In the mid-nineteenth century two of America’s greatest writers met in Lancashire. The time they spent together was short but significant.
Herman Melville, creator of Captain Ahab’s obsessive hunt for the white whale, Moby Dick, was slave to a self-destructive quest of his own. An outsider, possessed by a hectic and confused interior life, Melville had long hovered between belief and doubt, faith and cynicism, light and darkness. But by the early 1850s a malign and persistent shadow had fallen across him: at worst the universe was a conspiracy to inflict suffering; at best it was a vast practical joke. His well-being, both physical and spiritual, began to decline. He was pale and distracted and endured headaches and pain.
In 1856 Melville made an escape bid from his troubled self. He left New York on board a screw steamer bound for Glasgow with the aim of visiting Europe and the Holy Land. “I stayed in Glasgow three or four days,” he recorded in his journal. “From Glasgow I went to Edinburgh, remaining there five days I think. From Edinburgh I finally went to York. After a day’s stay to view the Minster, I came here.”
Here was Liverpool. Melville arrived just after mid-day on Saturday the 8th of November. He took a room in the White Bear hotel and then re-traced some of the steps he had taken during his first visit when, aged 20, he had sailed to the port as a boy on a packet. He was planning to sail from Liverpool to Constantinople, but also take the opportunity to look up his old friend, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne, like Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, was a bright bloom in the first great flowering of American literature. Best known for The Scarlet Letter he was now American Consul at Liverpool and had made a home for his wife and children in Southport.