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In A Brown Study, 18C

October 16, 2016

Why are some people our friends and others not? The literary friendship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne had many reasons for being. Melville was infatuated with Hawthorne’s intellect, captivated by his artistry, and charmed by his elusive personality. They were drawn together by a sympathy of soul and intellect, and their friendship was important to each in different ways. Hawthorne gave Melville the kind of intellectual stimulation he needed, and Hawthorne enjoyed being the younger writer’s mentor. Fifteen years apart in age, they were temperamentally different, and Hawthorne sometimes found Melville’s “manic intensity” exhausting.

Melville, while taking the “Grand Tour” of the British Isles and the Mediterranean on money he had borrowed from his uncle, spent three days with Hawthorne, who had been appointed to an embassy position in Liverpool. Their discussions were deep, for later Hawthorne wrote, “I think if he were a religious man he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”

Melville’s work did not get the attention it deserved. The crew of the Pequod represented various races and nationalities. Ishmael feared Queequeg, a tattooed cannibal, but later decided, “better to sleep with  sober cannibal than a drunken Christian,” indicating a racial harmony that overcomes the complexities of racism. It is Queequeg’s coffin that saved Ishmael. The reading public did not digest Melville’s story of the white whale and his later work.

Upon the death of Hawthorne in 1864, Melville wrote, “To have known him and to have loved him after aloneness 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.”

Melville’s unpredictable mood swings often resulted in his bullying his wife, children, and servants. Nervous exhaustion, the physical pain of rheumatism and sciatica, worsened by drinking made his temper short. In 1867, his eldest son Malcolm, 18, shot himself.

Melville died in 1891 at age 72 in New York City of cardiac dilation.  He is buried in the Bronx, and his books disappeared until the centennial of his birth in 1919 revived an interest. Had the reading public regrown a taste for travel and adventure in the deeper waters of literature? Moby Dick has been made into many movies and adaptations, while Ttpee and Omoo have almost disappeared.


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