Thursday, February 23, 2017

Sophia Hawthorne's view of Melville: "free, brave & manly"

Sophia Hawthorne, September 4, 1850 letter to her mother Elizabeth [Palmer] Peabody
via The New York Public Library Digital Collections
In Herman Melville: A Biography (V1.773) Hershel Parker calls this "by all odds  the fullest such description of Melville known to exist." Most recently, Sophia Hawthorne's physical description of Herman Melville in 1850 has been reprinted in Melville in His Own Time, edited by Steven Olsen-Smith. Now you can see online what Sophia Hawthorne wrote in manuscript, courtesy of The New York Public Library Digital Collections
To day Mr Hawthorne & Mr Melville have gone to dine at Pittsfield. Mr. Tappan took them in his carriage.... This would have been no particular courtesy in some persons, but for this shy dear, who particularly did not wish, for some reason to be introduced to Mr Melville, it was very pretty. I have no doubt he will be repaid by finding Mr Melville a very different man from what he imagines - & very agreeable & entertaining - We find him so - a man with a true warm heart & a soul & an intellect - with life to his finger-tips - earnest, sincere & reverent, very tender & modest - And I am not sure that he is not a very great man - but I have not quite decided upon my own opinion. I should say I am not quite sure that I do not think him a very great man - for my opinion is of course as far as possible from settling the matter. He has very keen perceptive power, but what astonishes me is that his eyes are not large & deep. He seems to see every thing very accurately & how he can do so with his small eyes, I cannot tell. They are not keen eyes, either, but quite undistinguished in every way. His nose is straight & rather handsome, his mouth expressive of sensibility & emotion. He is tall & erect with an air free, brave & manly. When conversing, he is full of gesture & force, & loses himself in his subject. There is no grace nor polish. Once in a while his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression out of these eyes, to which I have objected--an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel - that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. He does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into himself. I saw him look at Una so yesterday several times.

He says it is Mr Mathews who, writing in the Literary World the visit to Berkshire, Mr Mathews calls Mr. Hawthorne "Mr. Noble Melancholy" in the August number of the paper. You know what you read was the Introduction only. It is singular how many people insist that Mr. Hawthorne is gloomy, since he is not. He is pensive perhaps - as all contemplative persons must be, especially when as in him "a great heart is the household fire of a grand intellect" (to quote his own words).
From the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The New York Public Library. "Peabody, Elizabeth [Palmer], mother, ALS to. Sep. 4, 1850." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1850.

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