Melville’s Understanding of Hawthorne’s Tragic Beauty

Blog Post #3

Kate Spies

English 402 –

 “The Pittsfield Secret Review” –

Melville’s Understanding of Hawthorne’s Tragic Beauty

In an 1851 letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melvile writes about The House of the Seven Gables. His comments are focused, official, and his tone seems slightly stilted and critical; I say official because it’s as if Melville is directing his reflections towards a larger audience, and his criticism is tailored to a group of potential readers rather than solely Hawthorne himself. For example, he writes: “It has delighted us; it has piqued a re-perusal… We think the book, for pleasantness of running interest, surpasses the other works of the author” (Melville, 6).  With this use of “us,” Melville draws in other readers to critically consider Hawthorne’s work. We recognize these comments as a divergence from the rest of the letter — something that extends beyond an impromptu correspondence. Indeed, Melville calls his little critique the “The Pittsfield Secret Review.” I’m delighted to share in the secret and engage with this personal conversation between two artists, and to see yet another instance of the emotion and personality of epistolary texts. Moreover, Melville’s confidential exposition is pedagogical in that it comments on the pieces of Hawthorne that he found the most resonating, like Hawthorne’s vivid descriptions, his attention to detail, and most particularly, his ability to incorporate a dark, honest beauty into his words.

Melville’s comments on Hawthorne’s “tragicalness.” suggest an internal darkness and sadness that permeates his writing. Hawthorne’s character Clifford — the ex-prisoner who returns to the house, broken –- seems to be touched by this darkness, Melville writes. And indeed, Clifford has been muddled by his 30 years spent in the cell, and seems to nearly show the trauma of a wounded animal; he weeps and shakes when the Judge character approaches him. To that end there is a solidified darkness shown with the help of Clifford, a weakness and negativity that leads to the underbelly of tragedy that Melville relates to Hawthorne. But in this little gift that is “The Pittsfield Secret Review,” tucked into the epistolary context of this April letter, we’re able to recognize why Melville finds this darkness so intriguing. It’s outlined — yes, Hawthorne has a skill of relaying the tragic and pain of the human experience, he writes — but Melville delves beyond connecting the dots to explain, “Clifford is full of an awful truth.” It is that word, “truth,” that reverberates so much with me. It indicates that Melville associates Clifford’s tragic qualities with veracity and veritas, and an act of honesty and clarity on Hawthorne’s part. Clifford’s condition, and the way that Hawthorne so strongly and elegantly portrays it, is able to teach a reader something about the world around him. Consequently, in reading this correspondence we’re given insight on Hawthorne’s methods but also how they have affected Melville. He writes that he finds the character of Clifford engaging and interesting, but more particularly Melville recognizes him as a character that reflects the truth of the world around him, by embodying the tragedy of the human condition. This aligns with how Melville focuses his later texts; Moby-Dick explores this darkness through Ahab, and the interplay of fate and human will. Melville recognizes that the darkness that Clifford displays and the underlying weakness apply to the human condition in general: “There is a certain tragic phase of humanity in our opinion, was never more powerfully embodied than by Hawthorne.” According to Melville, Hawthorne can convey this expansive trait — this innate quality that colors so many individuals — in his characters like Clifford, and this skill is what distinguishes him.

Working with “The Pittsfield Secret Review” makes me turn to Melville’s work, then; it’s given me insight on what Melville himself is affected by as a creator, and what he feels an artist ought to focus on and to include, as Hawthorne wields his beautiful, aching darkness in his characters and plots.


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