Born July 4 (The Day of the Group Representative)
Born on America’s national holiday, The Day of the Group Representative, the short story writer and novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne was typical in many ways of the 19th century Romantic American authors that included Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Poe, Twain, Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane. In his insightful critical work, Studies in Classic American Literature, British novelist D.H. Lawrence chooses several of the foregoing authors to write about as being most typical of their country’s writers. He chooses to analyze the main character of Hawthorne’s most important and successful novel, The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, who seduces the married preacher, Reverend Dimmesdale, gives birth to his child, named Pearl, and then is forced to wear the scarlet letter A on her dress for all to see – A standing for adultery. Lawrence writes:
“All begins with A. Adulteress. Alpha. Abel, Adam. A. America. The Scarlet Letter.”
Another interesting observation on this novel and on Hawthorne’s personal life is that exactly in 1850, the year the book was published, he met the American novelist Herman Melville, who was busy with the writing of his own great epic, Moby Dick. The two men became fast friends. Although both married, there is no doubt from Melville’s letters that he fell in love with the older Hawthorne. Melville’s marriage to Maria Gansevoort was not a happy one, but in contrast Hawthorne’s marriage was and so the complex personal relationship between the two men, whether overtly homosexual or not, is of some interest.
Blooming in its intensity in 1850 (publication of Hawthorne’s novel) and 1851 (publication of Melville’s) the relationship of the two writers became a fast friendship that bordered on a closet gay pairing, some written evidence for which can be found in a letter sent from Melville to Hawthorne in 1851: “I felt pantheist then—your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s. . . . Whence come you, Hawthorne? By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips—lo, they are yours and not mine. . . . Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling. . . . Ah! It’s a long stage, and no inn in sight, and night coming, and the body cold. But with you for a passenger, I am content and can be happy. . . . “
Many sexual references and jokes can be found in Moby Dick and in Melville’s last work Billy Budd, in which the protagonist is the prototype of the handsome sailor who by his very presence and physical beauty brings joy and hope to the other sailors. The most obvious phallic symbol in all of literature, the White Whale, called Moby Dick, is the subject of Lawrence’s comment:
“The last phallic being of the white man. Hunted into the death of upper consciousness and the ideal will. Our blood- self subjected to our will. Our blood-consciousness sapped by a parasitic mental or ideal consciousness.”
Fascinating, but perhaps not surprising, that these two men, Hawthorne and Melville, writing their most important works at the same time and in the same place should meet, become emotionally involved and both express and repress the same conscious and unconscious feelings that their own characters struggled with in their respective novels.
– Gary Goldschneider