It was a Monday 157 years ago in the Berkshires, the western edge of Massachusetts, an overcast August 5th with rain threatening. A group of city literary types who were away from the heat and humidity of Boston and New York, came together there at the invitation of a hospitable New York lawyer on a summer break.
Although the occasion was filled with writers, several of whom soon sketched the day in letters and magazine pieces, there is not one among them that recorded the details of the day’s most resonating of encounters: the first meeting of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.
The group climbed Monument Mountain (left), between Great Barrington and Stockbridge, and uncorked champagne at the rocky summit. The mountain is only about 1600 feet high, but it’s final yards are at a steep and rocky gradient. When I stand upon it myself I feel dizzy enough without alcohol. Melville went out on a promontory of rock that he fancied looked like a ship’s bowsprit. The bowsprit rock abides, awaiting more adventurers.
Two days later, Hawthorne wrote to a friend, "I met Melville the other day, and liked him so much that I have asked him to spend a few days with me before leaving these parts," a gesture so uncharacteristic of Hawthorne that one realizes at once that the more ebullient and outgoing Melville (right), 15 years his junior, must have made an impression. As I wrote in a review of recent Facts on File introductory editions about each man, they are very fruitfully studied in juxtaposition. The anniversary of their first encounter is as good a time as any to highlight them for readers.
Their works can be hard to start; presenting difficult gradients that have many giving up and turning back before they are rewarded by the bracing views. So the trick is to start by reading about them; they are each so intriguing, and in utterly distinct ways, that readers will want to press on and follow the men’s individual routes. Sadly, but not surprisingly, their friendship did not flourish for long.
Here at LJ, we work a block west of the location of Melville’s house in Manhattan, where he moved after writing Moby Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne. The Manhattan house is gone; the block lacks all atmosphere of how it must have been all those years ago. But you can get a sense of Melville’s and Hawthorne’s journeys by finding your way up Monument Mountain — or by losing yourself in some of the books that are their legacy.