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.)
On August 5, 1850, Herman Melville met Nathaniel Hawthorne at a literary gathering in the Berkshires. Hawthorne was forty-six. The achingly shy, brooding writer, once celebrated as “handsomer than Lord Byron,” had risen to celebrity a decade earlier, much thanks to a glowing endorsement by Margaret Fuller. Melville — whose debut novel had rendered him a literary star in his twenties — had just turned thirty-one.
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, but their houses were just six miles apart and they saw each other quite often — “discussing the Universe with a bottle of brandy & cigars,” as Melville put it in one invitation, and talking deep into the night about “time and eternity, things of this world and of the next, and books, and publishers, and all possible and impossible matters,” as Hawthorne recounted in his diary. Punctuating the invisible log of all that was written but destroyed is all that was spoken but unwritten, all that was felt but unspoken.
Melville’s ardor was most acute during the period of writing Moby-Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne. Printed immediately after the title page was “In Token of My Admiration for his Genius, This Book is Inscribed to Nathanial [sic] Hawthorne.”
One November evening over dinner, a restlessly excited Herman presented Nathaniel with a lovingly inscribed copy of the novel whose now-legendary protagonist sails from Nantucket into the existential unknown. I can picture the brooding Hawthorne turning the leaf and suppressing a beam of delight upon discovering the printed dedication. In the following century, Virginia Woolf would perform a similar gesture with her groundbreaking, gender-bending novel Orlando, inspired by her lover Vita Sackville-West and later described by Vita’s son as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature.” On the day of Orlando’s publication, Vita would receive a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specially for her in Niger leather and stamped with her initials on the spine.
But after the elated private presentation, a very different public fate awaited Moby-Dick. Its 1851 publication was met with a damning review in New York’s Literary World, which set the tone for its American reception and precipitated its decades-long plunge into obscurity. The reviewer’s chief complaint was that the novel “violated and defaced” “the most sacred associations of life”—an indictment aimed at the homoeroticism of Melville’s choice to depict Ishmael and Queequeg as sharing a “marriage bed” in which they awaken with their arms around each other.
Ten days later, Hawthorne lamented the obtuseness of the review and praised Moby-Dick as Melville’s best work yet. Touched to the point of delirium by this “exultation-breeding letter,” Melville hastened to reply:
Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s… It is a strange feeling — no hopefulness is in it, no despair. Content — that is it; and irresponsibility; but without licentious inclination. I speak now of my profoundest sense of being, not of an incidental feeling.
Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips — lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces.
Aware of how his intemperate fervor might incinerate his relationship with the cooler-tempered Hawthorne, Melville reasons with himself for a moment, then chooses to abandon reason:
My dear Hawthorne, the atmospheric skepticisms steal into me now, and make me doubtful of my sanity in writing you thus. But, believe me, I am not mad, most noble Festus! But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning.
After signing, he adds a feverish postscript:
I can’t stop yet. If the world was entirely made up of [magicians], I’ll tell you what I should do. I should have a paper-mill established at one end of the house, and so have an endless riband of foolscap rolling in upon my desk; and upon that endless riband I should write a thousand — a million — billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you. The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds. Which is the biggest? A foolish question — they are One.
The intensity proved too concussing for Hawthorne — he pulled away from the divine magnet. Melville seems to have presaged the eclipse of their relationship in the review in which the magnetism had begun:
It is that blackness in Hawthorne… that so fixes and fascinates me. It may be, nevertheless, that it is too largely developed in him. Perhaps he does not give us a ray of his light for every shade of his dark.
As Hawthorne retreated into his cool darkness, Melville suffered with the singular anguish of unreturned ardor—anguish that stayed with him for the remaining four decades of his life, for he eulogized it in one of his last poems, “Monody,” penned in his final year:
To have known him, to have loved him,
After loneness long;
And then to be estranged in life,
And neither in the wrong;
And now for death to set his seal —
Ease me, a little ease, my song!
By wintry hills his hermit-mound
The sheeted snow-drifts drape,
And houseless there the snow-bird flits
Beneath the fir-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.
Meanwhile, the gaps of the invisible and the unspoken are filled with posterity’s questions about specifics that vibrate with the universal: What happened between Melville and Hawthorne in the unrecorded hours? Why did Nathaniel ultimately repel the divine magnet of Herman’s love? Most probably, we’ll never know. Possibly, they themselves never fully did. It is almost banal to say, yet it needs to be said: No one ever knows, nor therefore has grounds to judge, what goes on between two people, often not even the people themselves, half-opaque as we are to ourselves. One thing is certain: The quotient of intimacy cannot be contained in a label. The human heart is an ancient beast that roars and purrs with the same passions, whatever labels we may give them. We are so anxious to classify and categorize, both nature and human nature. It is a beautiful impulse — to contain the infinite in the finite, to wrest order from the chaos, to construct a foothold so we may climb toward higher truth. It is also a limiting one, for in naming things we often come to mistake the names for the things themselves. The labels we give to the loves of which we are capable — varied and vigorously transfigured from one kind into another and back again — cannot begin to contain the complexity of feeling that can flow between two hearts and the bodies that contain them.