August 5, 2010

Tramping over the soil

August 5, 1850 may have been the most exciting day in American literary history. A band of now-recognized literary giants (and a couple less gigantic) climbed Monument Mountain in western Massachusetts. According to the publisher James T. Fields:

I have just got back to my desk from the Berkshire Hills where we have been tramping over the soil with Hawthorne; dining with Holmes... and sitting... with Melville, the author of 'Typee.'

Fields, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Herman Melville were joined by editor Evert Augustus Duyckinck and writer Cornelius Mathews. Once at the top, they read William Cullen Bryant's poem "Monument Mountain," and passed around a single silver mug frequently replenished with champagne (a prescription brought along for the trip by Dr. Holmes).

Perhaps most important to this incident is that it marks the beginning of the friendship of Hawthorne and Melville, who had never previously met. Melville was so taken by the author of the recently-published The Scarlet Letter that he would soon earn the dedication of Moby-Dick, which he was then writing. Some suggest that Melville's infatuation with Hawthorne was more than merely literary admiration and that, perhaps, the younger author was developing a romantic interest. "Where Hawthorne is known,” Melville wrote a few days later, “he seems to be deemed... a sequestered, harmless man, from whom any deep and weighty thing would hardly be anticipated—a man who means no meanings.”

Melville soon wrote a particularly flattering review of Mosses from an Old Manse, then old by about four years. His pseudonymous review, "Hawthorne and his Mosses," was published by Duyckinck in his weekly periodical Literary World. He was the first to notice that Hawthorne's tales were significantly dark: "shrouded in blackness, ten times black." Hawthorne wrote to Duyckinck later that month that he had "a progressive appreciation" of Melville. "No writer ever put the reality before his reader more unflinchingly than he does."

*Image above is courtesy of the Trustees of Reservations.

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