This “all” feeling

You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day. Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling.

Herman Melville wrote this postscript in a letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, June 1851, at the height of haying season. Melville’s “Whale” would go to press in a few months. He was in the grip of a blue devil and half turned away from the idea of this blending into the touch of growing things, but he turned back again to explain it further. I have felt it too, and I’ve been trying, tonight, to figure out how to explain it to someone who has not.

I have only ever found two of Melville’s letters to Hawthorne, in the Berkshire Reader, and they make me wish for more. I love to think of one grown man saying to another, after a fourteen hour day of labor, “you know what it’s like when you lie on your back on the lawn….” It’s an open pleasure, like jumping into leaf piles and whistling on acorn caps, a child’s game in the woods.

Of course, Melville had just spent all day, and all the days and weeks before, pitching cut alfalfa and clover into a pine board wagon and stacking it in a barn, to keep his horse alive through the winter. No wonder he had grass on his mind. (Don’t laugh.) But if he had written this passage as carefree as a boy, or as a farm hand after a long day, I would not have remembered it today, four years after I first read it, and felt drawn to pull it off the shelf again. It means as much as it does because he wrote it as a man, with a nagging soreness in him like toothache, and still he remembered.

Melville had devils enough. He had won overnight fame and lost it again. The farm barely paid for itself. He could see already the end of his friendship with Hawthorne — the letter shows it in Melville’s instinct to grasp at contact between them, and then his hurt backing away. And he had already predicted what would turn out to be the truth: that he would “be worn out and perish like an old nutmeg grater, worn down by the attrition of the wood.”

He was lonely. He was scared. He was making excuses for not leaving the house, and his closest frient lived a long, jolting, five or ten-mile wagon ride away. And, as great an isolation as this, he could not write. “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,” he said, in this great jumble of a letter. Between the day labor and the toothache, he could not achieve “the silent grass-growing mood in which a man ought always to compose.”

But he could remember it. He could call out to a friend who knew it. I think they went together: thinking of Hawthorne, for a moment, unselfconsciously, freely, and thinking of the world not as a numbing job to finish or as an obstacle, but as a broad, warm net of roots. As he touches the grass, he touches the man.

I feel that all feeling clearly, because he needed it so badly. I feel it because he doesn’t. So I have my answer. To make someone want to lie on the grass as desperately as a drunk needs a drink, I have to show them the need.

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2 Responses to “This “all” feeling”

  1. rbarenblat Says:

    You make me want to read their letters, and more, to reread their works; I probably haven’t touched Hawthorne since high school, and I read Moby Dick in Amman back in, I think, 2002…

    thinking of Hawthorne, for a moment, unselfconsciously, freely, and thinking of the world not as a numbing job to finish or as an obstacle, but as a broad, warm net of roots.

    Beautiful. Yes.

    To make someone want to lie on the grass as desperately as a drunk needs a drink, I have to show them the need.

    And, again, yes. That’s it exactly.

  2. springfarmalmanac Says:

    Thank you.

    And thanks, too, for helping me kick off this whole thing. I’m already loving the way this blog lets me talk myself into coherence.

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