Hage, Erik. The Melville-Hawthorne Connection: A Study of the Literary Friendship.
As Erik Hage rightly points out in his new book, surprisingly little critical work on the friendship between these famous authors has been done, though there are some important exceptions (for example, Martin; Argersinger and Person). Hage has written an engaging, acutely sensitive study of what drew Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville together as literary artists and as friends. He is especially good on Melville's admiration for Hawthorne and the galvanizing effect that this admiration had on Melville's work. At the same time, Hage persuasively demonstrates the much-less studied impact that Melville's influence had on Hawthorne, especially apparent in his mazy 1860 novel The Marble Faun. There is much to appreciate in Hage's thoughtful and thought-provoking study; there is also much to disappoint, as I will discuss. The latter is related to two issues: first, the rather insubstantial final chapter that glosses over much that would have been expected to fascinate Hage and scholars of these authors; second, the treatment of sexual history that this study does not so much undertake as it avoids altogether. None of these flaws are fatal--this is a worthy and appealing study that will reward both scholarly and general readers--but they merit some discussion, which I will offer in conclusion.
The authors met on a now-legendary hiking trip on August 5, 1850, up Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. This picnic-hike included one of Melville's publishers, Evert Duyckinck, and two of Melville's neighbors, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Flush with excitement from having met the older author, Melville intensively read Hawthorne's 1846 short story collection Mosses From an Old Manse, and rapidly produced an essay, ostensibly a review, called "Hawthorne and His Mosses," published in The Literary World magazine in two issues: August 17 and August 24, 1850. (There is some debate over the sequence of all of this, if Melville really hadn't been at work on the review beforehand, and so forth. But generally speaking this is the established narrative.) Melville published his extraordinarily bold, provocative review anonymously, claiming to be "a Virginian spending July in Vermont." In this review, Melville--in the transparent spirit of self-election, to be sure--canonizes Hawthorne as an American writer very nearly the equal of Shakespeare. The nationalist slant of "Hawthorne and His Mosses" is a key element here, as Melville joins in with Emersons disdain for European courtly muses and elevates the native-born Hawthorne to the ranks of British and European literary greatness. Even more saliently, Melville's emphasis on the "darkness" and "blackness" of Hawthorne's art and of his vision did more than shape the Hawthorne celebrity profile that we still know today--it created it. Never again would a Hawthorne known for writing "sweet, sweet" tales (Longfellow's language) be the predominant one in the public mind.
For the most part, Hage deftly builds his argument in a thematic rather than strictly chronological manner. Chapter 1 focuses on the friendship itself, which culminates in Melville's dedication of Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale (1851) to Hawthorne. After the failure of Melville's most famous novel, there is a noticeable drop in the intensity of the men's written exchanges, which come to an abrupt stop, at least insofar as the surviving documents confirm, before Hawthorne departs for his consulship job in Liverpool, an important appointment secured through his friendship with then-president Franklin Pierce, whom Hawthorne unsuccessfully lobbied to give his friend Melville a government position. Hawthorne's promised review of Moby-Dick never appeared.
We have Melville's letters to Hawthorne, but none of Hawthorne's letters to Melville survive, adding, as Hage points out repeatedly, to the proliferation of theories as to why the friendship shriveled up, if indeed it did. The two men did meet up again twice at the end of the decade when Melville stopped off in Liverpool both before and after a trip to Europe and the Holy Lands. Hage eloquently argues that Hawthorne's last impressions of Melville in their penultimate meeting were loving and respectful even though Hawthorne was alarmed by his scruffy younger friend's "heterodox" relationship to clean linen--no one was more deserving of immortality than Melville, Hawthorne wrote.
Addressing the generally maintained view that a rift occurred between the men--the "continual, loosely supported, suggestion in the biographical record that Hawthorne eventually spurned" Melville (17) --Hage takes a very definite stance that is also in keeping with one maintained in contemporary Americanist literary criticism: essentially, there was no rift (Castiglia).
Hawthorne undoubtedly reciprocated Melville's affection, but the two were different spirits with different means of expression. Hawthorne was frequently inward and inscrutable in his social interactions; Melville swung between poles of extreme sociability--he was a renowned social raconteur--and utter withdrawal. But in his exchanges with Hawthorne, Sophia [Hawthorne], and their children, he was at his most zealous and gregarious, and he was the rare welcome visitor into that insular circle (though he occasionally exhausted Hawthorne). (17)
Hage observes that Hawthorne was "uncharacteristically aglow around Melville" (49). Hage leads with and consistently maintains this understanding of the friendship as rift-less and of as much significance to Hawthorne as it was to Melville. Hage is also commendably attentive to the significance of Sophia Hawthorne as both a literary (as well as visual) artist and a key resource, in her letters and journals, for understanding the biographical record of both authors.
"There was personal affinity, undoubtedly; but the raw material of the friendship was that which drove both men's lives: an intensity of commitment to their respective literary occupations and lifestyles. Here was where both of their passions lay and where the two intersected" (163). The bravura chapter 4, which documents the devastatingly lukewarm critical response to Moby-Dick, ends with a marvelous reading of just how acidly Hawthorne defended Melville and his great, sprawling novel to Evert Duyckinck, who had published a mixed review of it. Without naming Duyckinck by name, Hawthorne ends a letter to the publisher praising Melville's novel and scorning the ill-conceived and literal-minded review.
Hage's lively and often penetrating study of this literary friendship contains a great deal of deft, lucidly and gracefully written commentary on the men's writerly personae and also about the literary and cultural milieu of the period in which they wrote. I am quite sure that I will have frequent occasion to revisit the book and will also likely assign a chapter to students. That said, I do take issue with the way the author addresses the admittedly murky question of the possibility of a sexual component in the men's relationship. As a scholar who works on queer themes and gender and sexuality in this literature, I am, of course, invested in such questions being raised. Nevertheless, I maintain that the question of sexuality cannot be incidental to the study of writers whose own work is so deeply steeped in sexual themes and images--and in homoeroticism. The latter most famously informs Melville's work, but it is hardly absent in Hawthorne's. Indeed, Hawthorne's 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance--wildly underrated and one of the author's most significant--is steeped in male-male love and homophobia at once. It seems to me quite likely that it was in this novel that Hawthorne worked out and tried to work through his feelings about Melville. I do not mean to suggest that Hawthorne was homosexually inclined but rather that the intensity of Melville's presence and the implications of this intensity inform Blithedale and its frequent scenes of male tenderness coupled with repudiations of male intimacy. Hawthorne's attitudes toward the latter certainly inform his horrified impressions of the Shaker village that he visited along with Melville--Hawthorne was aghast at the sleeping conditions, in which males slept along with other males in the same beds.
The issue of shared beds is an interesting one. It is one of the major rebuttals to the idea of same-sex desire in the period offered by Laurie Robertson-Lorant in a startlingly contentious epilogue to her otherwise fine, poetic biography of Melville. Shared beds were a commonplace in nineteenth century society and therefore only suggestive to our contemporary eyes, she argues (a debatable point, but one offered as justification for shutting down this discussion by the biographer). Hage cites Robertson-Lorant's epilogue early on in order to dispute readings of a sexual dimension in the authors' friendship. Yet her intemperate and confusing screed is questionable proof that the question of sexuality here is moot. After having written sensitively and probingly about the nature of same-sex attraction in Melville, catalyzed by his exposure to the non-Western sensuality and dress, or lack thereof, of the Marquesan islanders whom he got to know after jumping ship in the 1840s, Robertson-Lorant devotes her entire epilogue to disabusing readers of the idea of a queer Melville, which she disputes as an example of ideological criticism run amok. If there is an example of ideological criticism driving the discussion without support from textual sources, it is the Robertson-Lorant epilogue Hage lazily appropriates. (Hage's reliance on Robertson-Lorant is in keeping with a disappointing recourse to conventional positions throughout; for example, here is his estimation of Edgar Allan Poe's lesser gifts: "His histrionics, more explicit macabre bent, and pioneering efforts in the detective motif represents a different, less complex and penetrating brand of influence than the groundbreaking works of Melville and Hawthorne" .)
More generally, Hage misses out on an exploration of the gender politics of the men's friendship and how their mutual commitment to the writerly craft reflected this politics as well as American romantic aesthetics. For example, only briefly noted by Hage, Melville offered Hawthorne a female-centered story about a lonely woman, Agatha, waiting for her lover to return from the sea. This entire, unpursued literary collaboration in all senses of the term has been brilliantly charted by Wyn Kelley. I find Hage's indifference to it reflective of his larger one to issues of gender and sexuality generally. Certainly, the feminist implications of the Agatha project never merit scrutiny here. Neither issues of homosociality nor the queer dimensions of the authors' works have much bearing on Hage's overall discussion, making his study seem oddly old-fashioned, a throwback. (1) Despite these reservations, I am happy that we have Hage's study as a resource--a welcome guide to the impact of their titular connection on Hawthorne's and Melville's lives and output. Hage's book is a fitting tribute to the enduring fascinations of these towering literary figures.
University of South Carolina
(1) I discuss the authors' shared interest in Hellenism and its implications for an emergent homosexual aesthetic discourse in chapter 7, "Visual identity: Hawthorne, Melville, and Classical Male Beauty," of my book The Fragility of Manhood.
Argersinger, Jana L., and Leland S. Person, eds. Hawthorne and Melville: Writing a Relationship. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2008. Print.
Castiglia, Christopher. "Alienated Affections: Hawthorne and Melville's Trans-Intimate Relationship." Hawthorne and Melville: Writing Relationship. Ed. Jana L. Argersinger and Leland S. Person, Jr., Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2008.
Greven, David. The Fragility of Manhood: Hawthorne, Freud, and the Politics of Gender. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2012. Print.
Kelley, Wyn. "Hawthorne and Melville in the Shoals: 'Agatha,' the Trials of Authorship, and the Dream of Collaboration," and "Letters on Foolscap." Ed. Jana L. Argersinger, Leland S. Person. Hawthorne and Melville: Writing A Relationship. Athens, GA: U of Georgia P, 2008.
Martin, Robert K. Hero, Captain, and Stranger: Male Friendship, Social Critique, and Literary Form in the Sea Novels of Herman Melville. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986. Print.
Robertson-Lorant, Laurie. Melville: A Biography. New York: Clarkson Potter/ Publishers, 1996. Print.
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|Publication:||Nathaniel Hawthorne Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2015|
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