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Hawthorne and Melville

Picture the scene: Two of America's greatest writers discussing the intricacies of classic literature over a snifter of brandy- in a barn.

"I think it's kind of fun to remember that when Hawthorne came over to visit Melville, there were so many people in the house that they would actually go out to the barn," says Catherine Reynolds, curator of Arrowhead, Melville's historic Berkshires home.

The serenity and beauty of the Berkshires have attracted many an author over the years, perhaps no two more closely linked than Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville. The two literary giants called the Berkshires their permanent home for only a handful of years, but both produced several of their greatest works during that period, including Melville's Moby-Dick and Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter.

Today, visitors to Melville's Arrowhead can look out a study window at Mt. Greylock, inspiration for Moby Dick's Great White Whale. Guests may also wander through Hawthorne's adjoining sleeping quarters and, of course, visit the famous 19th century barn in which the two authors spent so much time.

Melville was at least partly inspired by Hawthorne in his decision to move to the Berkshires full-time. The young author had survived a turbulent childhood, beginning life in New York opulence before finally ending up fatherless with seven siblings in Albany. As a young man, Melville worked an array of different jobs, including stints on a whaling ship and with the merchant marines.

It was on a picnic at Monument Mountain organized by a local attorney that the two authors first met. Both were familiar with each other's work, and the two became immediate friends, as evidenced by the gushing letters both wrote to each other.

The younger Melville found an intellectually stimulating mentor in Hawthorne, and the free-spirited Melville's talent and creativity intrigued the reclusive Hawthorne. From 1850 to 1852 the two developed an intimate friendship. Living just six miles apart, Melville in Pittsfield and Hawthorne near Lenox, they visited frequently and wrote often. It was Hawthorne's encouragement that led Melville to turn a light-hearted whale-hunting story into the American epic Moby-Dick, and, in turn, Melville dedicated the book to Hawthorne. Melville's strong feelings - some scholars consider it an obsession - for his friend is evident in an emotional letter he wrote thanking Hawthorne for praising Moby-Dick:

So your joy-giving and exultation-breeding letter is not my reward for my ditcher's work with that book, but is the good goddess's bonus over and above what was stipulated- In my proud, humble way, - a shepherd-king, - I was lord of a little vale in the solitary Crimea; but you have now given me the crown of India.

For his part, Hawthorne completed The Scarlet Letter and penned The House of Seven Gables during the same period. However, somewhere along the road the two authors drifted apart. Much speculation has been made as to why - some say Hawthorne was not impressed by Melville's later works, others believe the well-connected Hawthorne was embarrassed by his failure to secure a government position for the impoverished Melville.

Both would leave the Berkshires, Hawthorne because he couldn't concentrate amidst the splendor of nature and Melville for financial reasons. The two would meet one last time in an amicable reunion in England, but there would be no further correspondence. Luckily for visitors, the legacies of Melville and Hawthorne live on in the Berkshires.