THIS WEEK IN HISTORY FROM THE CURIOSITY DESK
10:38 am
Fri August 8, 2014

The Picnic That Turned Moby-Dick Into A Masterpiece

Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick.
Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick.
Credit A. Burnham Shute

Chances are you’ve read it, or were supposed to read it, at some point — maybe your high-school English class or a survey of American literature in college.

And while the book, "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale" is named after the whale, Moby-Dick, the centerpiece of the great American novel is the deranged, obsessed man at the helm of the Pequod, Captain Ahab.

Ahab, like Ishmael, Starbuck and the rest, come straight from the mind of Herman Melville. But Sam Coale, an English professor at Wheaton College, says they might never have materialized if not for another great American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

It was the summer of 1850, the start of a decade that would prove to be a turning point in American Literature — though no one knew it at the time.

"You’ve got Emerson and Hawthorne and Melville and Thoreau and Poe and Whitman and Harriet Beecher Stowe," Coale said. "It’s a decade that just exploded."

On August 5, a group of literary types gathered for a day out in the Berkshires. Among the small party: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. It was their first meeting. It wouldn’t be their last.

View looking South East from Devils Pulpit on Monument Mountain near Great Barrington, MA.
View looking South East from Devils Pulpit on Monument Mountain near Great Barrington, MA.
Credit Tom Walsh, Wikimedia Commons

"They decided to make a picnic out of it, and they brought champagne and they climbed up Monument Mountain and they stayed there till dark," Coale said.

The two men were a study in contrast. Fifteen years Melville’s senior, Hawthorne had just completed his magnum opus, "The Scarlett Letter, a novel that was "praised to the skies," Coale said. "Here, at last, we have an American genius who’s a writer. We can thumb our noses at the British."

Melville had published a few things, but to no great success. The younger, more garrulous writer immediately caught Hawthorne’s notoriously skeptical eye.

"Hawthorne, in his notebook, says, I was really intrigued by this guy, he seems like a really interesting guy," Coale said. "And Hawthorne doesn’t say that very much about people."

The admiration was mutual. Melville was so moved that he moved — literally — to the Berkshires, to be closer to Hawthorne, whom he visited regularly as he worked on "Moby-Dick."

"He would stay and talk and talk and talk well into the wee hours of the morning, and Hawthorne, being rather shy, would be kind of silent — and listen — and you could never tell if he was in favor or not," he said. "I mean, he was a perfect person to go to, almost like a father-confessor type."

Melville had spent years at sea, amidst hardened men traversing the Earth’s underbelly. And he saw in Hawthorne’s work a unique — and brave — exploration of man’s dark side.

"His stories were all incredibly morbid," Coale said. "Dealing with ministers who get women in their congregation pregnant and suicides and dark tales."

'Melville recognized the darkness in Hawthorne's work, and made 'Moby-Dick' — because of some of that work — even darker … '

That struck a chord with Melville. And Coale says that with Hawthorne’s encouragement, however tacit, Melville was unleashed.

"And he went back to his "Moby-Dick" manuscript and built up Captain Ahab, so that Ahab, who was always a major character, really took on this demonic role," he said.

Now some scholars have suggested that there was more than just talk going on between the two men, and you can see why.

"Melville writes about Hawthorne 'shooting the stuff of literature into me,' which obviously in 2014 we see that as a real sexual image, which, how can you not see it that way?" Coale said.

But Coale, for one, doesn’t buy it.

"There’s absolutely no proof," he said. "And I can’t imagine Hawthorne — as staid as he was, even though he had three kids — even thinking like that," he said.

We’ll never know for sure. But Coale says that one thing is certain. Without Hawthorne, "Moby-Dick" just would not have been such a whale of a masterpiece.

"Melville recognized the darkness in Hawthorne’s work, and made 'Moby-Dick' — because of some of that work — even darker, with Captain Ahab and all that kind of stuff," he said. "And then he dedicated 'Moby-Dick' to Hawthorne."

And that exploration of the darker angels of our nature is what Coale says truly sets "Moby-Dick" apart, and makes the work of both Melville and Hawthorne essential reading, even today.

"We publicly believe that we are genuinely relatively innocent, generous, outgoing people, and I’m not saying that’s wrong, I’m just saying that’s only half right," Coale said. "But the literature — people like Hawthorne and Melville — remind us there’s a darker side to this. We gotta be careful of our pride and our way of defining the world in our terms, or of defining the world in black and white."

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and the picnic that helped turn Captain Ahab into a monster — and "Moby-Dick" into a masterpiece — 164 years ago this week.