Friday, August 24th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: A P.S. Without a Letter

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Herman Melville's copy of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse. AC85.M4977.Zz846hHerman Melville was given this copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on July 18, 1850, by his “Aunt Mary,” according to his autograph inscription on the verso of the front free endpaper. Mary A. A. Hobart Melvill, the widow of Melville’s beloved Uncle Thomas, was then living with her son Robert on the old family farm, with its impressive mansion house, where Melville had visited many times as a boy and where, in his late teens, he had spent a summer helping to run the farm. In 1850, cousin Robert was working the farm (owned by his grandfather’s estate) and running the mansion as a summer boardinghouse where Longfellow and former President John Tyler had lodged. Melville, his wife, and young son stayed there from mid-July to mid-September. Aunt Mary’s gift of this collection of tales and sketches came only a matter of weeks before Melville met Hawthorne himself on an excursion to Monument Mountain. The two authors shared an intense and challenging friendship until the Hawthornes moved from Lenox in late 1851, shortly after Hawthorne finished The House of the Seven Gables and just after Melville published Moby-Dick, dedicated to Hawthorne.

The happy coincidence of the gift and the meeting with Hawthorne led Melville to plunge into Mosses and to produce in short order one of the most famous book reviews in American literary history, “Hawthorne and his Mosses, By a Virginian spending July in Vermont,” published on August 17 and 24, 1850, in the Literary World, a New York weekly. That this copy served as the basis for that review is clear from Melville’s notes throughout. It wasn’t until much later that Hawthorne and his wife Sophia learned Melville was the “Virginian” and had written the extraordinary review that had moved them both.

Although Melville had borrowed a copy of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales from Evert Duyckinck in the summer of 1849—and mentioned having read that volume both in the Mosses review and on the rear pastedown of this volume—he later confessed in 1851 in a letter to a friend that he “had not read but a few of them before.” The marginalia in this volume, therefore, capture Melville’s first sustained engagement with Hawthorne’s work precisely at the time of their momentous meeting in early August 1850. Scholars have explored at length the influence that Hawthorne had on the revisions of Moby-Dick, a book begun in New York but finished, after undergoing major revisions, at “Arrowhead,” the farm in Pittsfield (adjacent to the old Melvill homestead) where Melville moved with his family in late 1850. Scholars have also explored the content of the Mosses review to discover the extent to which Melville, while praising the genius of Hawthorne and his artistic vision, was also describing his own goals as an author and the qualities of mind that would lead to (his own) great writing. Melville returned to this volume in later years and reread some stories (“The Celestial Railroad” is annotated “May 1865,” one year after Hawthorne’s death in May 1864). The volume remained in his family’s possession until 1937, when Eleanor Melville Metcalf, Herman’s granddaughter, placed it on deposit with other books from Melville’s shelves in the Treasure Room of Harvard’s Widener Library. She made Mosses and the other volumes on deposit a gift in early 1942, upon the opening of Harvard’s Houghton Library.

As if these characteristics were not enough to distinguish the volume, Melville added some other touches. On the rear free endpaper, Melville wrote out notes from a visit to a Masonic lodge (at roughly the time of the writing of the Mosses review and as one of a number of excursions he took in Hawthorne’s company in 1850-1851?). And most intriguingly he adorned the volume with a bit of moss.

A piece of paper bearing a specimen of brightly multicolored sea moss is attached with sealing wax to the front pastedown. Melville wrote on that piece of paper in ink (apparently after it had been affixed to the book):

This moss was gathered in Salem,
and therefore I place it here
for a frontispiece.
P.S. It may be objected
that this is sea-moss; ‒ but
then, it only went to sea – like
many young mortals – in its youth,
and to my certain knowledge has
been ashore ever since.

An additional pencil notation in Melville’s hand on the “frontispiece” reads “August / 1850.”

It would seem that the volume also had other additions or ornaments at one time: various sets of straight pin holes suggest that something was once attached to the free front endpaper. The piece of paper with the sea moss does not have corresponding pin holes.

Some gentle biographical joking seems to be going on in Melville’s “caption” to his frontispiece. From 1846 to 1849 Hawthorne had been the Surveyor of the Port of Salem, before the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and his subsequent move to the Berkshires. So far as we know, Melville was never in Salem, Massachusetts, before or after August 1850. Was the moss a gift from Hawthorne, a specimen carried across Massachusetts and presented to a new friend who was then reading Mosses? The “P.S.” seems to make this caption jump genres and become a bit of personal correspondence, with a clear reference to Melville’s early years at sea and his (mostly) land-lubbing days since his return from the South Pacific in 1844. The exact circumstances of the gathering of the moss and its travels from Salem to Pittsfield may never be known, but no one who has seen this remarkable volume and its colorful supplied frontispiece has ever raised the “sea-moss instead of manse-moss” objection Melville wittily pretends to pre-empt.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Dennis Marnon, Administrative Officer, for contributing this post, which was adapted and expanded from the Documentary Note to the entry for this volume at Melville’s Marginalia Online , Steven Olsen-Smith, Peter Norberg (main author of Mosses Documentary Note), and Dennis C. Marnon, editors.]

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