Hawthorne and His Mosses | Study Guide

Herman Melville

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Hawthorne and His Mosses | Summary

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Summary

Melville's Experience

The essay opens with a detailed description of the setting in which Melville discovered and read Nathaniel Hawthorne's (1804–64) collection of short stories Mosses from an Old Manse. Melville was spending the summer in an old farm-house in Vermont "surrounded by mountains, old woods, and Indian ponds." He writes that "this, surely, is the place to write of Hawthorne." In addition to describing the natural setting around him, Melville incorporates nature into his review of Mosses from an Old Manse through the use of several metaphors. Melville explains that Hawthorne's book had been published four years earlier, but he is just reading it for the first time. He shares that he had been reading a different book until his cousin brought him Mosses from an Old Manse, and he claims that it is a better book. He describes how the book has had an immense impact on him and his perception of Hawthorne and his thoughts on American literature.

Hawthorne's Dark Side

Melville writes that Hawthorne is often perceived as a pleasant person and writer but that he has a "blackness" about him. It is a darker side that is sometimes shown in his writing. Melville provides a few specific examples of the darkness he encounters in Mosses from an Old Manse, but he mostly discusses Hawthorne's writing in general.

Hawthorne is compared to William Shakespeare, an English poet and playwright who shares this dark side that fascinates Melville. He gives examples of Shakespeare's work which include both comedy and tragedy in comparison to Hawthorne's different styles. He explains that Shakespeare's darkness is part of his genius and a quality that has helped his work to remain popular for decades. Though he discusses the comparison between Shakespeare and Hawthorne at length Melville points out that he does not necessarily mean to say that Hawthorne is equal to or better than Shakespeare.

Melville writes that it is the blackness in Hawthorne that fascinates him. He acknowledges that many people do not notice or understand this other side that is present in some of Hawthorne's work. When his cousin brought the book to him, she described Hawthorne as "flowery" which matches the perception that Melville believes many people have about the writer. Melville encourages readers who like Hawthorne's lighter writing to ignore the darkness if that better suits their preferences.

Appreciation of American Literature

Melville argues that American writers should be supported and appreciated by Americans more than British writers. He asserts that America would produce a writer even better than Shakespeare or that there may already be an American writer whose talent exceeds that of Shakespeare. He provides examples of Americans continuing to place older British writing above modern American writing, even though American writing has received praise from British audiences. He urges Americans to consider that writers are products of their time and location as part of his argument for appreciating modern American literature. Melville also suggests that Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of the American writers who deserves more recognition from his countrymen.

Analysis

Melville's First Time Reading Mosses from an Old Manse

Herman Melville wrote this essay anonymously as "A Virginian Spending July in Vermont" and published it in two parts in the New York Literary World magazine. The title of the essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses" indicates the author and piece of writing that are the subject of the review. The full title of the book being reviewed is Mosses from an Old Manse. It seems that readers of the New York Literary World magazine are expected to be familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64) as an author and know what book is being discussed even though Melville only uses the full title of the book one time in his essay.

The first several paragraphs share Melville's experience of being introduced to the book by his cousin while he spends the summer in Vermont. Melville had been reading the book Dwight's Travels in New England (1821–22), and his cousin suggested that she had "something far better than that" and presented him with Mosses from an Old Manse.

Melville describes the natural beauty that surrounds him and writes that this is the perfect setting in which to write about Hawthorne. He mentions that the book had been published four years earlier and that he had heard of it and noticed it in stores but had ignored it up until this point.

Metaphors using nature are included several times in the essay. Melville describes Mosses from an Old Manse as something beautiful hidden behind the hedges. These nature metaphors may have been inspired by the scenery that is surrounding him as he read, "stretched on that new mown clover, the hill-side breeze blowing over me through the wide barn door, and soothed by the hum of the bees in the meadows around, how magically stole over me this Mossy Man!" Melville explains that he is pleasantly surprised when he finally reads the book and also finds that it is unexpectedly serious and deep. "It may be, however, that all this while, the book, like wine, was only improving in flavor and body." Melville's attitude about Mosses from an Old Manse embodies the saying "don't judge a book by its cover."

Discussion of Hawthorne's Unexpected Depth and Darkness

Melville writes of being surprised by the depth of Mosses from an Old Manse and goes on to explain that Hawthorne has much more depth and darkness as a writer and person than most people seem to perceive. He begins this discussion by writing "but it is the least part of genius that attracts admiration" to explain how Hawthorne's best parts do not get enough recognition because he is well known as a "pleasant writer." He states that "Hawthorne is here almost alone in his generation" which signals that Hawthorne's style is unique. Melville writes several paragraphs explaining the mysterious, fascinating "blackness" of Hawthorne and his writing. He describes the two sides of Hawthorne as "the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne's soul, the other side—like the dark half of the physical sphere—is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black." These two metaphors paint very different pictures that support Melville's discussion of Hawthorne's various styles.

In this discussion of Hawthorne's dark side, Melville compares him to William Shakespeare (1564–1616). He uses several examples from Shakespeare's plays including Hamlet (1599), Macbeth (1606), and Richard III (1592) to demonstrate Shakespeare's own infamous darkness. The references to these plays and quotes such as "off with his head!" and "So much for Buckingham!" would have been well-understood by the readers of the New York Literary World magazine because Shakespeare was popular and widely studied among the educated population. Although Melville is personally fascinated by the depth and darkness, he assures readers that they do not need to focus on that side of Hawthorne if they do not like it or if they do not fully understand it. He suggests that understanding the dark side of Hawthorn is difficult "nor, indeed, will all readers discern it, for it is, mostly, insinuated to those who may best understand it, and account for it; it is not obtruded upon every one alike."

The State of American Literature

Melville writes that Hawthorne's style is fairly unique for the mid-nineteenth century time period. He explains that modern literary geniuses will be different from the likes of Shakespeare and other famous British writers. He does not claim that Hawthorne is a better writer than Shakespeare. They are just different from one another. His insistence that geniuses are part of their time and place shows that he does not expect people to continue reveling over British writers from past centuries but that Americans should appreciate current and future American authors. He puts Hawthorne in this group because he already has a unique style that sets him apart from other writers. This discussion does not focus solely on Hawthorne and Mosses from an Old Manse. It also focuses on the overall shift he would like to see in American literature. He encourages this shift by writing "Let America then prize and cherish her writers; yea, let her glorify them." This review of Mosses from an Old Manse provides much more than just commentary on that one book and signals just how profound the experience of reading it has been for Melville.

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