15 December 2011

Herman Melville in Pittsfield, Massachusetts: New England Tour #19

Herman Melville (1819—91) married Elizabeth Shaw in 1847, and in 1950 moved with his family to a farm in Pittsfield in the Berkshires, west Massachusetts, a town he was familar with through his uncle Thomas Melvill. He called it Arrowhead. He had had success with his novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), which was very much inspired by his three-month stay on the Marquesas Islands after deserting the whaler Acushnet, on which he'd spent eighteen months in the early 1840s.

Melville began a brief friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he'd met on Monument Mountain* and who lived a few miles away in Lenox. Melville spent his most productive writing years at Arrowhead. Here he wrote Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852), 'Bartleby the Scrivener' (1853), 'Benito Cereno' (1855), and The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). And of course Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), which he dedicated to Hawthorne. He told his friend Evert A. Duyckinck in December 1850 that life in the country was like being at sea, and that he felt his writing room was a ship's cabin. Arriving very shortly after the season, I was unable to see and photograph his desk.
Unfortunately, Melville's work at Pittsfield was unsuccessful and The Confidence-Man was his last novel. The family returned to New York in 1863. Throughout his life his writings only brought him $10,000. Now, of course, he is recognized as a great writer, and Moby-Dick is generally thought of as one of the greatest American novels.

*William Cullen Bryant wrote the poem 'Monument Mountain' about the legend of the name, concerning the love of an Indian maid for her cousin, which disgusted her elders because they considered it incestuous. She retreated into herself, shunned company and threw herself to her death from the rocks. They buried her on the southern slope and left a simple monument: a cairn to which anyone passing would silently add.

Famously, on 5 August 1850 a group of literary people went for a picnic on Monument Mountain, among them Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James T. Fields, Annie Fields, and Evert A. Duyckinck. After climbing to the top, there was a reading of Bryant's poem, they had lunch in the rocks, and they drank a great deal. The event is commemorated every year by a climb up the mountain.

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