“Hawthorne and His Mosses” — Herman Melville

“Hawthorne and His Mosses” by Herman Melville

A papered chamber in a fine old farm-house–a mile from any other dwelling, and dipped to the eaves in foliage–surrounded by mountains, old woods, and Indian ponds,–this, surely is the place to write of Hawthorne. Some charm is in this northern air, for love and duty seem both impelling to the task. A man of a deep and noble nature has seized me in this seclusion. His wild, witch voice rings through me; or, in softer cadences, I seem to hear it in the songs of the hill-side birds, that sing in the larch trees at my window.

Would that all excellent books were foundlings, without father or mother, that so it might be, we could glorify them, without including their ostensible authors. Nor would any true man take exception to this;–least of all, he who writes,–“When the Artist rises high enough to achieve the Beautiful, the symbol by which he makes it perceptible to mortal senses becomes of little value in his eyes, while his spirit possesses itself in the enjoyment of the reality.”

But more than this, I know not what would be the right name to put on the title-page of an excellent book, but this I feel, that the names of all fine authors are fictitious ones, far more than that of Junius,–simply standing, as they do, for the mystical, ever-eluding Spirit of all Beauty, which ubiquitously possesses men of genius. Purely imaginative as this fancy may appear, it nevertheless seems to receive some warranty from the fact, that on a personal interview no great author has ever come up to the idea of his reader. But that dust of which our bodies are composed, how can it fitly express the nobler intelligences among us? With reverence be it spoken, that not even in the case of one deemed more than man, not even in our Saviour, did his visible frame betoken anything of the augustness of the nature within. Else, how could those Jewish eyewitnesses fail to see heaven in his glance.

It is curious, how a man may travel along a country road, and yet miss the grandest, or sweetest of prospects, by reason of an intervening hedge, so like all other hedges, as in no way to hint of the wide landscape beyond. So has it been with me concerning the enchanting landscape in the soul of this Hawthorne, this most excellent Man of Mosses. His “Old Manse” has been written now four years, but I never read it till a day or two since. I had seen it in the book-stores–heard of it often–even had it recommended to me by a tasteful friend, as a rare, quiet book, perhaps too deserving of popularity to be popular. But there are so many books called “excellent,” and so much unpopular merit, that amid the thick stir of other things, the hint of my tasteful friend was disregarded; and for four years the Mosses on the Old Manse never refreshed me with their perennial green. It may be, however, that all this while, the book, like wine, was only improving in flavor and body. At any rate, it so chanced that this long procrastination eventuated in a happy result. At breakfast the other day, a mountain girl, a cousin of mine, who for the last two weeks has every morning helped me to strawberries and raspberries,–which like the roses and pearls in the fairy-tale, seemed to fall into the saucer from those strawberry-beds her cheeks,–this delightful crature, this charming Cherry says to me–“I see you spend your mornings in the hay-mow; and yesterday I found there ‘Dwight’s Travels in New England’. Now I have something far better than that,–something more congenial to our summer on these hills. Take these raspberries, and then I will give you some moss.”–“Moss!” said I–“Yes, and you must take it to the barn with you, and good-bye to ‘Dwight.'” Continue reading ““Hawthorne and His Mosses” — Herman Melville”

Historian Willard Sterne Randall Talks to Biblioklept About His New Biography of Ethan Allen

Ethan Allen is perhaps most noted for leading the Green Mountain Boys on a daring raid to take Fort Ticonderoga from the British. Willard Sterne Randall’s biography Ethan Allen: His Life and Times reveals and explores much more to the Vermont statesman than many fans of American history are likely aware of. Randall also makes good on the promise of the second part of his book’s subtitle, painting the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary years in keen detail. Randall was kind enough to talk to me about his book (which is new in a trade paperback edition from Norton) via email.

Randall has written many books on the American colonial and Revolutionary periods, including biographies of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Benedict Arnold.  He lives in Vermont, where he teaches American history at Champlain College. Check out his website.

Biblioklept: You’ve written books about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, figures who obviously bear considerable influence on American history. Ethan Allen is a less-remarked upon figure. What made you want to tell his story?

Will Randall: When I moved to Vermont thirty years ago after a journalism career, I ran into Ethan Allen’s name everywhereon a ferry, a federal firing range, an old cavalry fort, streets and highways, a bowling alleybut if you asked people what they knew about him, invariably it was with a chuckle and a sign of tippling or a wink and they’d say, “Ole Ethan, that drunk” or “that scoundrel.” Other than that, he knew he had captured a fort with the Green Mountain Boys (their names and his were always run together), but beyond one day at the beginning of the Revolution, they knew nothing.

As I worked on other biographies of more patrician and recognizable revolutionaries, I kept running into Allen’s name. The editors of a new compendium on the American Enlightenment asked me to do a profile of Allen as philosopher: turned out Allen was the first published American Deist philosopher. My son wrote a thesis in college on the precedents of the Union’s treatment of POW’s in the Civil War: turned out it was the treatment of Ethan Allen as a prisoner of the British in the Revolution. Treatment of the British: turned out Allen wrote a memoir of his captivity under horrible conditions for nearly three years as he was shunted by ship from Canada to England to Bermuda to Halifax to New York, etc., while George Washington laid down the law that, as Allen was treated, so would be British prisoners. That narrative turned out to be the second-best-selling book of the Revolution, only behind Tom Paine. And so it went, with virtually every Founding Father in one way or another interacting with Allen while he beat off, with four
volumes and scores of pamphlets of highly-charged words and weapons from clubs and daggers to the heavy artillery that drove the British out of Boston and saved Washington’s army, anyone who tampered with Vermont, which was virtually his creation. That, I decided, warranted a book.

Biblioklept: Allen often comes across as a sort of mythical frontiersman—you note in your prologue that he “projects himself as a populist frontier philosopher on horseback.” How accurate is this reputation?

WR: I think he fills his own bill. He was so popular that some 10,000 people braved February weather in Vermont to come to his funeral (out of a population of 80,000. He spoke for the poor who couldn’t make it in other more hierarchical New England colonies and, after revolting in Massachusetts, fled to Vermont, where he protected them. All his adult life, he took on, in person and in writing, the Puritan theocracy, selling virtually everything he had to attack their Old Testament religion in publishing 1,500 copies of a book, of which only about 200 copies survived the flames of a suspicious fire. While most other Founders prospered from the RevolutionMonticello, Mount Vernon, etc.Allen chose to live out his days in a one-and-a-half story log house with the best view of his beloved Green Mountains and Lake Champlain. There, giving Voltaire’s name to one of his sons, he raised cattle and scribbled away, signing himself, “Clodhopper Philosopher” that the philosophes of Paris read in their salons on the eve of the French Revolution. And what finally killed him: according to a toxicologist I consulted, too much applejack mixed with rum in a “flowing bowl” of punch he consumed liberally in one last party with his Green Mountain Boys.

Biblioklept: At the beginning of Ethan Allen, you point out that there are few books or credible biographies of your subject. I’m curious how this impacted the composition of the book—was it frustrating? Liberating?

WR: Actually, it was liberating. It forced me to employ all the investigative techniques I had learned and made me read as widely as I have with any other Founding Father, following the research wherever it led me.

Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?

WR: Not yet, but they’re getting expensive!