Avon Van Hassel

Building Worlds and Filling Them With Magic

Back in 2021, I made a video on YouTube about Napoleon’s letters to Josephine, and it is far and away the most viewed video on my channel. It was so popular, it made me want to make a tradition of reading overblown and cringey letters from famous people. You can watch the original video here:

Brace yourself, it’s a lot

~This post contains an affiliate link. If you’re interested in this book, please consider purchasing through the link provided. It gives me a little bit of Jeff Bezo’s filthy, filthy lucre because writing full time is expensive, and he doesn’t need the money for more joyrides in space. :-)~

Making the rounds lately has been an interesting post, regarding the nature of the relationship between two of literature’s heavyweights, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. When I first heard about it, it felt like a real life fandom crossover. Like, how would these two ever cross paths? I honestly didn’t realise that they were contemporaries. And it turns out that they were equally as surprised-and pleased- to have found each other. So, let’s have a look at one of American literature’s great friendships, possibly even great romances.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

You know Nathaniel Hawthorne as the author of The Scarlet Letter, The House of Seven Gables, and Mosses from an Old Manse (if you don’t know the last one, it’s ok, we’re gonna talk about it). He also had a collection of shorts called, Twice Told Tales, which annoys me because that’s what I wanted to call my publishing house, and he beat me to it by like 150 years. I mean, it is a Shakespeare reference, so hardly original to either of us, but still. (We’re gonna talk about Shakespeare, too.)

Hathorne [sic] was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, to a family prominent in US history. Most notably of these was his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, who was a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. This Puritan heritage informed much of his writing, especially evident in his most famous works. Indeed, he added the w sometime in his early 20’s, probably to distance himself from the family reputation.

When he was 12, his family boarded with some farmers in Maine, and when he was 16, he hand wrote and published a little newsletter, which he delivered to family members. At 17, he attended Bowdoin College, where he met future president Franklin Pearce and my personal favourite poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He described himself as an idle student, preferring to study his own interests than the curriculum.

In 1828, he started self-publishing his early work, which didn’t sell well. That’s fine, though. We love a self-published king. He also served as editor of the American Magazine of Entertaining and Useful Knowledge, which is an objectively awesome title. He also accepted a job as a weigher and gauger in the Boston Custom House and roomed with some movers and shakers, like poets, congressmen, and naval officers. What a time to be alive.

In 1841, he joined a Utopian society so he could marry Sophia Peabody, a transcendentalist illustrator. The couple married in 1842 and moved into Old Manse, a historical house, where one of their neighbours was Ralph Waldo Emerson. The two were deeply in love and compatible and had three children, Una, Julian, and Rose, very quickly together.

Mosses from an Old Manse is a collection of 23 previously-published short stories that Hawthorne compiled and named in honour of this house. Many of these stories were already known, so it enjoyed some commercial success. He sent a copy to Poe because he literally lived my dream, and Poe was like, ‘the guy is a genius writer, but his friends suck,’ and then Emerson wrote his own review, declaring that Hawthorne was underpaid. Looks like he was paid $75 in 1846, which would have been $2,902.69, by 2022 money. So, yeah, that’s not much. But the real meat about this book is Melville’s response.

Herman Melville

You recognise Herman Melville as the author of Moby-Dick (yes, hyphenated), ‘Bartleby the Scrivener,’ and ‘Benito Cereno.’ I recently read the last one, and if you haven’t, holy shit, you should. It’s good, y’all. Like, genuinely genius (though, content warning for fairly racist language, because it was 1855).

Melville was born in 1819 in New York City, to an equally prestigious family. Both of his grandfathers, Major Thomas Melvill and General Peter Gansevoort, fought during the Revolution, with Melvill participating in the Boston Tea Party, and Gansevoort defending Fort Stanwix in 1777.

A mediocre student, though a good writer from an early age, Melville dropped out early, most due to his father’s poor money management. He went through a series of jobs, including as a bank clerk, working at his father’s fur store, and as a teacher, all the while trying to continue his studies, where he could. Eventually, the need for more gainful employment led him to the sea.

In 1839, he got a job on a merchant vessel, St Lawrence, from New York to Liverpool. He briefly returned to teaching, but didn’t get paid, so he joined on with the whaling ship, Acushnet. Much of his work concerning sailing was inspired by this job. In 1842, he and another crew mate jumped ship, participated in a mutiny, was jailed, and broke out. In August of 1843, he joined the US Navy, and was discharged in October.

So, from all of this, he developed a mistrust of authority, a drive for freedom, and a deep self confidence, with the feeling that life and the universe had imposed unnecessary hardships on him, which held him back from achieving his full potential.

In 1845, he began writing, starting with Typee, which was inspired by that time he and a buddy jumped ship in Nuku Hiva. Notably, this book drew the attention of one Nathaniel Hawthorne, who heaped upon it glowing praise.

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Knapp Shaw, who he had only known a few months, and in 1849, their first child, Malcolm, was born.

Their friendship

In August of 1850, the two crossed paths at a picnic in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. While other famous people were also in attendance, Hawthorne and Melville found themselves caught in the rain, took shelter together, and had a deep and personal conversation.

Melville had been given a copy of Mosses from an Old Manse, though he hadn’t read it. But after meeting Hawthorne, he read the book and published an anonymous review, titled, ‘Hawthorne and His Mosses,’ where he heaped purple praise on his new friend. Hawthorne did write a review of Typee, but I can’t find a date for that, so I don’t know if he wrote it before or after they met.

About Mosses, Melville revels in Hawthorne’s ‘blackness,’ or seldom-seen dark side, which ‘so fixes and fascinates’ him. He also openly compares him to Shakespeare, while offering very vague and surface level criticism of the actual pieces. It very much reads like doing your buddy a solid and leaving a 5-star review because you love them SO FUCKING MUCH. (Btw, if any of you feel compelled to do that for me, I will absolutely write you a sickly-sweet love letter)

About Typee, Hawthorne praised the youth and vigour of the writing, as well as the sumptuous setting details, and the delicacy with which Melville handles cultural portrayals. Hawthorne himself recognises that American and European society wasn’t ready for the way that Melville dealt with the people of Nuku Hiva, and lifted him up for it. It also very much reads as ‘my buddy is so cool and smart, you gotta read this book!’

Their personal correspondence was constant and fervent, and they visited each other often, with and without their families, and often without warning. From their first meeting in 1850 to their last in 1864, they each would have a huge impact on the other. During these years, they both published their biggest works. Indeed, Moby-Dick is dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and many have speculated that in addition to being inspired by real life events, the white whale himself represents Melville’s obsession with Hawthorne.

It’s not hard to imagine what the two saw in each other. Hawthorne was fifteen years older, plagued by a family curse and surrounded by artistic and political luminaries. Possessing a sensitive and poetic nature, and described by Melville as being beautiful almost beyond belief, he was a true tragic romantic hero in the style that any Bronte would approve. Melville, by contrast, had lived a life of adventure. The grandson of two heroes of the Revolution, he had lived a life on the sea, from which he developed a dashing, adventurous nature. Yet, he was also an accomplished poet, who, like Hawthorne, had eschewed the structure of a formal education in favour of artistic freedom. Both men were progressive, in their own way, for the time. The Scarlet Letter is lauded as a proto-feminist novel, and Typee seemed to be an early attempt at anthropology.

Other keyboards will speculate on the exact nature of their relationship, whether it was romantic and sexual, or simply a deep and profound platonic friendship. I personally cannot say, and it feels inappropriate for me to do so. They certainly lavished affection on each other, but as we only have letters for evidence, and people did write like that in the 1800s, it doesn’t feel like strong enough proof for me. Whatever the relationship, it was strong and beautiful, and they made no attempt to hide it, and I love that for them.

But I promised you letters, so here are a few. Unfortunately, I can only find Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, and none from Hawthorne, from a book called, Divine Magnet, compiled by Mark Niemeyer. However, I have to assume they were equally rapturous, given that Hawthorne is the one who held onto his. Read them to whoever you love.

If you want to hear me read even more, check out my new video, below:

Please, if you know of any more real-life OTPs, or any cringy historical love letters, feel free to send them my way! I’d love to get a series going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Raveena at Home

Stylish Homemaking

Unfuck Your Paganism

We can do better

Jane Austen's World

This Jane Austen blog brings Jane Austen, her novels, and the Regency Period alive through food, dress, social customs, and other 19th C. historical details related to this topic.


Prayers to the Gods of Olympus

The Forest Witch

Singer of Spells, Tea Maker, Artist


Natural Korean beauty, hand-picked with love


Viewpoints of a Gaulish Polytheist

Gather Victoria


Colonies, Ships, and Pirates

Concerning History in the Atlantic World, 1680-1740

The Old Shelter

Dieselpunk author - Historical Fantasy Set in the 1920s

Whitley Abell

Youth Librarian

Dun Brython

A Brythonic Polytheist Blog

Words That Burn Like Fire

Welcome to the Adventure

The Druids Garden

Spiritual journeys in tending the living earth, permaculture, and nature-inspired arts

Jacob Devlin

Please don't feed the dragon.

%d bloggers like this: