Friday, June 12, 2015

Sophia Hawthorne and Melville's Emersonian "fluid consciousness"

Update on "mush of concession." Sophia Hawthorne's other reported use of quotation marks when describing Melville to her sister in May 1851 is for the phrase, "mush of concession." Here again, as with the quoted expression, "fluid consciousness," Sophia Hawthorne's quotation marks signal a reference to the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson--this time from Emerson's essay on Friendship:
I hate, where I looked for a manly furtherance, or at least a manly resistance, to find a mush of concession. Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo. The condition which high friendship demands is ability to do without it. 
She was saying that her husband's friend Melville could disagree in conversation, "for there is never a 'mush of concession' in him" (quoted in the NN edition of Melville's Correspondence).

Still later, 6/14/2015: So in Sophia Hawthorne's view, Melville does have what Emerson admired as "fluid consciousness"; does not have what Emerson reviled as "mush of concession." Her vocabulary reflects long saturation in Emerson, "deep in Emerson's thrall" already when Hawthorne and then Sophia Peabody met, as Larry J. Reynolds characterizes the state of her admiration back then (Hawthorne and Emerson in "The Old Manse.") Writing in the generation before Reynolds's, Henry G. Fairbanks didn't mind saying
 "In the presence of Ralph Waldo Emerson she [Sophia Peabody] behaved like a transcendental bobby-soxer." --Hawthorne and the Vanishing Venus
Considering how well known is Emerson's large and complicated influence on both Hawthornes, and how many chapters and essays we have about Melville and Emerson, it feels strange not to find more in Melville criticism about Sophia's describing Melville in specifically Emersonian terms. Looking for one discussion or even a glancing mention, I did find James McIntosh (quoted below) all over it. Whew! In Melville and Emerson's Rainbow Merton Sealts gives a page or so to Sophia's admiration for Emerson, without reference to Sophia's May 7, 1851 letter to her sister Elizabeth Peabody. (Eleanor Melville Metcalf in Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle, p106, gives the date of Sophia Hawthorne's letter as October 2, 1851. It's at NYPL in the Berg Collection.) Sealts I guess would have assumed Emerson's influence pretty much everywhere. And other scholars versed in Emerson, perhaps. Too obvious to mention with respect to "fluid consciousness" and "mush of concession"?

Of course I ordered Melville in His Own Time, the new collection of nineteenth-century writing about Melville edited by Steven Olsen-Smith. You probably know Melville scholar Olsen-Smith already as architect of the world class Melville's Marginalia Online. While I'm waiting for rush delivery to the prairie, Google Books has the entertaining and aggravating preview function to fool with.

Nice to see this, John Bryant contributes a provocative Foreword which has me wondering about a couple of things before the book is out of the box. When I really should be packing for Tokyo. It's about the letter Melville wrote to Hawthorne in April 1851, praising the just published House of the Seven Gables, and Sophia Hawthorne's appreciative comments about that letter and the "fluid consciousness" of its author their neighbor Herman Melville. One day I'll get around to posting something about "Hawthorne: A Problem." Right now I can't help obsessing over the penultimate sentence in this forward not to say froward Foreword:
We do not know what exactly Sophia Hawthorne means by “fluid consciousness” or why she puts it in quotation marks.  --John Bryant, Foreword to Melville in His Own Time
Granting we could argue all night about exactly what Sophia means by the quoted expression, Professor Bryant has it half right. But those quotation marks signal and bracket a quotation which in theory should be discover-able. Especially nowadays in this our glorious globalized digitized 21st Century. OK wait, I get it: this must be one of those master-teacher's tricks to start the class thinking critically. Extra credit for the first kid to Google it!!!

In my book--well, blog--James McIntosh should get EXTRA-extra credit for figuring out long before Google that Sophia Hawthorne was characterizing Melville in identifiably Emersonian terms.
In the spring of 1851, perhaps at the height of Melville’s and Hawthorne’s friendship for each other, Sophia Hawthorne wrote of her intriguing neighbor, “Melville’s fresh, sincere, glowing mind…is in a state of 'fluid consciousness,’ & to Mr. Hawthorne speaks his innermost about GOD, the Devil, & Life if so be he can get at the Truth for he is a boy in opinion—having settled nothing yet.” …When she lights on the words “fluid consciousness,” she describes a characteristic of his mind that pervades not only his fiction but all his writings of the period. The phrase, I surmise, is adapted from Emerson, who wrote, “Nature is not fixed but fluid” as well as “there are no fixtures to man, if we appeal to consciousness”; and it is suggestive that she would draw on Emerson to describe Melville. Emerson too takes uncertainty amid the breakdown of traditional belief as the condition for his endeavor, and glories in the fluidity of mind available to self-emancipated young Americans. --James McIntosh, The Mariner's Multiple Quest in New Essays on Moby-Dick, ed. Richard H. Brodhead, 23-4.
The statements by Emerson that McIntosh cites are from Emerson's famous 1836 work Nature ("not fixed but fluid"), and the First Series essay on Circles ("no fixtures to man, if we appeal to consciousness"). McIntosh correctly identifies Emerson as Sophia Hawthorne's referent, without realizing that her phrase "fluid consciousness" is in fact directly quoted (rather than "adapted") from a different essay by Emerson on Spiritual Laws:
The simplicity of the universe is very different from the simplicity of a machine. He who sees moral nature out and out, and thoroughly knows how knowledge is acquired and character formed, is a pedant. The simplicity of nature is not that which may easily be read, but is inexhaustible. The last analysis can no wise be made. We judge of a man's wisdom by his hope, knowing that the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth. The wild fertility of nature is felt in comparing our rigid names and reputations with our fluid consciousness. We pass in the world for sects and schools, for erudition and piety, and we are all the time jejune babes.  --Spiritual Laws 
Wild fertility! Emerson's idea of "fluid consciousness" is unstoppable biological life, opposed to formal, artificial social conventions. Don't worry I won't pretend to know really what he's talking about, but somehow Emerson associates this inner fluidity of thought and being with "wild fertility" and "the perception of inexhaustibleness in nature" which is to say "immortal youth." That's probably why Sophia Hawthorne called Melville "a boy in opinion." She seems also to have been recasting Emerson's ideas and language when praising the then-unknown author of Hawthorne and His Mosses to Evert Duyckinck, saying of Melville: "The freshness of primeval nature is in that man."

So Melville's mind is fresh and fluid with natural sap, what keeps things (trees, plants, thoughts, writings) green and growing. Yes, I'm thinking we'd better call in a biologist. Or a philosopher, at least. In his great green essay on Beauty in Nature, Michael Popejoy thus paraphrases Emerson:
In nature we observe growth and development in living things, contrasted with the static or deteriorating state of the vast majority of that which is man-made. --Michael Popejoy
You can see Ralph Waldo Emerson's phrase "fluid consciousness" in his "Spiritual Laws" essay at Melville's Marginalia Online, on page 123 in Melville's edition of Emerson's Essays, First Series,

Image Credit: Brain Abundance


  1. > "When I really should be packing for Tokyo"

    Coming back afore breakfast?

    > "Yes, I'm thinking we'd better call in a biologist."

    Melville certainly carried the manic-depression gene that likely killed his father, brother, and son. "Fluid consciousness" would a pretty good clinical description for the hypomanic state, short of disorganized mania, which is the state of maximum creativity.

    You've probably read Jamison's sketch of the Melville family -- you'll find "fluid consciousness" (in so many words) to be characteristic of most of the writers and poets she describes, from Coleridge to Kit Smart.

    1. Jamison is new to me, thanks for the link! So she reads that talk with NH about annihilation as a suicide threat? Interesting how many different takes there are on that one quotation. The "made up my mind" part sounds like it might have been a joke--only funny I guess if you're continually arguing fixed fate vs free will. If that's what he really said. Brian Yothers must have something to say about that in his new book which so far I have only dipped into here and there.