Hawthorne and His Mosses | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Hawthorne and His Mosses | Main Ideas

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Embracing New Writing

The beginning of the essay acknowledges that Melville had noticed the book Mosses from an Old Manse many times before finally taking the time to read it. His detailed description of his experience with the book indicates that he is very pleasantly surprised by the collection of short stories and that he continues to find more to appreciate each time he comes back to the book. He had been reading another book Dwight's Travels in New England when his cousin brought him a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse.

Melville seems surprised at the book recommendation at first but claims to have begun reading it right away. He states "how magically stole over me this Mossy Man!" early in the essay and continues to describe the profound impact of the book.

Melville is impressed with Hawthorne's book and it inspires him to encourage others to embrace new writing and authors as well. A large section of the essay discusses a shift in literature that he believes should happen in the United States. His lengthy discussion of William Shakespeare symbolizes that Americans are still focused on old British literature rather than supporting new writers in America. He asserts that American writers have received more praise from Englishmen than from Americans, and he is critical of this lackluster response Americans give to writers from their own country.

Looking for Deeper Meaning

Melville is not only surprised by how much he enjoys reading Hawthorne's book but is also surprised by the depth. He claims that most readers find Hawthorne to be a pleasant writer. When his cousin presented him with the book she described him as "that flowery Hawthorne." Melville argues that there is more depth and darkness to Hawthorne and his writing than most people realize. He uses a metaphorical nature scene to describe the hidden depth in Mosses from an Old Manse with "It is curious, how a man may travel along a country road, and yet miss the grandest, or sweetest of prospects, by reason of an intervening hedge ... "

Melville claims that "it is the least part of genius that attracts admiration," and he states this is true for both Hawthorne and Shakespeare. In a comparison between the two writers, Melville asserted that both men were and are respected for their work that is lesser than what their true genius has produced.

Appreciation for Hawthorne

"Hawthorne and His Mosses" is a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne's book Mosses from an Old Manse, but it weaves in many other ideas and assertions. At the beginning of the essay, Melville shares his surprise at how much he has enjoyed the book, and he seems to regret waiting so long to read it. He continually refers to the unexpected depth of the stories and uses Hawthorne as an example in his argument for appreciating American writers. Melville uses metaphor to describe the impact that Mosses from an Old Manse has had on him when he writes "But already I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul." This illustrates the inspiration that Melville feels after reading the book. Melville devotes the first several paragraphs to his appreciation for Hawthorne and returns to that idea at the end of the essay. The essay ends with Melville's suggestion that Hawthorne's books " ... be sold by the hundred-thousand; and read by the million; and admired by everyone who is capable of admiration."

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