Share this article

print logo


When you step into the room where Herman Melville wrote "Moby Dick," you expect to see something more . . . well . . . nautical.

Instead you're in a distinctly rural place, Shaker-like in simplicity, with a window looking across a vast cornfield to the purple-gray silhouette of Mount Greylock, highest peak in Massachusetts and more than a hundred miles from the nearest ocean.

But as you tour Arrowhead, Herman Melville's home in Pittsfield, Mass., you begin to understand why he didn't need the trappings of the sea to bring Ishmael, Captain Ahab and the Great White Whale alive on the pages of his masterpiece. He had imagination enough.

"I have a sort of sea feeling here in the country," Melville wrote from his Arrowhead study. "I look out of my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a porthole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship's cabin; and at nights when I wake up and hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, and I had better go on the roof and rig in the chimney."

Melville, 31, was already a literary sensation in New York when he bought this farm and moved his family to the Berkshires in 1850. Arrowhead -- the name he gave the farm when his plow turned up Indian relics -- was to fulfill his dream of blending the outdoor life with the artistic life. He planned to work the 160-acre farm part time and write part time. The two incomes, he figured, would allow him and his growing family to live like country gentry.

But even though his most productive years lay ahead -- "Moby Dick" was yet to be published -- his fortunes dropped like an anchor in the sea during the 13 years he toiled at his craft in the second-floor study of this Berkshire farmhouse.

That study today is dominated by a large table, squared in front of the north-facing window so the author could look directly at Mount Greylock when he paused from his writing. On the table are the tools of his craft -- the long white quill pens he favored, an ink pot, blotter and a pen knife for sharpening his quills.

There's a pair of tiny steel-rimmed glasses that allowed Melville to write until about 2:30 p.m. on a winter afternoon, when he lost the natural light and had to quit for the day. Even though he kept a candle on the desk, he rarely wrote by artificial light. His eyes were weak and tired easily.

A cabinet on the east wall of the studio displays a manifest with handwritten names of all crew members from the Acushnet, the whaling ship on which Melville signed for the three-year journey that gave him the raw material for his books. (He once said that "a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.")

Several lines above Melville's name you'll see the name of Toby Green, the young man who jumped ship with Melville in the Marquesas Islands. Green shared many of the adventures Melville wrote about and later, when the authenticity of Melville's experiences were challenged by publishers, Green surfaced in Buffalo and wrote a strong letter verifying Melville's stories.

Before you leave the study, stand behind the desk where Melville worked and look out the window. You'll see the same view that inspired the author 144 years ago. To Melville, Mount Greylock looked "like a sperm whale rising in the distance."

Arrowhead was a constant inspiration for Melville, and he wrote one of his most delightful stories about the massive chimney that still dominates the center of the house. "I and My Chimney" is an amusing tale of how a wife conspired to have her husband's beloved chimney removed. Happily, she failed. And today the Chimney Room and stories about the chimney are main attractions at Arrowhead.

After the house tour, which lasts about an hour, you can explore the grounds and see the main house much the way Melville saw it. The Federal-style building, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1963, was built in the 1780s as a tavern and inn on the stage route between Hartford and Bennington. It's painted the same yellow with green trim as Melville had it painted in the 1800s.

South of the house, in an area that had been an apple orchard, is a large open lawn with widely scattered evergreens, chestnut, willow and apple trees. You're welcome to lounge in the yard, use the lawn tables and benches, picnic on the grass or wander the nearby wildflower garden before going to your last stop at Arrowhead, the vintage red barn that contains the museum and book shop.

For anyone familiar with Melville's work, a visit to Arrowhead is a powerful incentive to reread his classics or pick up a title they've never read before. For others, the book shop offers a smorgasbord of first-time reading treats.

Most of Melville's books, in various editions from illustrated collector's copies to paperbacks, are on sale. They even have the Classic Comic version of "Moby Dick" for those who prefer the story in its simplified form.

While you're there, don't miss the charming 18-minute video "The Berkshire Legacy," that shows how great artists like Melville, Hawthorne, Edith Wharton, Norman Rockwell and Daniel Chester French -- the sculptor of the Minuteman and Lincoln Memorial -- all picked this corner of the Berkshires to be their home and their inspiration.

In 1863 Melville had to leave Arrowhead when his health failed. He took a job as customs inspector in New York City where he died -- ignored and nearly forgotten -- in 1891. Twenty-eight years later his "Billy Budd" manuscript was discovered in a tin breadbox where his wife had tucked his papers.

At Arrowhead, Melville struggled to make his life count for something. The 10,000 people who visit his Berkshire home each year testify that it counted very much.

Travel information

Arrowhead is located at 780 Holmes Road, about 1 1/2 miles east of U.S. Route 7 and State Route 20, five miles south from the center of Pittsfield, Mass. It's open to the public from Memorial Day through Labor Day daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last tour at 4:30); from Labor Day through October, it is closed on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. In all other months, Arrowhead is open by appointment.

Admission is $4.50 for adults, $4 for seniors and $3 for children 6 to 16. New this year is a $15 family admission. Call (413) 442-1793.

There are no comments - be the first to comment