Hawthorne and His Mosses | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Course Hero, "Hawthorne and His Mosses Study Guide," August 17, 2020, accessed September 25, 2021, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Hawthorne-and-His-Mosses/.

Hawthorne and His Mosses | Context


America in the 19th Century

Melville wrote his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–64) Mosses from an Old Manse in 1850. At this point in the 19th century, the United States was several decades old but still trying to find an identity separate from its European ties. Melville and Hawthorne were both American writers. During this time English writers remained revered in American culture while upcoming American writers struggled to achieve similar levels of success with their own unique styles.

The United States was in between major wars during the era that "Hawthorne and His Mosses" was published, but it was still a time of transition throughout the nation. The country continued to expand as new states were added and settlers moved west. Cities in the Eastern part of the United States were also growing and industrializing, but there was still ample open land with natural beauty that Melville described as he wrote this essay from Vermont.

Melville's Writing Career

By the time he wrote "Hawthorne and His Mosses," Melville had already published some moderately successful stories and was writing what is now the classic novel Moby Dick. His earlier publications were well-received and likely gave him the confidence to write a review of another author's work. It may also have been a favor to Nathaniel Hawthorne because he had given Melville advice on writing Moby Dick when they met shortly before Melville published "Hawthorne and His Mosses."

Throughout his essay Melville discusses not only Mosses from an Old Manse but the state of American literature in general. Melville argues that Americans should appreciate and support American writers more than European writers, even if they are not quite as skilled. He explains the importance of originality over imitation and suggests that American writers are in the process of finding their own unique style. His argument suggests that readers of the essay should value the work of Hawthorne, and Melville himself.

Popularity of Shakespeare

Melville discusses Shakespeare at length. This is an example of Melville's insistence that American writers make valuable contributions to literature that should not be overlooked in favor of respected European writers such as Shakespeare. He also compares Hawthorne and Shakespeare and cites that they both had a dark side that came out in their writing. Melville's lengthy reference to Shakespeare includes examples from several of his plays and suggests that his work is still widely known and highly respected despite being more than a century old. Melville urges readers to pay attention to current and future American writers because it is inevitable that one will be even better than Shakespeare.

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