‘All Beach, Without A Background’ by J P Robinson

Sheltered behind a dune in November 1856, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville raised their voices above the wind. The village behind them was quieter than in the summer season, when mill workers came from inland. Neither liked this unspectacular part of England, or the long beach with broken shells, smoothed by the waves. They shared a cigar and looked to the horizon. Melville told Hawthorne that he was considering suicide.

This was a pilgrimage of sorts for Melville, visiting Hawthorne while waiting for an onward ship from Liverpool to the Holy Land. Hawthorne was American consul in the city, a well-recompensed post in the gift of the President. His stories had made him famous, and he lived out of the city on medical advice, with his children and Sophia, his wife. Her doctor had recommended Southport, this new resort twenty miles up the coast.

Their house, two floors of a three storey building, faced the sea. It had a tall, thin chimney and a patch of grass to the front. Sand gathered against the crude brick wall and disproportionate gate posts. There was a portrait of Queen Victoria in the parlour, where Hawthorne worked on stories that he would leave unpublished, of family secrets and mysteries carried over the ocean. Outside, a man called Caesar shouted at children with a tin megaphone, and collected fees from the tourists walking along The Promenade.

“Southport,” Hawthorne wrote in his diary, “is as stupid a place as I ever lived in; and I cannot but bewail our ill fortune to have been compelled to spend so many months on these barren sands, when almost every other square yard of England contains something that would have been historically or poetically interesting.” The people, he said, “crowd the streets, and pass to-and-fro along The Promenade, with universal and monotonous air of nothing-to-do and very little enjoyment.” In her letters home, Sophia complained that she would “die of ennui in such an utterly stupid, uninteresting, lonely place, where there is no society, no life, no storied memories.” There were pleasure cruises and donkey rides, and a man with a bassoon and a monkey. “It is a pity these poor folks cannot employ their little hour of leisure to better advantage in a country so veined with gold,” Hawthorne wrote.

In his own, sparser diary, Melville remembered the winds at Southport, and his “good talk” with Hawthorne. There was “sand and grass. Wild and desolate.” Hawthorne always called the dunes the “wilderness”, or the “desert”, “nothing but sandy hillocks, covered with coarse grass; and this is the original nature of the whole site on which the town stands.” It was something like the Nantucket of Moby-Dick, which Melville had dedicated to Hawthorne five years earlier: “a mere hillock and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background.”

Nantucket was older though; Southport had been founded a generation after the United States, just a few years before Hawthorne was born. As a young sailor, Melville had visited Liverpool, and wrote about his father’s old guidebook to the city. There were still blank spaces on the enclosed map, he remembered, to the north, where he had crayoned dragons as a child. Even the oldest buildings in Southport were only fifty years old, “a great deal newer than in our new country,” Hawthorne said. There were just a handful of streets, and the shopfronts bore the names of the few families that had become established: Rimmer, Hodge, Robinson. For Hawthorne, whose family first crossed the Atlantic in 1634, whose own village in Massachusetts was the home of Emerson, Longfellow, Alcott, and Thoreau, who was the President’s college friend, Southport was tiresome, and too recent.

The local guidebooks recorded this lack of history. “Few persons have noted Southport in their topographical descriptions,” the books said. “Although excavations have been made in almost every direction, no Druidical altars have yet been found.” “There is, indeed, nothing truly ancient but the sand-hills.” “Oral tradition is frequently vague and uncertain, but this I have not to plead, as the erection of the principal dwellings with their attendant circumstances, is in the memory of many.”

The older residents remembered a time before Southport’s foundation, telling stories that the guidebooks repeated. A man they called The Duke had come in 1792, a publican and gravestone cutter from the next village up the coast. He camped out in the dunes, watching the sea rise, and built a hostelry on the remote shore, from wood salvaged from wrecks. They called it The Duke’s Folly, and it was soon washed away by a spring tide. He recovered the wood, in a little boat, and built something more permanent. Before The Duke, there were just a few mud and thatch buildings scattered in the sands, for the families of fishermen or rabbit farmers. If the area was notable at all, it was for the longevity of the locals, recorded on the headstones in the churchyard in The Duke’s village, alongside the graves of nameless foreigners who had drowned offshore and a man who had been sold into slavery by Barbary pirates.

A new village soon accumulated around the Folly, and a few villas were built close to the sea. A wide main street was laid out, and The Promenade that doubled as a tidal defence. The first guidebook to the village was published less than twenty years after The Duke built his hotel, ten years before Melville was born. It was a phenomenon, the guidebook writers said, this village that had grown from nothing, more like the colonies or ancient history than the uncertain origins of most English towns.

Many of these guidebooks also featured a list of local shipwrecks, compiled by three men “who have often fearlessly risked their own lives, to save the lives and property of their fellow-creatures.” Their brief annotations told sad stories of the crews that had been lost, from Africa or the Americas or Archangel, out-of-towners washed ashore on the tide, sailors dying on the back of fishermen as they were carried to the beach, wrecked schooners and wherries and brigantines.

When they sat in the dunes, that November 1856, Melville and Hawthorne had not seen each other in years. According to Hawthorne’s diary, Melville still had his “characteristic gravity and reserve of manner.” “His writings, for a long while past, have indicated a morbid state of mind.” “As he always does,” Hawthorne wrote, Melville “began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’… It is strange how he persists — and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before — in wandering to-and-fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting.” This would be the last time the two old friends saw each other.

People would speculate about why they became separated, both before Southport and after. Some said it began when Melville pressed Hawthorne to write a story of a strange English shipwreck, and a survivor called Robinson. Others said that Melville loved Hawthorne, perhaps that Hawthorne loved Melville. When he returned from the Holy Land, Melville wrote a complicated, epic poem about his journeys, with a love story that some said was about Hawthorne. When Hawthorne died, back home in New England, Melville visited his grave, though he had not seen him since Southport. He described it as “his hermit mound.”

Melville had always been glowing about Hawthorne’s work – “I feel that this Hawthorne has dropped germinous seeds into my soul” – and annotated his copies of Hawthorne’s novels long after they became estranged. They had written inscrutable letters to each other, back when they were friends, which Melville kept until his death: “I am like one of those seeds taken out of the Egyptian Pyramids, which after being three thousand years a seed, being planted in English soil, it developed itself, grew to greenness, and then fell to mould”; “do send me a specimen of your sand-hill”; “if you find any sand in this letter, regard it as so many sands of my life, which run out as I was writing it.” Hawthorne, for his part, destroyed most of his letters, and asked his family to destroy his diary. When Sophia published it, after Hawthorne died, she removed Melville’s suggestion of suicide.

That afternoon in Southport, the wind carried Melville and Hawthorne’s cigar smoke out of the hollow, disappearing inland, over the plants above their heads. These dunes, the guidebooks said, were “the most kaleidoscope-like, fantastic things that can well be imagined, assuming the majesty of mountains one day, and on the next dwindling to molehills.” “A view of the sea is ever calculated to inspire grand and sublime ideas”, they said. “God did not design that one part of the globe should be totally independent of the rest; on the contrary, he designed that there should be intercourse between all the people of the earth. It was for that purpose that he intermixed it with seas, in order to open a communication between those at the greatest distance from each other.”

The books recommended a farm nearby, which had been subsumed by the sand. It had long been a crime to cut back the star-reed here, for fear of the dunes shifting or the sea overcoming the village. Collectors often picked plants listed in the guidebooks: the common star of Bethlehem, or the devil’s-bit scabious, and its roots that cured plague. Tired women collected sea coal from the beach. Hawthorne and his son had once found a ship’s mast here, covered in barnacles and seaweed. A hundred years before, according to the books, prehistoric canoes had been found nearby, “in figure and dimension similar to those used in America.” Hermits were sometimes discovered in the more remote dunes. A bottle had once washed ashore, containing a suicide note. A medieval village had been lost entirely to the sea.
JP Robinson is a writer and teacher, who lives in West Yorkshire. He has written for various online and print publications. He is on Twitter at @MrJPRobinson.