The True Story of Two Legendary Authors Meeting on a Hike
|Nicholas E. Barron||Mar 6, 2019|
Legendary authors Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne shared a fervent friendship for a short period of time in the 1850s.
At the time, both men were working on novels that are today American literary classics. And, some speculate, that Hawthorne and Melville were more than just friends.
But how did these two legendary authors meet? The true story of how Melville and Hawthorne met and became friends is below.
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There Sits a Mountain
Just outside the town of Great Barrington, Mass. is a hump of a hill called Monument Mountain.
From the mountain’s summit, you can take in the surrounding peaks and valleys of Massachusetts’ Berkshires Mountains.
I visit the Berkshires a few times a year. And I’ve driven by Monument Mountain countless times. But it wasn’t until recently that I discovered the literary significance of Monument Mountain.
These days there are a couple of hiking trails that lead to the top of Monument Mountain. To access the trailheads, you park your car in a small gravel lot that sits alongside U.S. Route 7.
That wasn’t the case in 1850. Back then, there was no Route 7 and no parking lot. But there was a trail.
And it’s along that trail that two American literary giants met each other for the first time.
A Writer's Frustration
It was August 1850 and Herman Melville was spending the summer at his deceased uncle’s farm near Pittsfield, Mass. There he hoped to finish his latest novel, the manuscript for which was late in getting to his publisher.
Melville had already published three books.
The first two, Typee and Omoo, were adventure-at-sea stories. Readers enjoyed them and they sold well. Expectations were high for Melville’s third novel.
But that book, Mardi, wasn’t well received. It wasn’t a thrilling tale like Melville’s previous novels had been.
Mardi sold so poorly that Melville had to pay back his publisher the royalties that they had advanced him.
As he started on his fourth novel, you could say that Melville felt he had something to prove. He was eager to get back to the success he’d enjoyed with his earlier work.
At the start of 1850, Melville worked on his new novel from his home in Manhattan. But as the sun and warmth of summer approached, he decided that he wanted a change of scenery.
That’s when Melville made a decision that put him on the path to befriending a literary legend.
Escape to the Country
When he decided to leave the city while he finished his fourth book, Herman Melville recalled where he had spent some summers when he was a kid. That would be his uncle Thomas Melvill’s farm, called Broadhall, near the town of Pittsfield, Mass.
Thomas was gone now, but his son, Robert, had assumed temporary ownership of the property. In the fall, Broadhall’s new owners would take over the land and turn it into an inn.
But, for the summer of 1850, the farm was still in the hands of the Melvill family. And it’s to Broadhall that Herman Melville brought his wife, Lizzie, their young son, Malcolm, and Herman’s widowed mother, Maria.
Once he and his family were settled at the farm, Herman Melville invited his editor, Evert Duyckinck, and another writer, Cornelius Mathews, to visit him at Broadhall.
Both men accepted. They booked tickets on a train that would take them from New York City to Pittsfield. From there, they would take a carriage to Broadhall and begin their stay with the Melville family.
What Mathews and Duyckinck didn’t know when they bought their train tickets is that there would be on that train another man, a man who would set into motion a meeting of two people who were at that time some of the greatest writers alive in America.
An Artistic Haven
Massachusetts’ Berkshires Mountains is today a haven for artists. Spend much time in that scenic area, as I have, and you’ll discover photographers, painters, poets, writers, and more.
And that’s not new. The Berkshires was already attracting artists by the mid-18th century.
For one thing, the Berkshires was a short train ride from both New York City and Boston. Plus, the hills and valleys of the Berkshires offered a peaceful, cooler, summertime setting than in the cities.
By the time Herman Melville relocated his family to his uncle’s farm outside of Pittsfield, many artists and others who worked in literature had found a place for themselves in the Berkshires.
And it’s into this place that Cornelius Mathews and Evert Duyckinck headed when they boarded their train from New York City on August Second, 1850, the day after Melville’s 31st birthday.
A Plan Forms
On their train to Pittsfield train, Mathews and Duyckinck started talking to a man named Dudley David Field.
Field was an attorney who spent his summers in the Berkshires village of Stockbridge. He knew many of the locals, including those who worked in literature.
Having learned that Mathews was a writer and Duyckinck an editor, Field told the men about other literary figures who lived or spent time in the area. Those in literature who lived or spent time in the Berkshires included Oliver Wendell Holmes, Catherine Sedgwick, William Cullen Bryant, and publisher James T. Fields.
The first edition title page of The Scarlet Letter, showing the last name of James T. Fields.
Fields was well known to Mathews and Duyckinck for a novel that his publishing house, Ticknor and Fields, had published earlier that year. The book was, The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In fact, it was Fields who had encouraged Hawthorne to turn what was originally a short story into the novel. And, in the summer of 1850, everyone was talking about The Scarlet Letter.
Undoubtedly, Mathews and Duyckinck would have relished the opportunity to meet a man with the growing reputation of James T. Fields. And the man to whom they were speaking on the train, the attorney Dudley David Field, gave them just that chance.
Along with knowing many of the Berkshires-area literati, Field was are of a mountain in the Berkshires that was a popular hiking spot.
The hill, named Monument Mountain, offered panoramic views of the countryside. And it happened to be not too far from where Mathews and Duyckinck would be staying, at Broadhall with the Melville family.
Would Mathews and Duyckinck, Field asked, be interested in joining other local Berkshires literati on a group hike up the mountain?
Duyckinck and Mathews said they would.
Field sent out invites and on Aug. 5, 1850, the hiking party convened.
Up a Mountain
Though he had been invited, no one knew for sure if Nathaniel Hawthorne would join the hike. The author was known for being a little antisocial.
But on the morning of the hike, Hawthorne pulled up to the meeting spot in his horse and buggy.
Photos from Monument Mountain in Massachusetts.
Hawthorne exited his carriage and joined the rest of the group, which consisted of writers Hawthorne, Melville, and Mathews, the publisher Fields and his wife, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the attorney Field, and his wife, and their daughter.
Now gathered, the hiking party started up Monument Mountain.
It was a lively hike from the start, made all the more so by Champagne that Holmes passed around in a silver mug.
Even the notoriously grumpy Hawthorne was in uncharacteristically good spirits. Others present that day later recalled that the famous author seemed unusually sociable.
Not even a rain shower could dampen the hikers’ moods.
Holmes came to the rescue, fashioning an umbrella out of some tree branches. And the party took shelter under a rocky indentation on the mountainside until the short shower passed.
Around midday, the group reached the mountain’s summit. There they took in the panoramic views and had a picnic lunch. Holmes continued sharing his Champagne.
And Mathews recited William Cullen Bryant’s poem, “Monument Mountain,” for which he received a hearty round of applause.
The poem begins:
“Thou who wouldst see the lovely and the wild
Mingled in harmony on Nature's face,
Ascend our rocky mountains.”
After Mathews’s finished, legendary authors Hawthorne and Melville, took off on a stroll together.
The Legendary Authors Connect
There’s no record of what Hawthorne and Melville talked about that day on top of Monument Mountain. Or, if there is, I couldn’t find any.
But Melville later recounted the experience to Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia. She wrote that Melville told her that the two men would, “walk along without talking on either side, but that even then they seemed to be very social.”
Like Melville, Hawthorne was in the process of writing his next book.
And so it’s possible that both men discussed their current projects. Or perhaps, they talked about a positive review Hawthorne had written about Melville’s book, Typee, four years prior.
Whatever they discussed atop Monument Mountain, it seemed that friendship was blossoming. Indeed, both men continued chatting as the party descended the mountain.
Once the group was back at their carriages, they made their way to the attorney Field’s home in nearby Stockbridge for a feast. There the hikers enjoyed a smorgasbord of turkey and beef, with ice cream for dessert, and, for the men, post-meal cigars and brandy.
Soon after dinner was finished, though, Hawthorne prepared to leave. He had a long ride back to his family’s home near the town of Lenox, and he wanted to get started.
Before departing, though, Hawthorne took the next step toward a friendship with Melville. He invited the junior writer to pay him a visit at his home.
Two Peas in a Pod
It wasn’t long after the day they met hiking up Monument Mountain that Melville took Hawthorne up on his offer. Melville arrived at a little red house where Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, were staying.
The home was the guest house for Highwood Manor, a 220-acre property that straddled the town line between the Berkshires towns of Lenox and Stockbridge. The Hawthornes had been staying in “the little red house” since that spring.
The replica of Hawthorne's "little red house."
By the way, “the little red house” where Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne stayed, and where Herman Melville visited, burned down in 1890. A replica of the house, though, stands today at Tanglewood, an outdoor music venue in Lenox that’s the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
We don’t know what transpired between legendary authors Melville and Hawthorne the first time they hung out after their Monument Mountain hike. But it seems that whatever connection they made while hiking turned into a growing friendship.
Soon, Melville published a positive review of Hawthorne’s novel, Mosses from an Old Manse, even though the book had been published four years earlier.
And Hawthorne encouraged Melville to buy a place in the Berkshires.
Melville did, purchasing a property named Arrowhead. It was built in 1780 and located outside the town of Pittsfield, not too far from where the Hawthornes lived.
Both men paid each other frequent visits throughout the winter of 1850-1851. When Hawthorne came to Arrowhead, the writers would spend hours together in the loft of Melville’s barn.
And in between seeing each other, Melville and Hawthorne wrote each other letters.
In one such letter, Melville wrote to Hawthorne, inviting the latter man to visit Arrowhead, writing, “Fear not that you will cause the slightest trouble to us. Your bed is already made, & the wood marked for your fire.”
It was during this time as their relationship grew that legendary authors Hawthorne and Melville completed the novels they had been working on when they first met.
Hawthorne’s book was, The House of Seven Gables. It was published in March 1851. And Melville’s Moby Dick was released in November of that same year.
In fact, Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, writing, "In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne."
But by the time that Moby Dick was published, the friendship between Melville and Hawthorne had started to cool.
A Falling Out
Today, Moby Dick is studied by high school and college classes. It’s considered a classic piece of American literature. That’s quite a shift from when the novel came out.
Moby Dick was first published in England in October 1851. Critics hated the book, their negative reviews crushing sales of the novel.
In England, only 500 copies of Moby Dick sold. Compare that number with the 6,722 copies of Melville’s first novel, Typee, that sold in that country, and you can see why many considered Moby Dick a flop.
Things went a little better in the U.S., although not as well as Melville had hoped.
Remember, Moby Dick was Melville’s attempt at moving on from his disappointing third novel, Mardi. But to Melville’s distress, only 3,712 copies of Moby Dick were sold.
One person who may have enjoyed Moby Dick, though, was Nathaniel Hawthorne.
In a letter Melville wrote Hawthorne in November 1851, the former refers to correspondence he received from Hawthorne that praised Moby Dick.
No known copy of what Hawthorne wrote about Moby Dick exists today, but Melville called Hawthorne’s correspondence a “joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter.”
Not only do we not know what Hawthorne said to Melville in his letter about Moby Dick, we don’t have any of the letters that Hawthorne wrote to Melville.
That’s because, for some reason, Melville destroyed all of the letters Hawthorne ever sent him. He did this after his relationship with Hawthorne fell apart.
More than Friends?
They may not have realized it at the time, but the publishing of Moby Dick signaled a sort of end to the friendship between legendary authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.
The men saw each other only twice after the book came out in October 1851.
Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, left the Berkshires, relocating east to Concord, Mass. in 1852.
For a few years, the authors still occasionally wrote to each other. But even that came to an end in 1856.
We don’t know what caused the relationship between Hawthorne and Melville to fall apart. And we probably never will.
In recent years, some have speculated that Melville and Hawthorne were more than just friends. The theory goes that the men were lovers.
Those who believe this point to several pieces of what they think are evidence of a gay relationship between Melville and Hawthorne.
For one, the intense language Melville used in his letters to Hawthorne. Writing, for example, “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.”
And some think that in his novel, The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne references the start of his relationship with Melville.
Some see the symbolism in Moby Dick as evidence of Melville’s homosexuality.
Plus, some argue, why would Melville destroy the letters Hawthorne wrote to him if they were merely friends? Surely the men had been lovers and had had a falling out.
And there’s a poem, “Monody,” that many say Melville wrote on the occasion of Hawthorne’s death in 1864. “Monody,” which wasn’t discovered until Melville’s own passing, begins:
“To have known him, to have loved him
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal—
Ease me, a little ease, my song!”
It’s worth pointing out, though, that there are a couple of problems with the belief that Melville wrote “Monody” to memorialize Hawthorne.
For one, no one seems to know for sure when Melville wrote the poem. It could have been any time before his death in 1891. And others believe Melville wrote “Monody” about his son, Malcolm, who committed suicide in 1867.
Again, we may never know what happened between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.
But here’s what we do know: One August day in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville met on a hike up a mountain.
Both men became friends, if only for a while, but during that time they each produced American literary classics that we still read today.
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