaneous and instantaneouscatch them while you can. The world goes round, and the other side comes up. So now I cant write what I felt. But I felt pantheistic thenyour heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in Gods. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book....
Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lipslo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. Now, sympathizing with the paper, my angel turns over another page. You did not care a penny for the book. But, now and then as you read, you understood the pervading thought that impelled the bookand that you praised. Was it not so? You were archangel enough to despise the imperfect body, and embrace the soul. Once you hugged the ugly Socrates because you saw the flame in the mouth, and heard the rushing of the demonthe familiarand recognized the sound; for you have heard it in your own solitudes....
Lord, when shall we be done changing? Ah! its a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold. But with you for a passenger, I am content and can be happy. I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality....
P.S. I cant stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of Magians, Ill tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousanda millionbillion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is on you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish questionthey are One.
P.P.S. Dont think that by writing me a letter, you shall always be bored with an immediate reply to itand so keep both of us delving over a writing-desk eternally. No such thing! I shnt always answer your letters, and you may do just as you please.
Again, there is no mistaking the sexual overtones. Nineteenth-century writers knew their Hebrew Bible,and Melville, in fact, had carefully chosen the names of his characters in Moby Dick for their biblical allusions. So when he wrote, I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality, the biblical meaning of the word knowto consummate sexual passionis unmistakable.
We have no record of how Hawthorne felt about or responded to this letter. We do know, however, that five days later, on November 21, he and his family left their home in Lenox to move back to Boston. Whatever happened in the Berkshires that summer, aside from the details recorded in Twenty Days with Julian & Little Bunny by Papa, we will never know.
Clearly, Melvilles romantic enthusiasm for Nathaniel Hawthorne grew and may even have been encouraged. But only up to a point. A few more letters were exchanged between the writers in the fall of 1952. Melville tried to get Hawthorne to write a novel based on a tale he had heard of a wronged woman named Agatha. The tale, significantly, turns on the betrayal of a betrothal vow. Hawthorne refused to write the story, claiming to have no interest, and suggested that Melville write it, but they were never really friends again.
One standard scholarly explanation for their disaffection is that they went their own ways, that temperamental artists rarely remain friends forever. Others claim that Melvilles desperate attempts to convince the older man to write a novel based on the Agatha story had caused the separation. Its true that, at times, Melvilles sense of the psychological boundaries between himself and Hawthorne seemed shaky at best.
But whatever caused their break, it is clear from Melvilles letters, as well as from Hawthornes words about Melville in Twenty Days, that the younger man waswhat words to use here: in love with? smitten with? in deep admiration of! the older Hawthorne. Melville was no stranger to love between men, even physical love between men, but he was clearly naive and overly incautious when expressing his feelings to Hawthorne. What is finally so charming about this tale is the poignancy of Melvilles unabashed emotional enthusiasm for the older man. The intensity of such a love can be frightening and frighten it did. Is it any wonder that Hawthorne not only pulled away from his friend, but actually moved?
In the summer of 1851, depressed, melancholy Nathaniel Hawthorne may have discovered more than the fun of cavorting with his son Julian. To a man already wracked with guilt and gloom, that discovery may have been too much to bear. Unlike his noble and magisterial heroine Hester Prynne, he wasnt ready to take the next step and act upon his feelings.
Michael Bronski is a long-time activist and writer. His latest book is Pulp Friction.
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