'We're just so much more than Melville'
The 200th anniversary of Melville's birth offers ample opportunity to revisit writer's Pittsfield home
PITTSFIELD — It's not a towering mansion with a hand-crafted landscape like Edith Wharton's The Mount, and a pool isn't waiting in its shadows as it is at Edna St. Vincent Millay's Steepletop. But the modesty of Arrowhead, Herman Melville's old Pittsfield farmhouse, pronounces it a writer's home, one that resonates with generations of scribes coping with hardscrabble lives.
"This is not one of those Berkshire cottages," guide Richard Matturro said during a Wednesday tour of the property.
The New Lebanon, N.Y., resident described the house that Melville lived in from 1850 to 1863 as comparable to that of a "moderately successful farmer" during that epoch. "Moderately successful" would have been a kind label for Melville's prose in the mid-19th century; "Moby-Dick," the epic tale that Melville started in New York but predominantly penned at Arrowhead, wasn't well-received upon its publication in 1851, and the author spent much of his life owing money to various people. It wasn't until decades after his 1891 death that Melville's reputation began to rise precipitously. Today, "Moby-Dick" is deemed one of the great American novels, which is why the 200th anniversary of his birth on Aug. 1 is an occasion already receiving international media attention. For the Berkshire County Historical Society, which has owned the house for decades, the bicentennial is an opportunity to remind the community of the organization's local significance through a slew of programming.
"I talk to a lot of people, and they don't even know that the Berkshire Historical Society owns Arrowhead," said Lesley Herzberg, the organization's executive director. "They know Arrowhead, but they have no idea that we as an organization actually operate Arrowhead. We have our own separate collection that has nothing to do with Herman Melville, but really has a lot to do with Berkshire history."
In the future, Herzberg, who was named to her current position in April, imagines presenting some of those artifacts from the county's history at area schools. The Pittsfield resident wants to increase the number of Arrowhead access points and perhaps start a pollinator habitat in the field on the 45-acre property.
"There's a new rejuvenation in terms of what we can be, and it's really exciting," she said.
The coming week, however, belongs to Melville, and those hoping to learn more about the famous scribe would be wise to go on one of Arrowhead's site tours. A novelist and former literature professor at the State University of New York at Albany, Matturro leads Wednesday afternoon sessions, applying his literary lens to Melville's life. The volunteer stressed that he's not a Melville scholar — Shakespeare is his specialty — but he used to frequently teach "Moby-Dick." Captain Ahab is perhaps the only character in American literature that conjures some of Shakespeare's most complex figures for Matturro.
"'Moby-Dick,' I think, is just a wonderful work of art," he said.
Over the course of an hour, the guide gives a primer on Melville's lineage and the ins and outs of a structure that dates back to the 18th century, an abode that inspires some of Melville's prose. Along one side of the home, the Mount Greylock-facing piazza gets its due in his short story collection, "The Piazza Tales." In the dining room, Melville's brother, Allan, had the words to Melville's story, "I and My Chimney," inscribed around the fireplace after swapping homes with Melville.
Upstairs, visitors will find a study that is the largest room in the house, according to Matturro. A writing desk faces the same window that Melville would have gazed through while toiling on "Moby-Dick." No, Matturro doesn't believe that a snow-covered Greylock inspired the book's white whale.
"It makes a nice story," he said.
Nathaniel Hawthorne once stayed in a small guest room next to the study. The two novelists' conversation at Monument Mountain in Great Barrinton has become part of local lore, and Sunday, Aug. 4, will once again feature a hike honoring the meeting's anniversary. (A group leaves at 9 a.m. from the mountain's parking lot.) That gathering and the third annual "Moby-Dick" Marathon reading at Arrowhead, which will start at 10 a.m. and wrap up on Sunday, Aug. 4, at approximately 5 p.m., have become traditional homages to Melville. But Arrowhead is helping lead a host of other gatherings for the bicentennial of the author's birth.
"Melville Week" commences Wednesday at Arrowhead with a special 7 p.m. screening of "The Act of Reading," which was partially shot at the site. In the soon-to-be-released film, the narrator attempts to redeem himself after failing a high school English class years earlier, finally presenting a "Moby-Dick" book report to his teacher. Tickets cost $15 in advance and $20 at the door.
The following day, the official anniversary of Melville's birth, will be Old Salt's Day at Arrowhead, meaning Marines, Merchant Marines, sailors and other sea-related professionals can tour the site for free. At noon, free tours of the Berkshire Athenaeum's Melville Room will begin, allowing visitors to glimpse a robust collection of the author's personal memorabilia. And at 1 p.m., an American Library Association-sponsored Literary Landmark plaque will be revealed at the Athenaeum in honor of Melville's bicentennial.
Afterward, spectators can head to Arrowhead for free music on the lawn by Woody Printz. A ticketed benefit event for the Berkshire County Historical Society at the Country Club of Pittsfield will begin at 4:30 p.m. Herzberg said that funds will go toward restoring the historic barn where tours currently begin. Tickets to the fundraiser are $85 per person or $160 per duo.
On Friday, Aug. 2, the marathon "Moby-Dick" reading will start. Those interested can call to reserve a 10-minute reading slot or just drop by the site. And on Saturday, Aug. 3, Arrowhead will host a free community day celebration from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event will include a giant inflatable North Atlantic white whale, Delilah, and information about the whale's anatomy. Tom Whalen will hold sessions on nautical knot tying. Melanie Mowinski will lead letterpress printing demonstrations.
"The way I've been saying it is that we're just so much more than Melville," Herzberg said, "and I think we just need to make sure that we get that message out to people."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.