Without a second thought I always took Melville's meaning to be Hawthorne was so far from being a soulless YES-man that he aggressively shouted, yelled, roared, thundered his NO! to conventionality and conformity. Protesting loud as thunder, as the capitalization and exclamation mark graphically confirm. (Julian Hawthorne printed NO!)
So I uncritically supposed until reading a footnote to the introduction of Geoffrey Sanborn's Whipscars and Tattoos, citing the 1986 book by William Dillingham, Melville's Later Novels. Sanborn agrees with Dillingham that Melville's "in thunder" means in the middle of a thunder-and-lightning storm, not in a loud "thunderous" voice.
Here's how Dillingham explains "No! in thunder":Ooh is that good. Making the same connection to Ahab as "Old Thunder" Sanborn highlights warrior pride,
Melville wrote Hawthorne in a letter that he admired him for saying “NO! in thunder.” By “in” Melville meant during or in the midst of, and he used thunder as he frequently did to mean lightning. He was complimenting Hawthorne not for writing thunderous prose which expressed a rebellious no, but for a refusal to seek shelter when, figuratively, lightning is striking all around. The lightning-rod salesmen of the world advise us to fear lightning, to run and hide from it, and to cringe in the knowledge of one’s own impotency. It might strike you if you are not prudent and methodical in your precautions. The extraordinary few say no to the fear, and no to the message of purposelessness, and they continue to say no—almost impossible though it is—even after they are struck. So it is with Ahab, though he has to fight mightily. --Melville's Later Novels page 73
"the feeling that enables one to say "No!" in the midst of a ship-splitting thunderstorm, and to discover, in the act of utterance, that one is speaking in unison with a wide world of other beings, objects, and processes--that one is, in fact, speaking in unison with the thunderstorm." --Whipscars and Tattoos, page 15.Wow! Thundering in a thunderstorm. So by the time we get to Ahab in the Candles chapter of Moby-Dick we have Hawthorne's "No! in thunder" realized every which way, in every sense. And this (remember?) is also Bryon's romantic stance in those stanzas on the alpine storm from canto 3 of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Ahab is Byron's "live thunder" personified.
But have we not heard No in thunder somewhere before? Well there's a Civil War poem, Our Country's Call by John Pierpont:
Like a whirlwind in its course,Aha, in thunder answer No! Way before Pierpont, a poem called Weeping Mary:
Shall again a rebel force,
Jackson's foot or Stuart's horse,
Pass our sleepy posts;
Roam, like Satan, "to and fro,"
And our Laggard let them go?
No! in thunder answer, "No!
By the Lord of Hosts!" --Rebellion Record
O one look of comfort give me,Maybe we need our bibles now... Psalms, hymns.
Into pity's arms receive me,
From this heavy load relieve me.
Or in thunder answer—no.
--The Kilmarnock Mirror
The law is looked to for salvation, but the soul is brought to feel that it is in vain that he looks any where else than unto Jesus. "I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me: no man cared for my soul. I cried unto thee, O Lord, I said thou art my refuge, and my portion in the land of the living. Attend unto my cry, for I am brought very low." When the law is appealed to, it answers, "No," in thunder; and it is well the wretch can return and seek another refuge.Let's keep looking. Ho, what is this? Thomas Heywood, The Foure Prentices of London:
--David Charles, Sermons
Soldan. Should Jove himself in thunder answer I [that is, Aye = Yes]Jove himself!
When we say no, we'd pull him from the sky. --The Ancient British Drama
And therefore three cheers for Nantucket; and come a stove boat and stove body when they will, for stave my soul, Jove himself cannot. --Moby-Dick Chapter 7, The ChapelThe context from Heywood is very much in the vein of Melville in that letter to Hawthorne, and more so in the figure of Ahab. Having the audacity to treat great powers of the universe as equals. Anybody that bold speaks in thunder, like Jove the god of thunder. Now I'm wondering did Melville read Thomas Heywood's Four Prentices or would he only have to have seen Alexander Dyce's footnoted comment on Tamburlaine in the preface to The Works of Christoper Marlowe? More later... (delivered at Hawthorne and Jove in thunder).