Pages

Friday, August 5, 2016

FRIENDS | Great Writing Companions (August)

Melville (L) and Hawthorne first met this day in 1850.
They are an example of a literary friendship that is associated
with the peak productivity of both writers.
Aug 5, 2016–By an accident of the calendar, three events occurred this day that highlight the importance of friendships in literary history.

One is the meeting of Melville and Hawthorne, who are part of the core curriculum of American high schools and therefore of American culture.

Another was the birth of Guy de Maupassant, whose stories are often assigned in school.

The Inklings group at Oxford and the Bloomsbury group in London, and the Round Table and Coffee House Club in New York City are more prominent examples of literary circles.

We sometimes forget the role of smaller or short-lived writing friendships.

Max Eastman, editor of the historic magazine The Masses, shut down by the U.S. Post Office in 1917, wrote about his own literary and personal friendships in his book Great Companions.

This fifth day of August highlights three pairs of friends who illustrate three major forms of literary friendship–parallel productivity (Melville and Hawthorne), mentoring (Flaubert and Maupassant) and exchange of letters (Snyder and Berry).
  • In 1850, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne (parallel productivity) met through a picnic at Monument Mountain near Stockbridge, Mass. Melville followed up by visiting Hawthorne at his red farmhouse close by in Lenox, where Hawthorne gave him two bottles of champagne.  For a year and a half, they kept up their friendship living six miles apart. It was the most productive time in their writing lives–their five greatest books were being written or published. The House of the Seven Gables was written in 1850 and published in 1851. The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick (dedicated to Hawthorne in 1851) were published a year apart. Melville's The Blithedale Romance (1952) and Melville's Pierre; or The Ambiguities (1852) were written while they were neighbors.
  • In 1850, the great French short-story writer Guy de Maupassant (mentored by Gustave Flaubert), was born in Normandy. Gustave Flaubert used to have him to lunch on Sundays, and he would discuss Maupassant's writing. Flaubert considered him his disciple and introduced him to Émile Zola, Ivan Turgenev, and Henry James. Maupassant began publishing his first stories a few weeks before Flaubert's death in 1880. Flaubert praised Maupassant's first short story, "Boule de Suif" extravagantly and it is still considered one of his best stories. Maupassant takes a realistic/pessimistic view of the world and anticipates the realistic writers of the 20th century,  many of whom praise his work. In the 1880s, Maupassant wrote most of his work–300 stories and five novels. In the 1890s he became self-destructive, and he died in 1893.
  • In 1934, Wendell Berry, friend of Gary Snyder (exchange of letters), was born near Port Royal, in Henry County, Kentucky.  Berry, who considers himself a Christian, criticizes other Christians who fail to take environmental issues seriously. He also takes strong positions on the death penalty, nuclear power plants and the war in Vietnam. In 1973, he began corresponding with California poet Gary Snyder, a practicing Buddhist. Berry worried about fighting evil, but Snyder responded that his real enemy was "ignorance, stupidity, narrow views". Over four decades they exchanged 250 letters on writing, religion, farming and philosophy that are collected in Distant Neighbors (2014).

I am grateful to Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac blog for noting these three events today.