“You are about to celebrate a picnic that changed the course of American literature,” announced Gordon Hyatt, a gentlemanly former CBS documentary producer who was raised in the Berkshires and who developed a strong interest in local cultural history. He addressed us from atop a picnic table at the base of Monument Mountain, a lowish peak that flanks the west side of Route 7 between Great Barrington and Stockbridge, Massachusetts. There were around 20 of us gathered to mark the anniversary of a simple but extraordinary walk. On August 5, 1850, Herman Melville, summering at his late uncle’s estate in nearby Pittsfield while writing a whaling adventure, met Nathaniel Hawthorne, who, fresh off the success of The Scarlet Letter, was booted from his job in the Salem Custom House and headed west to Lenox with his wife and toddler. The occasion launched one of the most momentous and speculated-upon friendships in literary history.

I was there on a blistering Sunday morning, three days after Melville’s 200th birthday. A couple of years ago I picked up a novel, Mark Beauregard’s The Whale: A Love Story, which posits an amorous relationship between Melville and Hawthorne, 15 years his senior, ignited that day in the Berkshires, where the book, which uses both writers’ actual words in a fictionalized context, begins. Turns out, the likelihood of a Melville-Hawthorne affair has been debated openly in the academy since the 1950s, even though it was not much discussed in the broader culture (not all that surprising in a country where same-sex marriage was legalized only in 2015). “Read what’s on the page in Melville’s books and letters and Hawthorne’s journals,” says Beauregard. “It’s very clear what’s going on.” Particularly, he notes, in Moby Dick, a draft of which the married Melville was immersed in the day the two men clicked. It is, however, generally accepted that—with or without consummation—the friendship had a massive influence on Melville’s work.

A Sentimental Journey

I had taken this walk before—the mountain is an hour’s drive from my house—but never with a sense of its multi-tiered consequence. It always felt like a typical mossy New England trail, edged with ferns, swooping with birches. From the study of Arrowhead, the property he would soon buy in Pittsfield, Melville could see Mount Greylock, the giant of the Berkshires, whose contours resemble those of a sperm whale, and wrote that the feeling was more sea than country. I don’t suggest that this landscape is what inspired the writer—he was, after all, a former sailor on whaling ships—but, indeed, at times on the path strewn with large, gray quartzite outcrops, it seemed like we were walking through pods of whales, arcing and breaching through the forest.

The path was blanketed with pine needles and occasionally bisected by downed trees, and we crossed shaky tracts of sunlight that dropped through the leaf cover. We were brushed by the first serious breeze I’d felt this whole summer, sidelining the mosquitoes that had been near Biblical-pestilence levels during the thickest globally warmed July yet recorded.

It’s unlikely the landscape has changed much since 1850, when the illustrious gang of Bostonians and Manhattanites hoofed up in their Victorian iteration of athleisurewear. The party was planned by New York lawyer David Dudley Field, who, on the Friday train to Stockbridge, ran into Evert Duyckinck, the publisher of The Literary World, the New York Review of Books of its day, and writer Cornelius Mathews, both en route to visit Melville for the week. The outing included local luminaries: Hawthorne, his publisher James T. Fields and wife, Eliza, and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who, in true Brahmin style, hauled chilled Heidsieck in his medical bag. Halted by thunderstorms, Holmes fashioned an umbrella out of branches, cracked open the champagne, and Mathews declaimed “Monument Mountain,” a poem by William Cullen Bryant about a lovesick American Indian who cast herself onto the rocks below.

One of the many missives from Melville to Hawthorne.

Several in the party wrote accounts of the day, notably Mathews, in prose all hues of purple, for The Literary World. He assigned everyone nicknames: Hawthorne, known for his gloomy demeanor, was “Mr. Noble Melancholy,” and Melville was dubbed “New Neptune.” Melville perched himself on a jutting rock to demonstrate how to haul in a sail, “certainly fancying himself among the whalers of the Pacific,” wrote Mathews.

An Homage to the Giants

When we reached the summit, the outline of Mount Greylock was surprisingly clear in the high-noon sunshine, and yes, it absolutely looked like a leviathan on the horizon. Here stood Melville, rain-soaked and buoyant, in the presence of this stirring new acquaintance, to whom he would dedicate Moby Dick when it was published a year later.

The 1850 party relocated to a rollicking lunch at Field’s house, and another walk in the woods. Soon after the excursion, Melville, mesmerized by Hawthorne and his prose, wrote what amounted to a love letter, praising the older writer to the skies, calling him a genius, all but anointing him the American Shakespeare. Melville immediately bought a farm and moved his whole family to the Berkshires. The friendship became intense and consuming, as they met on many documented occasions, unusual for the withdrawn and reclusive Hawthorne. Melville, in his letters, often deifies his new friend: “The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds.”

Hawthorne’s influence on Melville’s work is, by most accounts, immeasurable. Perhaps he was the perfect sympathetic audience as Melville revised Moby Dick, and provided a role model that his protégé would eventually surpass. “Hawthorne was not promoting evil, but dealing with it in an honest way that wasn’t being done by writers at the time,” said Melville scholar Jonathan Cook. “In that, he became Melville’s literary mentor.”

Melville, in his letters, often deifies his new friend: “The divine magnet is in you, and my magnet responds.”

Hawthorne criticized religion and challenged the evangelical clichés of the time, and was not afraid to do so. This emboldened Melville to be free to say what he needed to say. “His example gave Melville courage and permission to go as dark—as Shakespearean dark—as he needed to go,” said John Bryant, author of the forthcoming multi-volume biography Herman Melville: A Half-Known Life. He may even have created Ahab with pointers from his own review of Hawthorne’s work. If he can do it, I can do it, and do it better, he may have thought. The result: a mentally tortured monomaniacal soliloquist, a Lear and Macbeth rolled into one, in American idiom.

But what about the romance? On this mountain, it was beside the point. What we do know is that Melville created Ahab, this premonitory character and template for all demons and demagogues, past and present, with irrational obsessions that lead to the indiscriminate destruction of all. He wrote an allegory that was also a great whaling story, and he wrote it for many more months after that fateful August morning. One day—but not until well after his death—Moby Dick would become the cornerstone of American literature.

My family and I went downhill on a separate path from the group, and had the woods to ourselves. Here we were in New England, land of Emerson, Thoreau, Frost, Hawthorne, and Melville. Men whose writing was deeply informed by the sacred landscape in which it takes place. There is something about the earth itself in these parts, this closed, moody, and uniquely American geography, that is as permanent, and sometimes as dark, as the literature it inspired. Maybe I made this quest, and all the others, to reinforce a hunch. That sometimes, a writer’s life story is as indelible as his or her words. And sometimes as inscrutable.

Marcia DeSanctis is a writer based in Litchfield County, Connecticut