Hats off to Hungary

While reading Typee, I found myself marveling at the sheer density of his descriptions of food on the Marquesa islands. It’s a romance of sorts, so I was expecting and not disappointed by the number of interludes with native girls and such; but food? Why so much attention to food?

Melville wrote Typee while living in Troy, New York (coincidentally the point of origin for the character/ caricature “Uncle Sam”) in 1845 and because of its success he made enough money to finance a home across the Hudson near Pittsfield, Massachusetts he named “Arrowhead” in 1850. I found a letter written December 28, 1851 from Mrs. Sarah A. Morewood, his neighbor, that speaks to hungers of various kinds.

I hear that he is now so engaged in a new work as frequently to leave his room till quite dark in the evening when he for the first time in whole day partakes of solid food— he must therefore write under a state of morbid excitement which will soon injure his health

If he frequently starved himself to write, this might explain it somewhat. Or, it might be the memories of a sailor who had spent much time thinking about food while at sea. But the food references don’t end there, as the letter continues:

I laughed at him somewhat and told him that the recluse life he was leading made his city friends think that he was slightly insane—he replied that long ago he came to the same conclusion himself but if he left home to look after Hungary the cause in hunger would suffer

I pondered a moment what he meant by “the cause in hunger” without any really satisfactory conclusions, but the punning is tantalizing, as is Mrs. Morewood’s further observation:

—Mrs. Melville is looking better in health than I have ever yet seen her look— I am strangely and strongly attracted to her and her family now that I know them as well as I do.

Curiously, a book suggesting an affair between Melville and his neighbor has just been published. What interests me more is the reference to Hungary. Hershel Parker, Melville biographer extraordinaire, has a direct explanation for the passage in his appendix to a volume of Melville’s poetry:

Late in 1851, when all good Whigs and Democrats were telling themselves they had set the slavery issue to rest for their generation by the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Law, Americans gave Lajos Kossuth a triumphal tour of the country on behalf of the liberation of Hungary from Austria at a time when the United States should have been confronting its own political crisis, there was an element of hysterical displacement, a feel-good ineffectual celebration which required no national outlay of money and no commitment of American troops.


Melville would have read in the Literary World of December 6, 1851, the “Lines Addressed by Walter Savage Landor to Kossuth on his departure for America,” an appeal to the north wind Boreas to spare him so that the United States might arm him for a return to his home: “Hungary! no more / Thy saddest loss [Kossuth] deplore; /Look to the star-crowned Genius of the West, /Sole guardian of the oppress. / Oh! that one and only nation dared to save /Kossuth the true and brave!”

Calling this particular passage a “grim pun,” Parker explains it thusly:

His attitude, expressed in a grim pun as he was completing the short version of Pierre, was that if he left home to look after Hungary (that is, to join in the feting of Kossuth) the cause of supporting his family “in hunger would suffer” (.)

800px-kossuth_104th_rsd_jehThis makes as much sense as any other explanation really; though I must say the few pages I scanned from Parker’s two volume biography of Melville contains a great deal of information about Sarah Morewood, which might merit further investigation. Zeroing in on the matter at hand though, Kossuth was revered around the world, including a statue in New York City.

I was intrigued to again find myself face to face with Austro-Hungarian history, as I was before when I was reading a lot about Adolph Loos. Stranger still though, was to find myself enthralled by stories about hats. Apparently, the statue as erected leaves out what Parker feels is the most salient characteristic of Kossuth:

After Kossuth’s departure, Americans, already manifesting a short national memory, turned their attention elsewhere, although for a while people remembered Kossuth whenever they saw an ostrich plume on a man’s hat. The fad he created outlived his cause.

Indeed, there is, as it turns out, a Kossuth hat. A bit of research groups it in a peculiar group of soft felt hats that culminate in the sort of rough-rider hats popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, a popular military headgear in both the U.S. and Australia.

Stephen Beszedits questions the connections between Hungary and the hat though, claiming that the Kossuth hat was the creation of a New York City haberdasher, John N. Genin. He claims that it’s an adaptation of another fad, the Jenny Lind hat, modified with the addition of a feather. However, Kossuth’s revolutionary credibility, and scientific justification, was quickly attached to the headgear, even if they felt the feather was silly.

Buchanan’s Journal of Man a medical journal published in 1851 reported:

The Kossuth Hat.—The Common and Kossuth Hat are thus described in the Scientific American:

“The common silk hats have what are termed felt bodies. These are made of felted wool, are soft and pliable, and allow the gas that passes from the head to escape freely. This is the Kossuth hat. To make it a common silk hat, this felt body is saturated with lac varnish, and a covering of silk plush is ironed on to it, and smoothed to shine like a mirror. This hat, then, the common sober hat, is then hard as sheet iron and quite stiff; it greatly resembles a little pot, and in warm weather it most effectually prevents the evaporation of the pate. It causes headache, makes the hair to decay early in principle: oldish people of a sedate turn, although they would prefer the Kossuth hat, do not like to adopt it just yet, from a prudential fear of becoming conspicuous. This is our feeling exactly upon the subject—we like the black felt ‘Kossuth hat,’ barring the little feather, (that may do well for a military man,) and we hope to see it come into such general use as will warrant us in doffing the hard shelled silk head kettle. There was never more ungraceful head gear than that of the common hat.”

I truly love the image of the conventional hat as a “hard shelled silk head kettle.” It seems no wonder that both the Austrian laden and the Kossuth hat were more attractive to military men who didn’t want to bake their pates. That aside, there is no question that Kossuth had an impact in New York and beyond, with or without his hat. I noted from the Wikipedia page on Lajos Kossuth that there was a street named after him in Utica, NY (about an hour from where I live) so I wanted to figure out why. Looking at a history of Utica from 1900, I found this:

In this year, (1851) the great singer, Jenny Lind, visited Utica and gave a concert in the Bleecker Street Baptist Church.

The following year, Louis Kossuth, the illustrious Hungarian patriot, was received by a committee of citizens (June 1, 1852), and a public meeting was held at the Museum, which stood on Genesee Street between Elizabeth and Bleecker.

There yet remain in Utica a few of the notes, “good for one dollar each, if presented one year after the attainment of Independence by Hungary,” mementos of the patriot fund raised during this American visit.

The location in Utica now looks like this, according to Google:


I’ve driven through here many times. The historian, writing in 1900, is not nearly so dismissive of the Hungarian patriot as Parker, Melville’s biographer. Parker claims that that Kossuth was soon forgotten, as the poets moved on to consider the problems of the unification of Italy. Hungary, like the Greek battle for independence that so obsessed Byron, faded from the cultural consciousness.

In the shower this morning, I suddenly thought to myself that the flood of Italian immigrants to America would have been just a bit after this; I wondered about the lyric in Yankee Doodle about “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” might have been somehow related. I was wrong, as Wikipedia points out that a Macaroni is a completely different sort of head gear from a much earlier time.


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