Writers alive: Novels take to lawns and streets


Tip back a harpoon ale at an outdoor table, talking about Ishmael and Queequeg's meet ing at the Spouter Inn as they set out after Moby Dick.

Stand on a roof on a June morning, reading the opening lines of James Joyce's "Ulys ses" aloud -- or lean back in a hayloft in the evening, ending the book with Maggie's invincible "Yes."

Overhear Edith Wharton talking to her teacher and companion of 40 years, with a bright afternoon view over her lawn to the lake.

Books come alive in the Berkshires this summer.

Stories fill the county with glee -- readings, writing work shops, playwrighting labs and the Word x Word Festival. Williamstown's Bloomsday tribute to Joyce on June 16 is growing.

And two celebrations will expand into months of spoken words and art and music. The Mount in Lenox heads a year-long gala for Edith Wharton's 150th birthday, and "Call Me Melville" brings Moby-Dick to the streets of Pittsfield for 135 days -- one day for each chapter.

A good novel makes you feel alive when you read it, because the writer felt alive when she wrote it.

As the Mount launches "21st-Century Muse," Whar ton fans around the country have come forward to say she matters to them. More than 500 people came to the Mount on Whar ton's birthday to start the year, said Rebecka McDoug all, communications director at the Mount. They care that much.

This summer, at her home, visitors can meet her up close.

Irene Goldman Price will open the Mount's season with Wharton's letters to Anna Bahlman. Price has edited these newly discovered letters into a book, released in June.

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Hear Wharton as a teenager, full of questions, eager for intelligent criticism of her poems, and moved by the landscape and the light around her and a new litter of puppies at a nearby farm.

Susan Wissler, director at the Mount, and Nynke Dor hout, librarian, kept coming to each other as they read the letters, to share new details. Here Wharton speaks as an adult novelist and active explorer.

"She walked, hiked, biked, went ice skating on the Charles (River)," McDougall said.

As the summer goes on, Wharton will speak aloud in her own words. The Wharton Salon will perform "The Inner House," a play adapted from Wharton's memoir, "A Back ward Glance."

McDougall hopes to see people joining in conversations around Wharton's ideas and arguments, including women's power to think, to be curious and to make decisions -- all highly relevant today, she said, as recent political debates are proving. She hopes to see children turning the gardens into imaginary rooms and teens reading on the terrace.

She hopes they will make the place familiar.

At Arrowhead, Melville's historic home, his imagined world is taking shape in paint, music and boat-sized straw sculpture.

In "The Genius of Place: Landscape and Inspiration," Arrowhead will show sailor art, including scrimshaw, and Poly nesian tattoo art. Melville would have known these designs from his whaling voyage and in the South Pacific islands where he lived for several months, said Betsy Miller, director at Arrowhead.

"The people in the Mar quesas were amazing artisans," she said; drawings from 18th century show men and women decorated head to foot.

She and Megan Whilden, director of cultural development for the city of Pittsfield, have invited people to share their fierce love for the world Melville wrote into being. Bill Petit, a landscape painter from Albany, collects copies of "Moby-Dick," Miller said. He now has more than 200, and he blogs about the people who owned them. He will talk and paint at Arrowhead.

"A novel about obsession invites obsession," Whilden said.

The summer-long celebration "Call Me Melville" will overflow in music and theater, and in outdoor art all through downtown Pittsfield, and Mi chael Melle's straw sculptures at Arrowhead will show the size of a breaching whale.

Whilden and Miller want this festival to reach people who do not know Melville's books, or who were made to read "Moby-Dick" in high school and tuned it out.

Whilden will be part of a reading of "Moby-Dick," a chapter a day, with an online discussion group, and she hopes to encourage readings of some chapters aloud at fitting times and places.

Chapter 9, "The Sermon," will fall on a Sunday, for exa mple, and Melville's sermon may intertwine with a sermon at a local church.

Imagine a restaurant, a bar or a shop on North Street full of people all living, at that moment, on the gristly deck of a whaling ship in the northern sea. Hearing a story read aloud, with people listening on all sides, can open the writer's world. Think what the listeners would say to each other afterward, on the sidewalk in the summer night.

Or walk through the woods around the house where Mel ville wrote "I and My Chim ney" and "Piazza Tales" and struggled to farm. Have a beer in the garden where the outline of Mount Greylock against the sky reminded him of the back of a sperm whale surfacing above the sea.

What: Summer-long gala of art, music, theater, poetry and more, accompanying community read of ‘Moby-Dick' and honoring Herman Melville's life and work in the Berkshires

Where: Arrowhead, Holmes Road in Pittsfield, and downtown Pittsfield

When: Kicks off at Arrowhead May 26. Events, reading and online discussion of ‘Moby-Dick' and exhibits continue throughout the season.

Schedule: (413) 499-9348, www.callmemelville.org


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