Mount Greylock was poetry to Melville's eyes while penning 'Moby-Dick'
PITTSFIELD — It was a poetic and loving exchange between a writer who had worked on whaling ships and the mountain he could see from his study.
It was a winter of heavy snow in 1850 when Herman Melville planted himself at his writing table and churned out the tale of a fearsome white whale. The book would become an instant failure but would live on as an American classic.
While he wrote, a snowcapped Mount Greylock, resembling a white whale breaching the surface, was always with him.
And Melville simply loved the mountain, as he would dedicate his next book to it, calling it "my own more immediate sovereign lord and king."
"It was a poetic fancy," said Laurie Robertson-Lorant, author of two books about Melville. "He had already started writing 'Moby-Dick' in New York before he moved to the Berkshires."
But the call to write anywhere, like Ishmael's call to the sea, is, and was, always a struggle.
"It wasn't easy," said Peter Bergman, director of communications at the Berkshire Historical Society at Herman Melville's Arrowhead, the family farmstead. "His novel failed — terribly."
Bergman, an author himself and a treasure chest of everything Melville, has read the novel five times, he says as he walks through Melville's home.
On the eve of Melville's 200th birthday, Bergman says there is a trick to reading the novel and some of its luxurious, long and winding prose.
"Read it out loud," he said, noting that the first two times he tried to read it, he couldn't finish it. "It is beautiful language, stunning language and very musical. But you just don't get that perusing it with your eyes. We have become unaccustomed to lengthy sentences in this day and age, and for a lot of people, they just don't make sense."
It was an age, after all, in which doing things took time.
Melville spent about five years in and out of whaling voyages before eventually settling in Pittsfield for 12 years. The story tells of whaling ships terrorized by a white whale, and for which "the ungodly, god-like" Captain Ahab would seek revenge on it for taking off part of his leg.
Melville would dedicate "Moby-Dick" to his friend, part-time Lenox resident Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"All of it was written in this house."
Melville's own travels chasing migrating sperm whales met with other, wild-but-true lore about furious whales, Bergman said.
"People would warn other sailing ships about the presence of killer whales, so they went after the sperm whales," he added. "There were two whales that essentially split the Pacific."
There was Mocha Dick off the coast of South America, and another, apparently ferocious but unnamed whale in the central Pacific.
And there is the true story of The Essex, a Nantucket whaler rammed and crushed by a white sperm whale in the southern Pacific, leaving the sailors with only rowboats and a harrowing search for land as they resorted to cannibalism.
In his study on the eve of Melville's birthday, a harpoon that he used as a fire poker rests in the fireplace behind his writing table.
He was 31 the year he wrote his most famous work. And Bergman said that he was at his most glorious when he had a book going.
"When writing, he was almost elated, generous," he said. "When books failed, he would go into a deep depression. The only way out was to send him away on adventures, then start another cycle."
Nature and human interaction fueled his work, and he married the interior psychology of his characters with what was around him.
"He uses a lot of what he sees here in the Berkshires," Bergman said, noting that Captain Ahab's scar resembled an elm tree in Park Square scarred by being thrice struck by lightning.
"He constantly let the neighborhood influence his work, which I think is beautiful."
The contrast between loneliness and the difficulty of human relationships, and the steadiness of nature, is evident in his dedication to Mount Greylock in "Pierre," the book he wrote after "Moby-Dick."
''To Greylock's Most Excellent Majesty,'' it begins. "...the majestic mountain, Greylock — my own more immediate sovereign lord and king — hath now, for innumerable ages, been the one grand dedicatee of the earliest rays of all the Berkshire mornings, I know not how his Imperial Purple Majesty ... will receive the dedication of my own poor solitary ray ...''
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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