The Divine Magnet: Melville’s Letters to Hawthorne

Paul Harding


This month sees the release from Orison Books and editor Mark Niemeyer of a collection of Herman Melville’s letters to Nathaniel Hawhthorne, under the title The Divine Magnet. The ensuing epistolary bromance covers a range of topics, and in his introduction to the book, novelist Paul Harding pays a particular attention to faith in the lives of both writers.


Most writers stand in awe of Herman Melville. Melville’s prose fills the English language to near bursting. It is righteous, huge, thunderously beautiful, and delivered with the gusto of an Old Testament prophet. It obliterates every tame writing workshop rule by which any scribbler has ever felt tyrannized. Who, for example, has ever objected to Moby-Dick being written in first person omniscient?

Best of all, Melville’s writing is gracious—large-spirited and noble because each of his magnificent sentences—all creation hung up from pole to pole, spinning on its axis, generating vast, gorgeous electro-magnetic fields of meaning—is devoted to commemorating the humblest lives. As he writes to Nathaniel Hawthorne in one of the following letters, he is “a mortal who boldly declares that a thief in jail is as honorable a personage as Gen. George Washington.”

Melville front cover

Close your eyes and fan through any of Melville’s writings—the book at hand; Moby-Dick; the South Seas tales; one of his later, somewhat overcooked works, like the bizarre Pierre; or The Confidence Man. Stop at any page. Stab your finger at any sentence and you will find the universe stretched across God and the devil, grace and cursedness, hope and despair, humanity spiraling and striving in between, and Melville in its midst, applying his genius to rescue the most hapless souls within from oblivion. Nearly every word Melville wrote can be read as recognition of the unfortunates fallen by the wayside or tossed overboard.

In other words, Melville’s writing is supremely democratic. If the thief in jail or the swabbie clinging to the topmast shroud of a whaler is collared to the very fiat lux of this universe, it means that he belongs to this existence as much as any king, judge, or admiral. That swabbie can trace his ancestry back to the original particle from which we all exploded, all came forth, our earth an ark on the floodtide of dimensions, coming to teeter on an Ararat peak in our little bandwidth of existence, our single, tiny family huddled together on our tiny, fleeting planet, warmed by our tiny star, and he a fully vested citizen of such majesties.

If my metaphors sound particularly cosmic, they are attempted under the inspiration of Melville. It is this very kind of inspiration that Nathaniel Hawthorne, in person and in his collection Mosses from an Old Manse, gave Melville in the middle of trying to wrangle his white whale into its most monumental expression. In his famous review of the Mosses, Melville spends much space comparing Hawthorne to Shakespeare, in precisely the democratic spirit I’ve been describing. At the same time, he happened to be writing a book that is today held in a degree of reverence nearly equal to that reserved for Shakespeare. A difference between Melville’s attitude to Shakespearean greatness and ours is that he claims it for a peer and in doing so gives himself the courage to attempt it for himself. He makes such genius accessible to the ambition of any person at all who might wish to attempt it.

One quality that ignited Melville’s passion for Hawthorne and his art was a particular sort of darkness that he perceived in Hawthorne’s stories. Hawthorne’s work embodied, “a certain tragic phase of humanity . . . the tragicalness of human thought in its own unbiased, native, and profounder workings.” It captured “the visible truth,” by which Melville meant “the apprehension of the absolute condition of present things as they strike the eye of the man who fears them not, though they do their worst to him.” In Clarel, he calls this “The natural language of the eye.” The deepest truths can be discerned with the naked eye and are therefore available to every living soul. Freely approached, without fear, their darkness is revealed as a higher order of beauty.

Melville describes that darkness that so electrifies and galvanizes him in Hawthorne as a lingering trace of the “blue Calvinism” of Hawthorne’s ancestors. Hawthorne is commonly understood to have rejected wholesale the Puritanism of his forebears, but what of Calvinism Melville detected in the Mosses might be seen as the conservation of what Hawthorne found best in that inheritance and a criticism of the worst. Inside that darkness is the authentic germ of a deep and abiding cosmology Melville himself preserved and renewed, in its original biblical idiom, as he agonized over matters of belief. It strikes at the deepest meaning and beauty of Melville’s art that there is barely a page of his writing that does not make explicit reference to a character or story from the Bible.

That a non-believer, a figure for instance embodied in Moby-Dick by the glorious pagan harpooner Queequeg sitting in a swamped whaleboat during a howling storm, in the black of night, lost at sea, holding up a lit lantern in the maelstrom nevertheless, on the scant chance the Pequod might glimpse it and come to the rescue, “the sign and symbol of a man without faith, hopelessly holding up hope in the midst of despair;” that such a figure can be epitomized in the biblical language inherited by Shakespeare and Melville and Hawthorne speaks at the very least to that tradition’s deep capaciousness, to its, we might well say, democratic embrace of both the saints and no-hopers, too, without any inconsistency of its own deepest premises. The term used in that tradition to describe this phenomenon is grace.

Today we writers are more apt to be embarrassed by the thought of such artistic aspirations, perhaps precisely because they are expressed in the idiom of holiness, of the sacred, of grace, and confine ourselves to the dreariness of mere virtuosity or fashionable blamelessness. Part of the source of that embarrassment is traceable to the success of the project of convincing many otherwise brilliant people that religion, so called, in any and all of its particulars and generalities, is to be avoided at all costs, superstitious, primitive, deeply unhip thing that it is. Don’t open that Bible; you’re liable to catch a case of stupid. It is easy to forget that censorship is an equal opportunity affliction, self-censorship especially. The fact that this proscription is so pervasive in certain influential circles these days speaks to an unsettling intellectual passivity in our thinkers and artists. It indicates an alarming obedience to authority, a lack of independent curiosity and imagination, a lack of simple piss and vinegar. How many writers withhold from their thought the very aesthetic and narrative traditions that make Melville’s books the objects of their admiration? The difference is everything, because the greatness of Melville’s ambition and his desire to point it out in Hawthorne’s work and to discuss it with Hawthorne in person—he calls their talks together their “ontological heroics”—is precisely its democratic impulse, which is precisely expressed in the yoking of the idea of the divine or the sacred to the lives of “unlettered” Ishmael, for example, or poor Pip, his tambourine gone quiet, gaping at the abyss, his lot lamented as eloquently as that of any prince, in the finest language available to anyone. A fundamental element of Melville’s art is the deliberate act of making such language available to people who, in what we by convenience call the real world, are perennially denied the dignities of literacy and self-determination. A deckhand gave us Moby-Dick. Melville calls writing it “ditcher’s work” at one point. It is by bringing the frankly sacred into the ditch, though, that he activates the realms of beauty we so admire.

None of this requires any specifically religious inclination. The Bible is literature and ponders truth as such. Its contents are not confirmable scientifically or archeologically or even historically because they are literary and not scientific or archeological or historical. Attempting to refute religious ideas explored in stories and poems and songs according to scientific criteria is a categorical mistake so elementary its persistence can only be attributed to brute tendentiousness or simple idiocy. The truths of the Flood narrative depend for their confirmation as little upon unearthing Noah’s ark in eastern Turkey as Moby-Dick does on finding a true plank of the Pequod. If the repositories of Western thought and wisdom prior to, say, Nagasaki and Hiroshima are largely expressed in theological—which is after all to say largely aesthetic, poetic, and narrative terms—our confession or rejection of any given denomination is irrelevant, at least in the face of this fact as fact. If we asked Ralph Waldo Emerson whether he forsook the God of his Calvinistic fathers, he might well tell us that he left the pulpit to pursue Him with all the greater vigor, while the church went into moral and spiritual decline in the opposite direction. Which is to say, his account might be that it was not he who rejected the heart of his own religion but the church. If we granted him his own terms, we might see him illuminated suddenly as a figure in a long tradition of individuals who abandoned what they perceived as the calcified pieties of their sects for what, in the particular denomination at hand, has been described by the theologian Karl Barth as “religionless Christianity.” The very custom of which these figures availed themselves is built into itself, as it were. Protestantism, for example, protests. It preserves the right of the individual to reject institutional authority and does so because it views the freedom of the individual to contemplate her own humanity, her own self, as supremely sacred.

I have not strayed as far as it might seem. The work most alluded to throughout Shakespeare and Melville is the Bible. In Moby-Dick, the second most invoked works are those of Shakespeare. Melville, perceiving that holy darkness in Hawthorne’s writing and then comparing Hawthorne to Shakespeare, completes a beautiful loop that embodies and avails itself of one of the deepest, first premises about faith in the Christian tradition, which is its failure. (Again, there is no necessity here to endorse Christianity in order to appreciate the beauty of the idea.) The failure of faith is practically synonymous with the failure of hope. The preservation of hope depends on each individual’s freedom to search for it where she must, and the preservation of that freedom is sacrosanct.

Here, then, is another instance of the sort of sublime paradox across which Melville arrayed his prose; the hopeless man struggling against his hopelessness within the sanctuary of the very tradition in which he fears he does not or cannot believe. Art, like the best religion and philosophy, not only accepts paradox but thrives upon it, and it is this particular, ultimate, cosmic paradox that makes Melville’s articles, novels, poems, and correspondence so electrifying. Any God, Truth, Idea, Beauty worth contemplating is certainly not required to satisfy or reduce to human rationality.

These letters embody and reproduce—reenact—both the process and results of this kind of thinking and composition. It is such a pleasure to watch Melville embark in each case with generous sentiments of domestic hospitality, with offers of a fire, a bed, a bottle of champagne or port (or brandy, or . . . !), and from there spiral out into his inevitable fathomless speculation. He is acutely aware of this phenomenon. It is involuntary. “What’s the reason, Mr. Hawthorne, that in the last stages of metaphysics a fellow always falls to swearing so? I could rip an hour. You see, I began with a little criticism . . . and here I have landed in Africa.” No sooner does he stop himself for a moment and declare, “But it’s an endless sermon,—no more of it,” than he plunges on with, “my old foible—preaching.” That these letters do read much like homilies is a key to their power and genius.

Unlike the latest purveyors of re-treaded positivism, Melville was not interested in tenure or celebrity. He was not, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, a bourgeois philosopher, concerned with the consistency of his own theories rather than Truth with a capital “T.” He writes to Hawthorne that “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay. Yet altogether, write the other way I cannot,” and that “Though I wrote the Gospels in this century I should die in the gutter.” “Try to get a living by the Truth—and go to the Soup Societies.” That old dark true self he found in Hawthorne’s stories, that dark, brilliant self each and every one of us possesses, that persists and pursues and wakes us every night at the wolf hour with the very fact of itself—with the fact of ourselves as selves—despite every parlor trick we play to make it disappear or at least transmogrify from subject to predicate, as if it were all a matter of grammatical sleight of hand, holy if anything after all deserves the name—that is what he felt compelled to pursue in his own books, even at the cost of material prosperity. He refused to uncouple what Emerson called the “moral sweet” from the “material sweet.” Every one of us since Adam and Eve has had one of those dark selves. What could be more democratic? What could be more worthy of Herman Melville’s attention and his art, his veneration and his doubts? What could sound a deeper note and inspire greater recognition when he read and subsequently reached out—passionately and in fellowship—to Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Melville’s writing is bracing in every instance. He reads so like a prophet because his milieu is after all exhortation, homiletics, his disposition that of a preacher in the pulpit, the pulpit being, as he tells Hawthorne in a letter, the very stronghold of Truth. That device of arraying the cosmos between opposites is a figure of speech continually used in Biblical literature, called merism, and it is always used inclusively—that is, good and evil, night and day, lord and servant, hope and despair are not opposed against one another but together comprehend an ontological whole larger than either alone. Either alone in fact is meaningless without the other against which to define it. And that inclusivity provides the very impulse for democratic sentiment, for putting the servant, the common sailor at the center of the whole cosmos, arranging the world between sailor and admiral, George Washington and a thief, God and servant. In the tradition, God stepped down into our human time, history, as a servant, a kind of ultimate merism itself. The transcendent God demonstrated His transcendence by becoming immanent, and the characterizing quality of His immanence was humility, self-effacement. The thrall in which this baffling and exhilarating idea held Melville is evident in every word he wrote and powers the novels, the poems, the letters. It is the same power that bursts the bounds of conventional decorous writing and gives way into the greatest realms of artistic inquiry—human inquiry—about ourselves in the universe, where not only can the tale be told by unlettered Ishmael, but Ishmael, made merely of ink as he is, can nevertheless possess all of the intellectual and poetic brilliance of his flesh and blood creator, Herman Melville, and by extension something like the thrilling, beautiful creative and narrative omniscience of the transcendent God who authored them both.


Paul Harding is the author of two novels about multiple generations of a New England family:Tinkers (recipient of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize) and Enon. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, he was a drummer for the band Cold Water Flat before earning his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Harding has also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was a fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two sons.