The summer when nineteen-year-old Emily Dickinson met the love of her life — the orphaned mathematician-in-training Susan Gilbert, who would come to be the poet’s greatest muse, her mentor, her primary reader and editor, her fiercest lifelong attachment, her “Only Woman in the World” — another intense, label-defying love was igniting in the heart of another literary titan-to-be some fifty miles westward. That other love unfolds alongside Dickinson’s in Figuring — a book I wrote to explore, among other existential perplexities, the bittersweet beauty of asymmetrical and half-requited loves. (This essay is adapted from the book.)
A potent intellectual infatuation ignited between the two men — one that, at least for Melville, seems to have grown from the cerebral to the corporeal. Within days, the young author reviewed Hawthorne’s short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse in Literary World under the impersonal byline “a Virginian Spending July in Vermont.” No claim of this intentional ambiguity was true — Melville was a New Yorker, the month was August, and he was spending it in Massachusetts.
The review, nearing seven thousand words, was nothing less than an editorial serenade. “A man of a deep and noble nature has seized me in this seclusion… His wild, witch voice rings through me,” Melville wrote of reading Hawthorne’s stories in a remote farmhouse nestled in the summer foliage of the New England countryside. “The soft ravishments of the man spun me round in a web of dreams.” Melville couldn’t have known that his allusions to witchcraft, intended as compliment, had disquieting connotations for Hawthorne. Born Nathaniel Hathorne, he had added a w to the family name in order to distance himself from his ancestor John Hathorne — a leading judge involved in the Salem witch trials, who, unlike the other culpable judges, never repented of his role in the murders. Unwitting of the dark family history, Melville found himself under “this Hawthorne’s spell” — a spell cast first by his writing, then by the constellation of personal qualities from which the writing radiated. Who hasn’t fallen in love with an author in the pages of a beautiful book? And if that author, when befriended in the real world, proves to be endowed with the splendor of personhood that the writing intimates, who could resist falling in love with the whole person? Melville presaged as much:
No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently fancying to himself some ideal image of the man and his mind… There is no man in whom humor and love are developed in that high form called genius; no such man can exist without also possessing, as the indispensable complement of these, a great, deep intellect, which drops down into the universe like a plummet. Or, love and humor are only the eyes, through which such an intellect views this world. The great beauty in such a mind is but the product of its strength.
After comparing Hawthorne to Shakespeare, he writes:
In this world of lies, Truth is forced to fly like a scared white doe in the woodlands; and only by cunning glimpses will she reveal herself, as in Shakespeare and other masters of the great Art of Telling the Truth, — even though it be covertly, and by snatches.
“I am Posterity speaking by proxy,” Melville bellows from the page, “when I declare — that the American, who up to the present day, has evinced, in Literature, the largest brain with the largest heart, that man is Nathaniel Hawthorne.” In an aside on the process of composing his review, he notes that twenty-four hours into writing, he found himself “charged more and more with love and admiration of Hawthorne.” Quoting an especially beguiling line of Hawthorne’s, he insists that “such touches… can not proceed from any common heart.” No, they bespeak “such a depth of tenderness, such a boundless sympathy with all forms of being, such an omnipresent love” that they render their author singular in his generation — as singular as the place he would come to occupy in Melville’s heart.
Fervid correspondence and frequent visits followed over the next few months. Only ten of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne survive,…
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