"a thousand -- a million -- a billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you"

Benjamin Beck
"a thousand -- a million -- a billion thoughts, all under the form of a letter to you"

Tuesday, Jan 14, 2020


Herman Melville's great novel Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, contains a dedication to another well-known and admired American author. On the dedication page, in a conventional statement of appreciation, Melville writes, “In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Moby-Dick is not the first time that Melville had declared his admiration for Hawthorne’s genius in a public forum. In a review of Hawthorne’s short-story collection Mosses from an Old Manse, Melville wrote generously of his “love and admiration of Hawthorne” for New York's The Literary World in two consecutive issues from August 1850. This besotted and brilliant essay, Hawthorne and His Mosses, is a masterpiece of literary criticism. It reveals Melville’s acute critical observation that on the other side of Hawthorne’s popular, sparkling tales is a “soul” “shrouded in blackness, ten times black.” Tales such as Young Goodman Brown encapsulate this twinned sparkling darkness. Elsewhere in the same review, in language that evokes chapters of Moby-Dick such as “A Squeeze of the Hand,” Melville writes that “But already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul. He expands and deepens down, the more I contemplate him; and further, and further, shoots his strong New-England roots into the hot soil of my Southern soul.”



When Moby-Dick was published by Harper & Brothers on October 18, 1851 with the dedication from Melville to Hawthorne, the two authors were in the midst of a rich, albeit brief correspondence. Eleven of these letters are known to survive. Ten are from Melville. That’s not a lot of letters to base interpretations on, but this scarcity has not stopped literary historians from speculating wildly that Melville saw Hawthorne as a father-figure (in a Freudian vein) or that the letters serve as evidence of a possible romantic relationship. While we may never know more about whether Melville sought a replacement-father figure in Hawthorne (after his own father’s early death) or about the physical terms of their relationship, we can witness that devotion, admiration, and intellectual playfulness existed between these two monumental nineteenth-century authors. The correspondence complements the more public-facing devotional displays from Melville to Hawthorne found in Moby-Dick and Hawthorne and His Mosses.


Here’s Melville, playful and allusive, from a June 29, 1851 letter, written during the drafting period for the novel that would be titled, Moby-Dick: “Shall I send you a fin of the Whale by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked -- though the hell-fire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this. This is the book's motto (the secret one), -- Ego non baptiso te in nomine -- but make out the rest yourself.” Melville reprises this motto in Chapter 113, "The Forge," of Moby-Dick where Ahab announces, "Ego non baptiso te in nomine, sed nomine diaboli." (I baptise thee not in the name of the father but in the name of the devil.) A few months later, after Moby-Dick was published and Hawthorne wrote his thoughts about reading the novel in a letter that does not survive, Melville writes breathlessly back to Hawthorne in a mid-Novmber [17?] 1851 letter: “I felt pantheistic then -- your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God's. A sense of unspeakable security is in me this moment, on account of your having understood the book. I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as the lamb.” This wicked book is of course Moby-Dick. It is no surprise that the novel appears throughout their correspondence, as it was the major event in Melville’s career in 1851. The intensity of feeling that Melville had for Hawthorne’s friendship causes him to write in this same November letter two postscripts, suggesting that he kept dwelling on his thoughts. The first postscript reads: “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.”


These letters occurred at something of a watershed in each author’s career trajectory. For Melville, it was downhill after the 1851 publication of Moby-Dick. Riding waves of success after a series of esteemed and popular sea-faring novels that began with Typee in 1846, Moby-Dick never really poked its head above water. From the vantage point of 2020, it is hard to believe that the novel frequently lauded as a serious candidate for the moniker “the great American novel” and one of the most sophisticated novels ever written in the English language, was effectively dead in the water upon its publication. Melville’s next novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities, published in 1852, garnered this laconic headline evaluation from a New York magazine: “HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.” His public stature as a writer never recovered despite publishing more fiction and poetry over the next two decades.


When the dedication page of Moby-Dick appeared, Hawthorne’s career, unlike his friend Herman’s, would only climb higher. Buoyed by well-received short story collections in the early part of his career, Hawthorne published three landmark novels in three years that brought him great esteem: The Scarlet Letter was the first in 1850, followed by The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, and The Blithedale Romance in 1852. Melville argued for just this kind of success and esteem when he reviewed Hawthorne’s short-story collection in the August 17 and 24, 1850 issues of The Literary World: “But even granting all this; and adding to it, the assumption that the books of Hawthorne have sold by the five-thousand,—what does that signify? They should be sold by the hundred-thousand; and read by the million; and admired by every one who is capable of admiration.” A thousand, million, billion admirers, we might say.


A July 17, 1852 letter from Melville to Hawthorne confirms the latter’s success: “This name of "Hawthorne" seems to be ubiquitous. I have been on something of a tour lately, and it has saluted me vocally & typographically in all sorts of places & in all sorts of ways. I was at the solitary Crusoeish island of Naushon (one of the Elisabeth group) and there, on a stately piazza, I saw it gilded on the back of a very new book, and in the hands of a clergyman. -- I went to visit a gentleman in Brooklyne, and as we were sitting at our wine, in came the lady of the house, holding a beaming volume in her hand, from the city -- "My Dear," to her husband, "I have brought you Hawthorne's new book." I entered the cars at Boston for this place. In came a lively boy "Hawthorne's new book!"


Authorial success is a fickle monster. Hawthorne got his in spades. Melville lost his by the early 1850s and was completely forgotten by the time he died in 1891. It wasn’t until the 1920s, when literary historians started what is known as the “Melville Revival,” that this now quintessential American author would become anything other than a footnote, someone who would stand on his own laurels rather than as a result of his association with Hawthorne.


It is easy to read the imprint of genius all over this correspondence, not least because of the names in the salutation and valediction. While such attribution of genius is a nice sentiment, it’s borne from decades of work building ideas of authorial genius that tell us more about our own critical and aesthetic beliefs than necessarily those that existed in 1851. Moreover, getting wrapped up in labels of genius paradoxically deadens the power of our more ordinary relationships and the conventions that sustain them. We can see admiration clearly, much more easily than genius, whatever that means. Melville’s admiration for Hawthorne is clearly spelled out in the dedication page to Moby-Dick, and whatever emotions we might try to surmise from their correspondence, admiration is one. Considering that one of these writers confessed to having “a thousand, million, billion thoughts,” admiration is not such a stretch of the imagination. But what seems like more of a stretch is that what might seem so extraordinary in these letters is, if we follow Jordan Alexander Stein’s argument, that these letters are in fact ordinary. They follow nineteenth-century letter-writing conventions, just like the dedication page of Moby-Dick. It can be difficult to separate out conceptions of authorial genius from letter-writing conventions and other markers of historical context, but it is important to do so because it makes possible a different perspective on the world.


Imagine living in a world where the language of admiration and devotion that we see between Melville and Hawthorne was ordinary, where friendships—even brief ones—communicated with such frankness, such engagement, such generosity of spirit. Imagine a world that recognizes admiration, attention, love, and devotion as ordinary acts of friendship rather than markers of extraordinary singularity. Imagine friendships with people willing to put in the work, to dream up rooms where endless letter writing material is just waiting to be filled up with a thousand – a million – a billion thoughts.



Works Consulted:

“Melville’s Letters to Hawthorne.” The Life and Works of Herman Melville, http://www.melville.org/corresp.htm, accessed 8 January 2020.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. New York, Harper and Brothers, 1851.

Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” The Literary World, 17 and 24 August, 1850.

“HERMAN MELVILLE CRAZY.” New York Day Book, 8 September 1852.

Stein, Jordan Alexander. “Herman Melville’s Love Letters.” English Literary History, Vol. 85, No. 1, Spring 2018, pp. 119-40.