A celebration of literature at Melville’s Arrowhead
Photos by Christina Rahr Lane
For more than a century and a half, ever since Herman Melville gazed due north from the window of his study at Arrowhead and spied the double hump of Mount Greylock and Saddleback in the distance—a sight that would ultimately inspire his rendering of a great white whale rising from the ocean—authors have been drawing inspiration from the undulating Berkshire Hills and the surrounding landscape.
In the winter of 1850-51, Melville penned Moby-Dick from his farmhouse on Holmes Road in Pittsfield while Greylock stood witness in the distance. His contemporary, Nathaniel Hawthorne, lived six miles away in Lenox, holed up on the shores of the Stockbridge Bowl writing The House of the Seven Gables. And it was upon the steep slope of Monument Mountain that these two authors met, on August 5, 1850, while in the company of Oliver Wendell Holmes who had arranged a picnic at the summit, an excursion punctuated by a thunderstorm and now considered the most famous short hike in American literary history.
The friendship between Melville and Hawthorne was both fledgling and fleeting. In a scant two years, Melville completed what is today considered his great literary masterpiece (despite the fact that fewer than 4,000 copies were sold in the 40 years before his death), with a dedication to Hawthorne: “In token of my admiration for his genius.” Hawthorne is largely credited for steering both the direction and tone of his friend’s novel from a mere adventure story into a creative and philosophical undertaking. Melville’s connection to Hawthorne during these formative years—one marked by companionship and conversation—was second only to his connection to the natural landscape that enveloped him on his 160-acre farm.
The author wrote to Hawthorne of his penchant “to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of Arrowhead.” It was from this vantage point that Melville imagined colonies of fairies on the mountain, which gave rise to “The Piazza,” written at Arrowhead in 1856, in which the narrator “recalls [his] inland voyage to fairy-land.” Supposedly, the other tales in the short-story collection, The Piazza Tales, were dreamed up on this eponymous spot.
This convergence of literature and place is being celebrated by the Berkshire County Historical Society at Arrowhead this summer, as evidenced by the installation of various fairy figures—life-size hay and stick sculptures in graceful motion created by artist Michael Melle—across both the grounds and piazza.
Melville’s view from the piazza, directly beneath his study, afforded him majestic prospects of both Mount Greylock and the fields he cultivated to feed his family. This outlook resulted in Pierre, a work published in 1852 and dedicated “to Greylock’s most excellent majesty.” The lengthy inscription declares, “Majesty is all around us here in Berkshire, sitting as in a grand Congress of Vienna of majestical hill-tops.”
The more than 42 acres that remain at Arrowhead, so named for the American Indian artifacts Melville often found when tilling his fields, are populated with abundant wildflowers, including historic red clover, Melville’s favorite. In many ways, time stands still here. Local author and Berkshire resident, Jana Laiz, writer-in-residence at the property, declares it “the most magical place I’ve ever had the opportunity to sit and write—an amazing place.” Her vantage point is from the second-floor study, where she enjoys same views as Melville once did.
“It has been a tremendous inspiration,” she adds, “a very spiritual experience [to sit] where Herman Melville sat before me.” And she does, quite literally, occupy his seat, having penned her own masterpiece, Billy Budd in the Breadbox, a work of historical fiction for kids about Melville’s life. The book, due out in September, is told through the perspective of his granddaughter, Eleanor, who found his unfinished manuscript in a tin breadbox more than 15 years after his death. Melville’s wife was thought to have cleared his desk of papers in an attempt to protect his work from critics. Eleanor’s discovery, consequently, led to a resurgence of interest in the life and work of her grandfather, a fairly forgotten figure since his death in 1891.
The lush and verdant Berkshire Hills have a legacy of inspiring authors. Edith Wharton saw “delicate blue shadows on the snow” at the Mount, which led to the dramatic sledding scene in her 1911 novel Ethan Frome.
As for the reality of “some haunted ring where fairies dance” as imagined by Melville, one need but venture to the shaded piazza at Arrowhead and behold the power of place to decide.
In addition to Michael Melle’s straw figures, currently on display, “Enchanted Berkshires: Where Fairies Dance” will open on August 14 at Arrowhead, 780 Holmes Road, Pittsfield. The multi-level exhibit will feature a collection of more than 30 unique, artist-created fairy houses displayed around the property through October 15. For more information, contact the Berkshire Historical Society at Herman Melville’s Arrowhead or call 413-442-1793.