August 24, 2010

Melville and Hawthorne: shrouded in blackness

Herman Melville claimed that he wrote his review of Mosses from an Old Manse just before he met Nathaniel Hawthorne. The second of two installments of "Hawthorne and His Mosses" was published in The Literary World on August 24, 1850. The collection included such classic Hawthorne tales as "The Birth-Mark," "Young Goodman Brown," "Rappaccini's Daughter," and his anti-Transcendentalist allegory "The Celestial Rail-road."

Melville, oddly, signed his review as "a Virginian spending July in Vermont." More than any other reviewer in the four years since Hawthorne's collection was published, Melville noticed that the stories emphasized a negative side of human nature. Most others had noticed his focus on stories with a moral, noting the positive aspect of teaching a lesson to general readers. Melville noted:

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.

Melville believed "this black conceit pervades him through and through." Hawthorne's writing was "shrouded in blackness, ten times black." That dark view of humanity must have influenced Melville's own writing. The author most known for his book Typee and its sequel Omoo was then working on a far deeper novel, one which explored the dark recesses of human nature. When the book was published later that year, Moby-Dick included this dedication:

In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.


  1. If I may, I'd like to recommend a book that details not the relationship between the two men, but really the relationship of their writing (along with Poe, so I think you'll enjoy it). The book is called The Power of Blackness by Harry Levin. It details, in full-length, the "shrouded in blackness" motif of Hawthorne, Melville, and Poe, especially in antithesis to other romantics of the time.

  2. Sounds good; thanks.

  3. I second the recommendation from the anonymous commenter from yesterday - The Power of Blackness is a very accessible analysis of the works of Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville. It should be required reading for American literary scholars!

  4. The letters is the Augusta Papers make it very clear that Melville met Hawthorne before writing the essay.

    1. Hello, Dr. Parker. Yes, but (as you know, no doubt) Melville made the claim it was written before. I included that wording here to imply that it was untrue.


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