Mastheads writer studios in Pittsfield seek to tap into Berkshires literary legacy

PITTSFIELD — Fresh off a red-eye flight from Portland, Ore., writer-in-residence John Babbott was looking forward to immersing himself in nature.

Some sleep was in order. But he said so was a visit to Canoe Meadows, where his temporary studio awaits him.

Babbott was one of five writers tapped from across the country to take part in the Mastheads, a new literary project inspired by five 19th-century American authors who spent time in the Berkshires.

In addition to the 21st-century writers, the Mastheads has a series of free public programs including discussions, music, and readings. With studios in place and writers present, the Mastheads on Monday night held a launch party at Hotel on North.

Mastheads was founded by architects Chris Parkinson and Tessa Kelly. They returned to their Berkshire County roots to launch the effort, which they plan to host annually.

"We want to celebrate the idea of thinking about our city as a place to experiment with the way we can develop urbanistically but also culturally and creatively," she said.

Babbott said he was looking forward to the opportunity to take part in the experiment.

While a professional writer, Babbott said teaching, landscaping, and other jobs pay the bills. So for him, the Mastheads is a rare opportunity to focus on writing, and in a building created specifically for that purpose.

"It is a rarity to have such a consciously curated space," he said. "And it feels really really exciting."

Stark, black structures against the summer sky, the five 8-by-8-foot Mastheads writers studios are nestled in the landscape at Arrowhead, Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, and Springside Park.

Much like their 19th-century counterparts, the writers will work surrounded by the sights and sounds of the bucolic Berkshires, and without electricity, air conditioning or window screens.

Henry David Thoreau, one of the authors who inspired Parkinson and Kelly to create the Mastheads, might approve.

"I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude," he wrote in his work "Walden."

The first of four "folds" about the project, published in The Berkshire Eagle, appeared in Sunday's paper. The fold included an excerpt from a reader that that accompanies the project, "The Past in the Present: Pittsfield's 19th-Century Literary Legacy," which will be available at Arrowhead, the Berkshire Museum and Berkshire Athenaeum.

"Putting Pittsfield at the center of the project's literary map helps us better perceive the city's place in the rapidly expanding cultural network of the antebellum United States," Jeffrey Lawrence, Mastheads director of research and a Rutgers University English professor wrote.

With the majority of his career focused on 20th and 21st century, Lawrence said the Mastheads has given him opportunity to learn more about the 19th-century writers — Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. and Thoreau — at the heart of the project.

And he said he is excited to help the public learn more about those writers, too.

"I hope that a lot of people come to the events, that they use this as an opportunity to think about Pittsfield's cultural and literary legacy," Lawrence said.

And while the project is deeply connected to the past, Kelly said it is also meant to activate the present.

"We want to generate excitement and get people thinking about place and about how they contribute to developing the narrative about where they are from or where they live," she said.

"This whole project to us is about opening up possibilities."

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo.


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