Eventually, a whaling expedition from Nantucket – something experienced by the young Melville himself – becomes the story of an obsession, an investigation into the meaning of life.
A fervent correspondence ensued. Melville, indeed, became so infatuated that he moved with his wife and family to become Hawthorne’s neighbour. Thus liberated, fulfilled, and inspired to say “NO! in thunder, to Christianity”, he completed Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, in the spring of 1851. After an early reading of the manuscript, Hawthorne acclaimed it in a letter that remains, tantalisingly, lost. All we have is Melville’s ecstatic response (“Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. “), and, subsequently, a dedicatory declaration of Melville’s admiration for Hawthorne’s “genius” at the front of Moby-Dick (the first edition hyphenated the whale’s name).
n 5 August 1850 a party of writers and publishers climbed Monument Mountain in Massachusetts, during the American equivalent of a hike in the Lakes. Among the literati on this excursion were Nathaniel Hawthorne, 46, author of The Scarlet Letter (No 16 in this series), a recently published bestseller (although a term not yet in use), and the young novelist Herman Melville, who, after a very successful debut (Typee), was struggling to complete an unwieldy coming-of-age tale about a South Seas whaler.
Melville, who was just 31, had never met Hawthorne. But after a day in the open air, a quantity of champagne, and a sudden downpour, the younger man was enraptured with his new friend, who had “dropped germinous seeds into my soul”. Rarely in Anglo-American literature has there been such a momentous meeting.
Next to Ahab and Ishmael, this massive novel is also rich in minor characters, from the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, the ship’s mate Starbuck, Daggoo and Fedallah the Parsee – all told, a typically American crew. And so a “romance” (Hawthorne’s term) inspired by the true story of the Essex, a whaler that sank when it was attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific in November 1820, becomes like a terrifying (at times, intolerable) sea voyage, culminating in a thrilling three-day chase in which Moby-Dick destroys the Pequod. Ishmael survives to tell his tale by clinging to Queequeg’s carved coffin.
It was the attraction of opposites. Hawthorne, from an old New England family, was careful, cultivated and inward, a “dark angel”, according to one. Melville was a ragged, voluble, romantic New Yorker from mercantile stock. Both writers had hovered on the edge of insolvency and each was a kind of outsider.
A note on the text
When Ishmael ships aboard the Pequod, his own quotidian search becomes inexorably joined to the darker quest, in which the captain of the doomed whaler, “monomaniacal Ahab”, sets out to revenge himself on the great white whale that has bitten off his leg. This “grand, ungodly, godlike man”, one of fiction’s greatest characters – “crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale” – is not only pursuing his nemesis, a “hooded phantom”, across the ocean’s wastes, he is also fighting the God that lurks behind the “unreasoning mask” of the symbolic whale.
Melville, who was short of money, actually made his first contract for a new novel, then known as The Whale, with the British publisher Richard Bentley. But he kept the printing in New York so he could oversee the proofs, and wrote to Hawthorne, from New York, that he must “work and slave on my ‘Whale’ while it is driving through the press”. In fact, he was simultaneously working on revisions to his manuscript and proofreading what had been set.