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Herman Melville’s Pittsfield

The historic site Arrowhead is going further afield in presenting the life and times of the Moby-Dick author

by Ann Morrow on July 3, 2014

 

Herman Melville liked to grow pumpkins, and he liked to feed his pumpkins to his horse and cow. Known to posterity as one of the greatest American novelists in literature, and forever linked with high-seas adventure, Melville also was a farmer who spent his happiest years on a small farm in Pittsfield, Mass. Moving to the farm from Lansingburgh in 1850, he named it Arrowhead, after the Indian artifacts that he found on the property. It was here that he penned the world classic Moby-Dick, in his second-story study with a view of Mount Greylock.

Photo by Ann Morrow

To the chagrin of his neighbors, Melville built a piazza-style porch on the north side of the house instead of the south, shunning the sunshine to take advantage of the mountain views. This is where he wrote “The Piazza,” a short story extolling the beauty of the Berkshires (“the scenery is magical”). It was also in the Berkshires that he entered into the defining friendship of his life: with Salem writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had just started a novel about a house with seven gables. So close were the two authors (both happily married) that Hawthorne’s guest bedroom was within Melville’s writing-room sanctuary.

These rooms retain a powerful sense of place, with Mount Greylock rising in the distance through a window like the surfacing whale that Melville likened it to. Originally an inn, the house still has its 1700s fireplace, which Melville immortalized in “I and My Chimney.”

Arrowhead today is the home of the Berkshire Historical Society, a private nonprofit organization that maintains it as a house museum. The society’s visitor’s center and exhibit space are in the barn that Melville’s well-to-do brother built. Farming wasn’t just a pastime for the author: A father of four, Melville needed to work the fields to put food on the table. He did, however, have a modicum of success with The Piazza Tales.

“Arrowhead is our largest artifact,” says Peter Bergman, a BHS director. During a tour, Bergman describes how Melville’s surroundings influenced his writings, along with little-known personal anecdotes, such as how Melville was barred from attending Hawthorne’s funeral by his widow because of the intensity of his idolization.

Melville and Hawthorne were introduced during a picnic hike on nearby Monument Mountain (among the party was another Pittsfield luminary, Oliver Wendell Holmes). At the time, Hawthorne was being celebrated for The Scarlet Letter, and Melville anticipated a similar reception for Moby-Dick, which he dedicated to Hawthorne. The novel flopped. So did his next book, Pierre, which was ridiculed by critics.

Melville never recovered from the crushing disappointment of having his masterwork ignored by the public. Perhaps almost as hard on the struggling writer was that soon after, Hawthorne left the Berkshires and returned to Concord. Melville eventually had to sell Arrowhead—it was purchased by his brother–and he spent the next 20 or so years as a customs clerk in New York City, furiously writing poetry in private.

The Capital Region also has claim on Melville as a native son. His mother, Maria Gansevoort, was of the Old Dutch Albany family. When he was 11, Melville’s merchant father went bankrupt, and the family moved from New York City to Albany (to a house near the Palace Theatre), where his father died two years later, leaving the family deeply in debt. Maria and her eight children moved to a lower-rent house in Lansingburgh (now the Herman Melville House and home to the Lansingburgh Historical Society), where young Herman would watch shipbuilders and sloop captains at work on the river.

He escaped the dire poverty of his youth by signing aboard a whaler, and the rest is literary history: His first two books, the South Seas adventure tales Typee and Omoo, (written in Lansingburgh), were successful here and abroad, eventually allowing him to buy a house in the area he was most attached to, by the old post road in Pittsfield. That’s where his uncle had a large farm and where Herman spent many pleasant sojourns. Arrowhead adjoined his uncle’s stead (now the Pittsfield Country Club) and it stayed in the family until 1927.

Arrowhead director (and playwright) Peter Bergman at the site's theater barn, photo by Ann Morrow

BHS restored the farmhouse to its condition when Melville lived there, and bought back a portion of his farmland. The society hosts a sculpture-in-the-field exhibit every summer; last year a local artist created a whale’s head thrusting out of the ground, with a capsizing ship sinking beneath waves of grass. The society’s recently expanded programming also includes exhibits on county history and local arts, and theater productions—Bergman is also a writer, and his social-history play, Maids in the Mills (the oppression of working-class women was a concern of Melville’s, too) is having a revival run this month at the Arrowhead barn.

The barn has sliding doors allowing the space to incorporate the outdoors. “It’s a major advantage in all sorts of ways,” says Bergman of the structure. The society also published a book this year, Power of Place: Herman Melville in the Berkshires, which expands upon the Melville Trail, a map of the notable Berkshire locales in Melville’s life, such as Hancock Shaker Village, which he liked to visit, and the Berkshire Athenaeum, which has a Melville memorial room with artifacts and research materials.

An important new addition to the site is the society’s community co-op agricultural program, which is returning some of the grounds to their original purpose, bringing visitors that much closer to the author’s daily life.

“The farm, having a sense of farming, it adds a new element of living history,” says Bergman. Heirloom vegetables and heritage-breed chickens now share in the site’s pastoral beauty.

Within Arrowhead there is an enlarged photo of the farm from 1862, with the figure of Melville barely noticeable in an upper corner. He is standing next to a horse and wagon. Though his face can’t be seen, somehow this moment in time gives the impression that this man, as much as the adventurous young seafarer he was and the madly driven poet he would become, is equally a Melville worth getting to know.

 

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Update: A second photo has been added to the original post.