This week, America celebrates the 200th birthday of Herman Melville. Like Walt Whitman, another foundational American writer with a bicentennial this year, the creator of Moby Dick, Billy Budd and other tales was born in New York State and wrote numerous poems during the Civil War. Unlike the “Sage of Camden,” Melville wrote from a dark vision of humanity in general and America’s mission in particular, and died with his reputation in such eclipse that it would take another three decades for it to emerge from the shadows.
Nearly two years ago, for the third time over the past 30 years, I visited “Arrowhead,” the rambling homestead in Pittsfield, Mass., where Melville lived with his family for 13 years. I took the attached photo during that late-summer 2017 visit.
I’ve always been fascinated by the notion that Melville could write about the sea so much in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, but maybe I shouldn’t be: his imagination was so fertile that he likened Mount Greylock, visible from his second-floor study window, to the white whale that obsessed him.
Because Pittsfield was so inextricably tied to his family’s fortunes, Melville invested an enormous amount psychologically in these grounds. He first came to the area in 1837, at a time when his father’s death had plunged the surviving family members into debt. Working for his uncle Thomas that year, teenage Herman found the experience far different from what he knew in New York: eating well and working in the fields.
More than a decade later, still with these fond memories, he thought it was an opportune time to relocate here from Gotham. This time, though, he had nothing like his earlier carefree experiences.
Herman thought sales of his books would enable him and his family to live comfortably. Inspired by a brief friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne (described in this prior blog post of mine), a fellow Berkshires resident, he created a book on the short list of Great American Novels, Moby Dick. But this turn from adventure fiction to more symbolic, experimental fare sent his sales plunging.
Arrowhead (named after an Indian artifact that Melville found on the property) was, and is, a site of pastoral beauty. But increasingly, it produced problems for the Melvilles.
With wife Lizzie and son Malcolm soon joined by three more children, plus his mother and several sisters, it could not have been an easy environment for Herman to create. His indefatigable attempts to carve out time—notably, writing till 9 pm, when he couldn’t see anymore—strained his health and, his family feared, his sanity. (Afflicted by hay fever, Lizzie had her own health issues in the home.)
In 1863, a financially strapped Melville sold his home to his brother Allan, who expressed his admiration through an inscription on the chimney from Herman’s Piazza Tales story, “I and My Chimney.”
When Melville died in 1891, only a single obit noted his passing. He is read constantly in high schools and colleges now, of course.
But a visit to Arrowhead is a must for any Berkshires travelers, as well as just anyone who wants to better understand this essential writer who still has so much to say to us today about unfulfilling work (“Bartleby the Scrivener”), American race relations (“Benito Cereno”), a leader who drives his followers to catastrophe (Moby Dick), and the national tendency to fall for empty promises and fraud (The Confidence Man).
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