Wednesday, August 15, 2012

August Anniversaries: Melville Meets Hawthorne in the Berkshires, 1850

Summer always seems in some way to be Melville season, in western Massachusetts, at any rate.

On August 1, we mark his birthday.

Part of the Literary Arts Issue, this postage stamp (Scott # 2094), based on a portrait by J. O. Easton in the Fogg Museum at Harvard, was designed by Bradbury Thompson, modeled by Frank J. Waslick, and printed by the American Banknote Company in a run of 117,125,000. It was issued at the New Bedford Whaling Museum on the anniversary of Melville's birth, August 1, 1984.

The summer also brings multiple Moby Dick marathons in New England. Whereas New Bedford holds its group reading of the novel in frigid January, other locales opt for the war season. Mystic Seaport held its marathon from July 31 through August 1, whereas Pittsfield, Massachusetts, locale of Melville's home, Arrowhead, has chosen for its "Call Me Melville" program leisurely chapter-a-day online reading schedule, stretching over 135 days, from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day.

And, the gods must be smiling upon us, because an appropriately snarky little piece about stupid new Olympic sports even managed to work in the opening line of Moby Dick:
Call me Ishmael, but I don’t care about the synchronized-diving competition the Chinese won yesterday, except trying to figure out how exactly one decides to go into synchronized diving.
August 5 marks the anniversary of his famed and fateful meeting with Nathaniel Hawthorne. And as chance would have it, that date in 2012, as in 1850, was marked by a great thunderstorm (in our case, a welcome relief after a terrible drought and the hottest July on record).

Mass Moments has seen fit to include the event on its calendar of significant days in Massachusetts history, though the description is rather anodyne:
On this date in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville were among a small group who climbed to the top of Monument Mountain in the Berkshires for a picnic. Hawthorne had recently published The Scarlet Letter and was living in nearby Lenox. Melville was visiting Pittsfield. The two writers were meeting for the first time. A passing storm drenched the hikers, but the day marked the beginning of a warm friendship between the authors of two of the greatest American novels of all time. Melville dedicated Moby Dick to Hawthorne, with "admiration for his genius." 
The bulk of the piece deals with Hawthorne's literary career.

The Tale of Tanglewood,* an early chronicle of the summer home of the Boston Symphony in Lenox, tells the story with more detail and verve. The book begins by noting the significance of two thunderstorms: the first being the aforementioned, the other, one in the year 1937, which destroyed the festival tent and led to the construction of the now-famous Koussevitzky Music "Shed" (which took the place of Eliel Saarinnen's more ambitious design).

Hawthorne, who had his first big commercial success with The Scarlet Letter in March 1850, rented a cottage on the estate of the Tappan family (whose Highwood House is today the Tanglewood visitor center) from that summer through the fall of the following year.

His Notebooks record his enthusiasm for the beauty of the setting, overlooking Lake Mahkeenac and the more distant mountains. At times, though, he grew frustrated, missing the sea, the city, and his wife. He had some choice comments about our classic western Massachusetts weather:
This is a horrible, horrible, most horrible climate. One knows not, for ten minutes together, wheter he is too cool or too warm . . . I detest it! I detest it!! I detest it!!! I hate Berkshire with my whole soul, and would joyfully see its mountains laid flat! (31)
Although he claimed to miss urban comforts, he also did not go out of his way to socialize.  As The Tale of Tanglewood puts it:
It was in the summer of 1850 that Melville and Hawthorne, meeting as strangers to each other on a picnic party near Stockbridge, were driven by a violent thunderstorm—according to a persistent legend—to seek refuge together in the crevice of the rocks of Monument Mountain. Neither had yet made a full discovery of the other as a great writer, and Hawthorne in particular was extremely war of strangers; but there they were, face to face, in close quarters, exquisitely adapted to the breaking down of reserves. There were two hours of it, and when the romancers emerged, they had laid the basis for a rapidly ensuing intimacy. (19)
      Two days after the meeting on Monument Mountain, Melville with others called on Hawthorne at the Red Cottage, drank champagne, and walked to the lake. From that time forth, the meetings with Melville, who lived only a few miles away at his Arrowhead farm in Pittsfield, were frequent and intimate. Melville would appear, sometimes in the guise of a Spanish cavalier, often with his large black Newfoundland dog; and on horse or dog he would give 'the old man' or 'the little gentleman,' as Hawthorne in his diary called his son Julian, a ride in which the boy took a terrified delight. Melville told his stories of the South Seas with such zest and reality that once after his departure, Mrs. Hawthorne began looking for a club which had figured in a tale of his adventure. There was an evening visit, of which Hawthorne wrote: 'Melville and I had a talk about time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books and publishers, and all possible and important matters, that lasted well into the night.' When Melville stayed for the whole night, one can only imagine how far and wide the talk must have ranged.
At this very time Hawthorne was writing his House of the Seven Gables, and Melville, not more than half a dozen miles away, was writing Moby-Dick. They must have had many things to say to each other. When Melville, the more outgoing of the two, could not talk he wrote, in long letters with whole-hearted admiration of Hawthorne and his genius. 'I shall leave the world, I feel,' said one of these letters, 'with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality." (34-35)
The Red Cottage burned down in 1890, but a plaque has marked the site since 1929. After World War II, the National Federation of Music Clubs presented the Boston Symphony with a reconstruction of the Cottage, also known as the Little Red House.

* Source: M. A. DeWolfe Howe, The Tale of Tanglewood, Scene of the Berkshire Music Festivals. With an Introduction by Serge Koussevitzky (NY: The Vanguard Press, 1946).

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