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.
The two men were first re-united at the Consulate and, although friends, their initial exchanges were uncomfortable. Hawthorne had tried without success to secure a consular appointment for Melville and was embarrassed by his failure. And Melville was simply Melville, “looking much as he used to,” wrote Hawthorne later, “a little paler and perhaps a little sadder, in a rough outside coat, and with his characteristic gravity and reserve of manner. But the discomfort ebbed away and we soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence.” Melville described the journey he was making and they talked of the home he had left behind. Hawthorne doubtless looked closely at his friend. He knew at once that his health was poor and had “long believed that his writings have indicated a morbid state of mind.”
Hawthorne invited Melville to stay in his Southport home for as long as he might remain in the vicinity. Melville accepted and arrived there the next day having picked up his luggage from his hotel. The paucity of his belongings shocked Hawthorne: “The least bit of a bundle, which contained a night-shirt and a tooth-brush. He is a person of very gentlemanly instincts in every respect, save that he is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.” Hawthorne did not understand that Melville was a sailor at heart; he could live rough and travel light.
Melville stayed with the Hawthornes from Tuesday to Thursday. Here there were roaring fires, hearty meals and the simple pleasure of conversation with Hawthorne’s children, Julian and Una. But although Melville brightened that first night in Southport the mood did not last. On the Wednesday the two writers took a walk along the strand. There was a cold wind blowing across the deserted sands, a landscape that seemingly matched or encouraged Melville’s troubled spirits. In America and in happier times the two men had talked at great length, Melville noting that Hawthorne’s ability to listen in thoughtful silence was a unique quality. But now, as the desolate wind blew, Melville simply wanted desperately to unburden himself and Hawthorne was troubled by what he heard. Melville described territory he had spoken of before, only now he seemed hopelessly lost there.
“We sat down in a hollow among the sand hills,” recalled Hawthorne, “sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind and smoked a cigar. Melville began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated, but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting.” The gulls echoed Melville’s loneliness and the lights of little lives shone from the town’s windows. Finally the cold and the gathering darkness ended an endless conversation. The two men, saddened and silent, returned home.
The next day Hawthorne had business back in Liverpool. Melville went sight-seeing in the city and made enquiries about passage among the steamers. On Saturday the friends took a day trip to Chester, but if Hawthorne had hoped to cheer up Melville it was in vain. They parted on a Liverpool street corner, Melville turning away into the night and the rain.
They met for the last time on Monday. Melville, for his friend’s sake, said he felt much better than in America. But Hawthorne noted: “He certainly is much overshadowed but I hope he will brighten as he goes onward.”
He did not. When Melville sailed from Liverpool he was once again in flight across a sea as vast and lonely as his own imagination; and once again in pursuit of the fabulous but terrifying submarine creatures that cruised through his psyche.
Moby Dick is a monster of a book that draws on Herman Melville’s youthful experience aboard whale ships but is much, much more than an action adventure. Naturalism gives way to surrealism, plot gives way to a fierce intellectual quest, and hidden meanings endlessly multiply. The white whale is the incarnation of all that is dark about the human soul and the desire to kill it proves to be self-destructive. The novel received a lukewarm reception when first published in 1851 – its methods were ahead of their time. Nevertheless it is still here, big and bold and challenging, neither an easy nor comforting read but a hugely rewarding one nonetheless.
Set in the 17th century Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is another landmark in the history of American literature. When Hester Prynne is found guilty of adultery she is forced to wear the bright red letter A as the mark of her sin. She refuses to name her lover who is also the father of her child, Pearl, though he is in fact local clergyman, Dimmesdale. When Hester’s husband, Roger Collingwood, who had been thought lost at sea, returns home he identifies Dimmesdale as the adulterer and begins to psychologically torture him. Within this melodramatic framework Hawthorne explores the nature of love, desire, judgement, sin, guilt, remorse, and redemption.