Science and Creativity: How Illness, Medicine, Pseudosciences, and Sciences Have Influenced Selected Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville


The relationships between experience and art are well explored and well known. This paper explores the connections between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville’s writings and their personal experiences. Although they were nineteenth-century writers, they were both influenced in some capacity by science, illness, medicine, and pseudosciences. Hawthorne’s writings that depict science or medicine tend to focus on the human factor and the violation of another’s soul. Melville, on the other hand, portrays a range of scientific and medicinal subjects — from amputations and alcoholism to cetology and ethnology — and offers intricate details to many of these subjects.

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    The writings of both Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne were influenced and shaped by their personal experiences and interests. Topics surrounding science and medicine were just as influential upon these two prolific writers as political and social issues. Philip Sandblom explains this phenomenon with a profound statement in Creativity and Disease: “Whatever the source of creativity, art is always founded on experience; one cannot create from nothing" (11). Melville ranges from the intricate details of surgical procedures to the psychological effects of illness or injury. Hawthorne’s literature depicting science (or pseudoscience), medicine, or illness tends to focus on the human touch and the sin of violating another human being’s soul with few technical details.

    Melville and the Influence of His Seafaring Experiences

    Richard Smith notes in Melville’s Complaint that Melville had firsthand observation of doctors and surgeons attending on board the ships on which he worked, as well as common injuries and medical complaints with sailors (p. iii). Although there is no direct mention that Melville observed delirium tremens (the seizures, tremors, and delirium associated with alcohol withdrawal), it seems very likely that Melville would have encountered a sailor suffering from alcohol withdrawal during his many sea voyages. Smith notes that in White Jacket, Melville mentions that many sailors were addicted to alcohol and would ship out to sea for their daily rations of grog (45). During the voyage discussed in White Jacket, an error in the ship’s supplies lead to an insufficient amount of grog for the voyage, and the entire ship was plunged into alcohol withdrawal. Melville also comments directly on this phenomenon: “Tell him that the delirium tremens and the mania-a-potu lie in ambush for the drunkards” (45). Smith demonstrates that Melville also refers again to delirium tremens as he describes an unfortunate sailor in Redburn: an inebriated (and previously unconscious) sailor, left in the forecastle to sober up, rushed on deck “trembling and shrieking” (37). He jumped overboard after awakening, “raging mad with the delirium tremens.” This event was treated nonchalantly by the crew (36). A large, black volume labeled “Delirium Tremens” was a popular dissertation among the crew (36).

    Amputations were a common occurrence as well, especially in naval and military settings, and Melville’s time on board sailing vessels would certainly have exposed him to this tragic necessity. Smith notes that not only was Melville educated about amputations and the surgery involved, but that he also accurately described this procedure with anatomical detail in White Jacket: “He quoted and gave evidence of a thorough acquaintance with the writings of the most famous surgeons of the day, including Sir Charles Bell, Sir Benjamin Brodie, and Baron Dominique Jean Larrey” (Smith 94). Melville also referenced books by John Hennen and George J. Guthrie concerning amputation from gunshot wounds (Smith 94-95).

    Although amputations are mentioned in minor roles throughout Melville’s works, amputation plays a central role with Ahab in Moby Dick. Smith suggests that the idea of Ahab’s amputated leg may have originated from Beale’s Natural History of the Sperm Whale, as Melville had marked a passage that described the arm amputation of a ship’s mate and underlined “his best friend, his right arm” (69). In another passage, Smith states that another possibility for the idea of Ahab’s amputation by the jaw of a whale may have been derived from Isaac Montgomery. In 1843, Montgomery befriended the king of Hawaii in Honolulu, who employed a royal violinist who lost a leg to the bite of a whale (93).

    Melville contrasts the fury and madness of Ahab and his amputation with the acceptance and tranquility associated with the captain of the Samuel Enderby and his amputation. During his fight with Moby Dick, the Enderby’s captain caught his arm on the barb of a lance, deeply lacerating his upper extremity from below the shoulder to the wrist. The ship’s doctor describes the gaping wound as over two feet long, and when it grew black (indicating necrosis, or tissue death), the arm was amputated. Melville deftly contrasts the two victims of Moby Dick: Ahab, with his “morbid insanity,” and the captain of the Enderby with his “good-natured sanity,” as noted by Smith (85). One captain accepts the outcome and comes to terms with his injury and subsequent amputation, whereas the other tries to defy fate and the gods, becoming a monomaniac on a self-destructive path.

    Ahab continues to suffer from pain long after his amputation, described by the character Captain Peleg as “sharp shooting pains in his bleeding stump” (89). Smith states that Peleg’s description is of causalgia, or phantom limb pain, “a severe, persistent burning pain that may extend past the site of injury due to damage to the nerves of the limb” (95). The severe psychological impact of this loss is evident in Ahab, as he comments to his “man maker,” or the ship carpenter: “I shall nevertheless feel another leg in the same identical place with [the prosthetic]; that is, carpenter, my old lost leg,” and “here is only one distinct leg to the eye, yet two to the soul [;] [w]here though feelest tingling life; there…do I” (513). Some victims of phantom limb pain may suffer from “anxiety about physical and social adjustment, depression, bitterness, and self-pity” (Smith 95). Smith comments that “[e]motional discord may precipitate later recurrence of pain.” Melville, who may also have suffered from similar psychogenic episodes of pain, uses this issue in several works (95). Ahab’s ferocious focusing of all of his life’s tragedies and revenge into Moby Dick could very well have enabled the chronic hindering pain, more so than injury alone.

    Melville and the Influence of Family Illness and Injury

    Another source of stimuli for Melville’s medical references was possibly due to his own family’s involvements with medical personnel who advised and treated their illnesses, both physical and mental. The crippling condition of Tommo’s leg in Typee may very well have been associated with earlier familial lameness, as Smith suggests (5). Herman’s sister Helen suffered from a congenital lameness, but had an operation in 1834 at the age of seventeen, allowing her to ambulate in a normal gait (5). Smith conjectures that the operation Helen underwent was for the correction of clubfoot, or “a reduction of congenital dislocation of the hip and subcutaneous Achilles tenotomy” (200).

    An injury to Melville’s brother may have also provided impetus for this lameness noted in Typee. In 1837, not long after assuming the family hat manufacturing business, Gansevoort injured his foot and ankle, incapacitating him for over a year. Smith notes he was carried from bed to chair during this time (5). The nature of this injury is unknown, but several have conjectured that the chronic nature of his injury may have been psychogenic (or possibly psychosomatic), as common afflictions of the ankle or foot are not prone to cause such long-term difficulties. A letter that Gansevoort’s mother wrote to her brother lends credence to this possibility: “Gansevoort’s Ancle [sic] is about the same in appearance as when he came up” (5). Gansevoort also became irritable and moody during his disability; Hershel Parker’s biography of Melville contains excerpts from family correspondence affirming Gansevoort’s disposition. His mother wrote in a letter to Peter Gansevoort that “[Gansevoort] is less irratable and capable of more self command.” She sent out a letter later the following month that other than being unusually irritable, Gansevoort was “about the same but rather weaker” (133).

    Although Smith suggests that family difficulties may have been part of the motivation for this lameness that Tommo experiences in Typee, Parker states that “[t]he claim of lameness, however, is confirmed by the medical records kept by a doctor at Tahiti and vouched for by Toby Greene in 1846” (216). This confirmation suggests only a mere coincidence between the disabilities Melville’s siblings suffered and Tommo’s lame leg. It begs another question: if this condition was an injury that Melville himself suffered from, did he also suffer from the psychosomatic relapses and recoveries that characterize Tommo’s emotional state? During the course of Typee, the pain Tommo suffered from his injured leg waned and waxed as Tommo’s outlook changes. When Tommo was depressed or pessimistic, he suffered a relapse and his leg hurt worse; when he was happy or optimistic, he recovered and the pain diminished. Although this may have been merely a vessel Melville used to further his theme of reality versus imaginary with Typee, the relationship between an individual’s psychological state and subsequent perception of pain have been well linked, as evidenced in a recent study from Sweden (Kerstin Wickstrom Ene). Patients with depression and anxiety experience higher levels of pain; as pain becomes more chronic, stress and other psychological factors become more influential on pain perception and intensity. In The Twisted Mind, McCarthy connects this possibility of emotional state with Melville’s leg injury: “the protagonist…is prone to depression, fears, and anxieties [and] Melville…was most likely recalling his emotional state at the time” (17).

    Influences of Melville’s Physical Health

    Smith observes that Melville mentions back pain in the majority of his works, something that would beleaguer him in later years (14). Smith also suggests that the inclusion of back pain in Omoo may have indicated that Melville’s battle with back pain started as early as twenty-five (14). Back pain is also alluded to within the opening pages of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Melville describes Nippers, the second copyist, a twenty-five year old who suffers from the consequences of poor posture, bruxism, and arm pain. Nippers is also a victim of back pain, which is caused by his constant stooping to copy documents. As with the leg injury Melville relates in Typee, Melville’s chronic back pain may also have been triggered by stress or his emotional state. McCarthy notes that whenever Melville’s son stayed with them, he began to feel more aches, pains, and anxiety than usual: “Melville suffered from back pains and frequent depressive periods” (125). Smith states that after Melville’s oldest son died from either a self-inflicted or accidental gun shot to the head in September of 1867, Herman was unable to work due to a kink in his back (177).

    Melville also suffered from poor eyesight, a disability alluded to in many of his writings. Smith says that the nature of Melville’s eye trouble is unknown, but he did suffer from photophobia and soreness, his eyes “being tender as dove’s eggs” (112). Smith notes that as Melville developed what would become Moby Dick, he “complained that his eyes bothered him severely at times and was unable to work at night, although he occasionally read over his work with one eye covered” (66). Melville also wrote several entries in his journal in February of 1857 concerning ocular difficulties, as Smith relates: “Eye so bad had to go to room & to bed by 5;” “Eye prevented me from doing or seeing much today;” and “Eye very troublesome” (175).

    A recurrent theme within Melville’s works is illusion versus reality, or that things are not as they initially appear. The possibility arises that Melville’s poor vision and, thus, his inability to discern all objects clearly, insinuated itself into his writings through this theme. “Benito Cereno” is a masterpiece of mystery and is ripe with this same undercurrent of deceiving appearances; Captain Delano’s observations are unreliable, as scenes he originally takes as benign or even pleasant become macabre or menacing. The short story “The Piazza” contains a variation on misleading facades, as the narrator fancifully describes from a distance what seems to be the house in the proverbial land of milk and honey, which becomes nothing more than a forlorn and dilapidated shack upon closer inspection.

    Minor references to eye disability are present in several of Melville’s writings. In Typee, once Tommo was brought into the village, an aged islander “who might be taken for old Hippocrates himself” attended Tommo and his afflicted leg (Melville 2). As Smith notes, the old native arrived, shielding “his feeble vision” from the glare of the sun with a collection of leaves across his brow (2). Smith also mentions that in Moby Dick, Melville uses metaphor of injury as foreshadowing of the tragedy to come: a woman stood under a dull red lamp “that looked like an injured eye” (69). The infamous Bartleby also appears to have suffered from strained eyesight; Melville described his eyes as “dull and glazed” after several long days of copying in dim light. Smith also reveals a striking parallel between a character in The Confidence-Man and Melville’s own difficulties, as the cosmopolitan remarks, “I have indifferent eyes, and will show you; but, first, for the good of all lungs, let me extinguish this lamp” (165). This character, just as Melville, was unable to work by lamplight because of visual difficulty.

    Influences of Cetology on Melville

    Melville’s lengthy descriptions of cetology in Moby Dick are not merely recounts of his experience aboard whaling vessels. Delbanco, Otter Parker, and Smith all disclose that Melville was strongly influenced by both Thomas Beale and Frederick Debell Bennett, who were surgeons on English whaling ships, as American vessels carried no surgeons in the South Seas. He used them extensively as sources while writing, especially with Moby Dick. According to Samuel Otter in Melville’s Anatomies, John Hunter and Richard Owen, prominent British anatomists, were also “pioneering whale anatomists, on whom Beale, Bennett, and Melville all relied” (132).

    Cetology is not the only science Melville delves into within the pages of Moby Dick; he also alludes to the comparative human anatomy science of ethnology. By comparing and contrasting whale anatomy to human anatomy, Melville suggests that cetology and ethnology were intricately bound. Otter comments on this point: “[w]hile it may seem strange…to move from human to whale anatomy, it is a move that Melville makes repeatedly in Moby Dick. It is neither arbitrary nor idiosyncratic” (132).

    Both cetologists and ethnologists deliberated over the proper taxonomy of different whale specimens. Melville makes the point three different times that the “skeleton of the whale does not accurately reflect the shape of the whale’s body.” This cetological difficulty parallels a similar problem in ethnology, and raises doubts as to the abilities of ethnologists to make bones reveal their secrets (Otter 132).

    Otter summarizes how Melville plays upon the two sciences: “[i]n Moby-Dick, Melville employs the whale’s massive corpus as the revealing stage on which to lay out the tragedy and comedy of nineteenth-century bodily investigation” (132). Melville emphasizes that the whale proffers a plethora of prospects for unlocking the mysteries of the head and skin. Thomas Beale, in The Natural History of the Sperm Whale, notes that skin from the whale can be peeled off and cut into large strips. Its epidermis is removable, its rete mucosum (a discolored, jelly-like membrane below the epidermis) is preservable, and valuable oil can be distilled from the blubber, or cutis vera. Melville depicts the process of slicing the skin and cracking into the whale’s skull as “extraordinarily violent and liquid, violating the integrity of the object and threatening to inundate the observer” (Otter 132). Melville twists the intimate anatomical knowledge into cold, materialistic acquisition, as parts of the body become nothing more than merchandise. With this allusion, Melville criticizes the methodology of ethnology, in which the human skeleton is ordered, compartmentalized, and “graded meanings [are] fastened to parts of the body” (Otter 157). The anatomy is made visible and accessible, but with little of the interest and mystery of the original specimen. This cold anatomical calculation that Melville portrays also carries racial undertones. Nineteenth-century ethnologists sought to separate by race, an ideology already echoed in much of the world, particularly pre-Civil War America.

    Otter also argues that ethnology channeled the attractions of the human condition in flesh, spirit, and personal identity and “focused them on the human body defined in racial terms” (143). Otter also quotes the Scottish anatomist Robert Knox: “Race is everything: literature, science, art, in a word, civilization, depend on it” (Otter 143). This quote is the epitome of nineteenth-century thinking, and Melville was well aware of this train of thought, as evidenced by his short story “Benito Cereno.” Parker mentions that “whalemen had to deal with racial rivalries.” He also references Browne’s Etching of a Whaling Cruise, in which Browne complained that the Portuguese crewmen took all the bunks of a particular section and talked only in their native language (Parker 187). “Gees” — slang from the word “Portuguese” that denoted men from the Azores of part-African heritage — were present aboard the Acushnet, and they may have also done the same (Parker 187). Melville, no doubt, experienced this particular form of racism while on board the Acushnet or any subsequent ships.

    Melville and the Influence of Mesmerism

    Melville’s scientific influences stemmed mainly from fairly accurate and grounded sciences, he does reference pseudosciences within some of his works. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s influence upon Melville in this aspect of his writings is possible, as all of the literary references to mesmerism occur in Melville’s writings after 1850 when he befriended Hawthorne, whose writings heavily referenced this same topic.

    Melville uses mesmerism as the vessel for the reincarnation of the Pequod’s crew into an army set on the pursuit of Moby Dick with Ahab at the forefront. Chapter 36, “The Quarter Deck,” is a turning point in the novel, as Smith explains, in which the captain’s motives and character are revealed (Smith 72). The imagery of mesmerism denotes not only Ahab’s stronger will hypnotizing the weaker wills of the crew, but also the violation of one human into the soul of another. This idea of violation foreshadows the upcoming tragedy, when Ahab’s obsessive soul abuses those of his crew to the point of death.

    Melville also uses mesmerism as a character trait, similar to that of Holgrave in Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables. In Melville’s Science, Richard Smith notes that in Melville’s Pierre, Isabel uses a guitar to place Pierre “under a preternatural spell told in the language of mesmerism” (178). Isabel, certain that her guitar once belonged to her mother, becomes a spiritual medium and uses the guitar to call upon her mother’s spirit “with a generous amount of mesmerism…in a more florid treatment of mesmerism than Melville used in…Moby Dick” (Smith 178). Despite only a few mesmeric illustrations in Melville’s work, Hawthorne’s literature is replete with these pseudoscience references, largely due to his own experiences.

    Hawthorne, although never willing to be mesmerized himself, was personally connected with this phenomenon through Sophia. Taylor Stoehr, author of Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists, notes that Sophia Peabody, Hawthorne’s future wife, suffered from possible migraines, “chronic headaches [that] had made her an invalid for years” (38). Her sister Elizabeth had met Charles Poyen, a renowned mesmerist (also known as an “animal magnetist”), during a performance in Boston. After talking to Poyen, Elizabeth discovered her own magnetic powers, and she believed the curative powers of mesmerism could alleviate Sophia’s condition. She wrote to their other sister Mary that she would try magnetism on Sophia. Stoehr notes that although Elizabeth’s success (or failure) is unrecorded, “that was not the end of Sophia’s encounters with magnetizers” (38).

    During a later lecture in Salem by Dr. Poyen, a young dental assistant by the name of Dr. Joseph Emerson Fiske become a “magnetic” convert; at the time, he was working under Dr. Nathaniel Peabody of Charter Street, the “father of the ‘Peabody sisters of Salem’” (Stoehr 38). As Elizabeth had done before him, Fiske had listened to Dr. Poyen, discovered that he himself had these magnetic powers, and offered to help Sophia with her headaches. As Stoehr notes, Fiske had lived a diverse life — not unlike the infamous real-life Dr. Collyer or Holgrave from The House of the Seven Gables — until he settled in Salem (38). Stoehr notes two other interesting connections: Holgrave had practiced dentistry before turning to mesmerism, and Westervelt’s threatening countenance is inflated by a set of perfect, but false, teeth (45). Although there is no proof, Hawthorne could have met Dr. Fiske during one of his many visits to the Peabody household while courting Sophia.

    After Dr. Fiske had successfully magnetized three unnamed subjects, as he wrote in October 1837 testimonial for Animal Magnetism in New England, “he was regularly using his magnetic powers to ease Sophia’s headaches” during the next year (Stoehr 40). Sophia did not tell Hawthorne of these mesmeric treatments by Dr. Fiske. When the Peabodys moved to Boston, Sophia was forced to find a new mesmerist, which she found in a good friend, Mrs. Thomas Park. Because her new mesmerist was female, Sophia felt that she could more easily explain her situation to Hawthorne. Unfortunately, Hawthorne was not as understanding as Sophia had hoped.

    Hawthorne wrote to Sophia, expressing his concerns for her new headache treatment; his letter to Sophia from Brook Farm spoke about “these magnetic miracles” and beseeched her “to take no part in them” (588). Hawthorne’s reply is worth a long quote:

    If I possessed such a power over thee, I should not dare to exercise it; nor can I consent to its being exercised by another. Supposing that this power arises from the transfusion of one spirit into another, it seems to me that the sacredness of an individual is violated by it; there would be an intrusion into thy holy of holies — and the intruder would not be they husband! Canst thou thank, without a shrinking of thy soul, or any human being coming into closer communion with thee than I may? — than either nature or my own sense of right would permit me? I cannot. And, dearest, thou must remember, too, that thou art now a part of me, and that by surrendering thyself to the influence of this magnetic lady, thou surrenderest more than thine own moral and spiritual being — allowing that the influence is a moral and spiritual one…

    Belovedest wife, I am sensible that these arguments of mine may appear to have little real weight; indeed, what I write does no sort of justice to what I think…And thou wilt know that the view which I take of this matter is caused by no want of faith in mysteries, but from a deep reverence of the soul, and of the mysteries which it knows within itself, but never transmits to the early eye or ear. Keep thy imagination sane — that is one of the truest conditions of communion with Heaven…

    October 19th. Monday. — Most beloved, what a preachment have I made to thee! I love thee, I love thee, I love thee, most infinitely. Love is the truest magnetism. What carest thou for any other? (588–590)

    A reference to Elizabeth Peabody later in the letter confirms that Hawthorne was aware of her interest in mesmerism, “and his knowledge of the Peabody family’s eccentricities made Sophia’s susceptibility a present danger” (Stoehr 44). Hawthorne’s strong emotional stance is noticed in the tone of his letter, as it wavers between arguing, demanding, pleading, and even cajoling. Stoehr comments that:

    Hawthorne’s arguments against mesmerism fall into two categories: first, if the claims of the pseudoscientists are true, we are then dealing with spiritual phenomena which we do not understand and which are better left unexplored, for it is immoral and sacrilegious to pry into another’s soul or let someone pry into yours; second, whether or not the phenomena are genuine, association with the unsavory class of people who perform magnetic feats is degrading, and one must expect ridicule, or, what is just as bad, notoriety. (45–46)

    Mesmerism and Sexual Morality

    Hawthorne’s fears of notoriety were not unfounded. Sophia’s own gossip proved this point (Stoehr 47). If one consented to be placed under a mesmeric trance, he (or more likely she) ran the almost certain risk of publicity. Women were more often seen as the somnambulant (and later, medium), as this fit into the emerging Victorian stereotypes of genders. Women were “supposed to be passive, easily controlled by outside forces, and far more sympathetic, religious, and sensitive than men” (Coale 13). These “sleeping beauties” faced public scrutiny — either by being declared “dupes or cheats” or by being held in the same estimation as “show-girls” (Stoehr 47). Accusations of sexual immorality were often directed at the mesmerists themselves, even by “rehabilitated” mesmerists, as evidenced by a quote from the anonymous Confessions of a Magnetiser: “I cannot here refrain from warning young females, and even married ladies, not to trust themselves alone with practical magnetizers” (Stoehr 47).

    Any fame a female somnambulant could expect would most certainly be ill fame, with all of the associated sexual connotations. Hawthorne feared such association if Sophia continued with mesmerism, as evidenced in his letter to her from Brook Farm; these fears also manifest themselves within The Blithedale Romance. These sexual implications are noticeable within the narration: “At the bidding of one of these wizards, the maiden, with her lover’s kiss still burning on her lips, would turn from him with icy indifference; the newly made widow would dig up her buried heart out of her young husband’s grave, before the sods had taken root upon it” (198). The implication is that if the mesmerist can turn hot lips cold, he can also turn cold lips hot.

    Linking sexuality and magnetism was common within the public imagination, and other authors also took up the cause, as in the Confessions of a Magnetiser; the anonymous author offered detailed testimony to these hazards. The author recalled that before his rehabilitation, he “was called on by a young gentleman to aid him in calling back the alienated affections of a young lady to whom he had been engaged…[S]he was completely reclaimed to the young man, and alienated from her other suitor, who without this process, was likely to marry her” (Stoehr 48). Hawthorne echoed this story, in a more satirized form, in The Blithedale Romance:

    Then he tells how, himself a previously married man, and this now married lady, were both well nigh ruined soon after, by their unlawful attachment to each other, which originated during the above magnetic process; and how he was relieved from that wretched condition, by his own wife’s learning magnetism…and then drawing his affections back to herself in the same way; and how the other young married lady, half ruined by her thus divided affections, was again won back to her husband by his magnetizing her again and willing her affections back to himself, keeping the whole process still a secret from her. (198)

    The Influences of Mesmerism in Hawthorne’s Work

    Samuel Coale, in Mesmerism and Hawthorne, states that “[f]rom a moral and philosophical perspective, Hawthorne thoroughly despised the pseudosciences of mesmerism and spiritualism that erupted in American culture in the 1840s and 1850s” (3). As seen earlier, Hawthorne stated his position in the matter rather bluntly, telling Sophia that “I have no faith whatever that people are raised to the seventh heaven, or to any heaven at all, or that they gain any insight into the mysteries of life beyond death, by means of this strange science” (589). Both Stoehr and Coale note that Hawthorne saw the mesmerist as a domineering master that overpowered his victim’s will and thus became guilty of what Hawthorne believed to be the ultimate sin, violating another human’s inner sanctity, the soul. In his work, Hawthorne explored this idea, incorporating his role as a writer: “the temptation of the mesmerist is to behave like the storyteller whose fancies immediately take shape as realities… [T]he unpardonable sin is to be a kind of artist…[Hawthorne] used mesmerism as a metaphor for the writer’s art, and explored the question of his own guilt or innocence in it” (Stoehr 61–62).

    Just as Melville was influenced by famous contemporary figures in the sciences, the mesmeric pseudoscientists appear to have had some bearing on Hawthorne’s characterization in The Blithedale Romance. According to Stoehr, the well-known mesmerist Dr. Robert H. Collyer was working out of Boston during the 1840s, and Hawthorne may have seen Collyer perform his “magnetic feats” in Boston or Salem and possibly modeled Professor Westervelt from The Blithedale Romance after him (35). Hawthorne was at Brook Farm during this time, and might have seen Collyer, “just as Coverdale saw Westervelt, on one of his visits to the city” (Stoehr 35). Stoehr continues, Collyer’s long and less than distinguished career “might have provided coloring for a composite picture of the pseudoscientists…whose chief virtues, like his were ingenuity and brass[;] [a]long with merciless cynicism,” these are the prominent qualities in The Blithedale Romance’s character Westervelt (35).

    Stoehr comments that the “reader familiar with The Blithedale Romance will recognize here [in Hawthorne’s letter to Sophia] the opinions, even the anxious rhetoric of [the] chapter…‘A Village Hall’” (44). In this chapter, a distinction is made between mesmerism — the old spiritualism from the “singular age of 1841” — that serves as a background to the story and the modern spiritualism of 1851, the “epoch of rapping spirits” (Stoehr 170). In The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne characterizes mesmerism mostly as a matter of “the miraculous power of one human being over the will and passions of another,” whereas the latter entails “intercourse with spirits,…goblins,…shadows of past mortality” (198–199).

    The Influences of Injury and Chronic Illness on Hawthorne

    Much like Melville, Hawthorne himself also suffered from injury and a period of chronic pain. According to Whitney, Hawthorne suffered an ankle and/or foot injury while playing ball in 1813 as a child; although the extent of his injury is uncertain, Hawthorne had a long period of recovery. Whitney suggests that “[t]he reasons for the lengthy convalescence may be psychological, rooted in the memory of his father's death as well as of the deaths of his Manning grandmother” (para. 4). In Larry Reynolds’s A Historical Guide to Nathaniel Hawthorne, he notes that after a brief recovery, young Hawthorne again grew ill and, according to his sister, he mysteriously lost the use of limbs (15). Doctors could find nothing physically wrong with Hawthorne, as Reynolds also asserts (15). Although the possibility exists that the doctors simply could not diagnose a disease process at the time, the fact that Hawthorne did not have recurrent ataxic episodes throughout his life suggest a psychogenic etiology. Although only a child at the time, Hawthorne would certainly have been able to empathize with the chronic — and possibly psychogenic — pains Melville also suffered later in life and during their friendship. Hawthorne had been very athletic prior to his injury, and during the course of this long convalescence Hawthorne became a voracious reader, something that certainly played no little part in his later literary career.

    In Invalid Women, Diane Herndl notes that “Hawthorne had represented intellectual men as not at all physical” in stories such as “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” as well as in The Scarlet Letter (102). Those men Hawthorne depicted as physical — such as Silas Foster or Aminadab — are likewise nonintellectual. Herndl notes that these divisions are in accord with the nineteenth-century stereotypes of health and gender roles (102). But could these depictions of sickly and scholarly against physical and nonintellectual be the memory of his earlier ankle injury, where Hawthorne changed from the physical child into the scholarly, secluded “invalid” and acquired his desire for literary pursuit? “Hawthorne…saw himself early as one apart, marked and wounded, a victim with a special destiny,” perhaps similar to the “mad scientists” of his literature (Reynolds 15).

    Sharon Cameron takes a more physical point of view. She compares Melville and Hawthorne in The Corporeal Self: while Melville’s literature — mostly Moby Dick — takes “monster bodies apart,” Hawthorne’s works “take human bodies apart” (77). Many of Hawthorne’s tales are about what happens to parts of the body. The audience must look past the superficial to his underlying allegorical themes, themes that center on the “ultimate sin” — violating the sanctity of another human’s soul. Melville dismantles an object, such as a whale’s body, and tries to answer the recurring question of identity: what elements make a human body?


    Literature is not created in a vacuum; there are a myriad of influences upon any one author. For Melville and Hawthorne, both shared common influences — the personal experiences associated with illness, injury, and contact with doctors, scientists, or pseudoscientists — that had an influential role in shaping elements of their writing. Hawthorne’s tales are full of “mad scientists,” characters like Aylmer and Rappaccini, scientists whose fanatical devotion to their initially good intentions brings them past the brink of sin. Melville draws heavily upon his past nautical experiences, creating a detailed picture of life and death upon the seas and, more subtly, critiques of popular nineteenth-century sciences. Despite the advances of technology and science in the years since Hawthorne and Melville put pen to paper, many of the issues they raised are still relevant and show us that no matter how advanced we think we might be, there exists the most basic and primal issue to consider — the human experience.

    Works Cited

    • Beale, Thomas. The Natural History of the Sperm Whale. London: Comp. Effingham Wilson, 1835. Accessed on 1 December 2006, at <>.
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    • Coale, Samuel. Mesmerism and Hawthorne: Mediums of American Romance. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
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