Hawthorne and His Mosses

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Title page of Mosses from an Old Manse, the subject of Melville's review

"Hawthorne and His Mosses" (1850) is an essay and critical review by Herman Melville of the short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse written by Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1846. Published anonymously by "a Virginian spending July in Vermont", it appeared in the New York Literary World magazine in two issues: August 17 and August 24, 1850. An early, literary expression of the mid-nineteenth century Young America movement, the work has been cited as an important commentary on, and analysis of, the emerging "New American Literature."

Background[edit]

Melville

Melville met the author Nathaniel Hawthorne at a picnic and an ensuing hike up Monument Mountain in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts on August 5, 1850. Also among the hikers were James Thomas Fields, Cornelius Mathews, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.[1] Melville and Hawthorne established an immediate and intense connection. As a local journalist would later write: "the two were compelled to take shelter in a narrow recess of the rocks... Two hours of enforced intercourse settled the matter. They learned so much of each other's character, and found that they held so much of thought, feeling and opinion in common, that the most intimate friendship for the future was inevitable."[2]

Melville had previously been given a copy of Mosses from an Old Manse as a gift but had not read it. It is unclear if he began writing the review of the book before or after meeting Hawthorne.[3] He was, however, certainly impressed by Hawthorne and, though the book had been published four years previously, he completed his review. Another of the hikers, Evert Augustus Duyckinck, publisher of the periodical New York Literary World, offered to delay his departure for New York city until the manuscript was ready. As publisher of Hawthorne and friend of Melville, he saw its appearance in his magazine as a win-win situation.

Before learning the identity of the then anonymous author, Hawthorne's wife Sophia declared the essay to be written by "the first person who has ever, in print apprehended Mr. Hawthorne."[4] When she discovered it was Melville, she called him "an invaluable person, full of daring & questions, & with all momentous considerations afloat in the crucible of his mind."[5]

Analysis[edit]

Hawthorne

Melville describes Hawthorne as a man of not only intelligence but, just as important, great moral depth. He is—

the American, who up to the present day, has evinced, in Literature, the largest brain with the largest heart.

He also brings attention to the unacknowledged, darker half of Hawthorne's nature—

For spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul, the other side—like the dark half of the physical sphere—is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black... You may be witched by his sunlight,—transported by the bright gildings in the skies he builds over you;—but there is the blackness of darkness beyond; and even his bright gildings but fringe, and play upon the edges of thunder-clouds.

Much more than just a book review, Melville saw this essay as an occasion to express his views on the state of American literature at the time: the mid-nineteenth century. Although not the first to do so, he calls for the creation of new forms and styles and a precipitous retreat from the anachronistic imitations of English literature. An ardent admirer of Shakespeare, he nevertheless declares it astounding that—

You must believe in Shakespeare's unapproachability, or quit the country. But what sort of belief is this for an American, a man who is bound to carry republican progressiveness into Literature, as well as into Life? Believe me, my friends, that men not very much inferior to Shakespeare, are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.

Impact[edit]

Melville, who took time off from writing Moby-Dick to compose the review, expressed gratitude to Hawthorne for "dropping germinous seeds in my soul." Emboldened by Hawthorne's example he started to scrutinize what he had written so far and began a major expansion and revision of his work in progress and soon-to-be masterpiece.

Scholar David Dowling suggests that Melville intended the essay to redefine the expectations of readers of American prose to prepare them for Moby-Dick. In reforming previous literary biases, he particularly wanted to encourage an embracing of the dark side of writing, hoping that his own book would be received well.[6]

Hawthorne, in gratitude, later offered to do a review of Moby-Dick but Melville, ever fearful of a false reciprocity, turned him down.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Wineapple, p. 222
  2. ^ Delbanco, Andrew (2005). Melville, His World and Work. Alfred A. Knopf. p. 126. ISBN 0-375-40314-0. 
  3. ^ Wineapple, p. 224
  4. ^ Parker, p. 769
  5. ^ Wineapple, p. 227
  6. ^ Dowling David. Chasing the White Whale: The Moby-Dick Marathon; or, What Melville Means Today. University of Iowa Press, 2010: 164. ISBN 978-1-58729-906-3

External links[edit]