“Since you have been here, I have been building some shanties of houses … and likewise some shanties of chapters and essays,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, in 1851, from his newly renovated property in Western Massachusetts. “I have been plowing and sowing and raising and painting and printing and praying—and now begin to come out upon a less bustling time, and to enjoy the calm prospect of things from a fair piazza at the north of the old farm house here.” The letter, sent while Melville was putting the finishing touches on Moby-Dick, reveals how completing his literary labors had begun to merge with various acts of husbandry and home improvement.
In early autumn of 1850, Melville had relocated abruptly from New York City to a farm on the outskirts of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a small city in the heart of Berkshire County familiar to him through sporadic visits to an estate owned by his uncle (and later his cousin). At the time, Melville was midway through the composition of Moby-Dick. Having settled into the 18th-century farmhouse on the south side of Arrowhead (so christened because of the hunting flints Melville found nearby), he would lock himself in the second-floor study for hours on end, scribbling furiously till several continuous knocks on his door would gradually “wean” him from his manuscript.
In the course of these solitary writing sessions in Pittsfield, Melville fundamentally reimagined the architecture of the novel. Far from New York City, in the midst of his physical exertions, he turned what he had initially described as a “romance of adventure” into an existential conflict between a biblically named ship captain and a Miltonian white whale.
During this same period, as he explained at length in his correspondence to Hawthorne, Melville also altered the physical structure of the property. In just under a year, he oversaw the construction of a piazza (i.e., porch) facing north toward Mount Greylock, added several outbuildings in a field adjacent to the farmhouse, planted a crop of corn and potatoes, and engaged in enough carpentry to cause several large blisters to form on his writing hand. In the midst of all this, he still found time to visit Hawthorne, who was working on The House of the Seven Gables in the neighboring town of Lenox, and to whom Melville had already confessed his grand ambitions for his novel-in-progress—along with the sources of those blisters (hammering and hoeing).
Melville’s reinvention of his literary life in Pittsfield has often been described as an experiment in rural self-reliance—with some logistical help from his family and a timely mental assist from his genius friend. Yet Melville’s manual and spiritual labors at Arrowhead did not just serve his own creative needs. They were also instrumental in building a mid-19th-century Berkshire literary community that rivaled even the storied Transcendentalist enclave in Concord.
Indeed, though contemporaries tended to characterize both Melville and Hawthorne as reclusive, accounts of the period suggest that they actively participated in the cultural life of the region—at least when they weren’t writing. For instance, the pair’s famous first meeting, in the Berkshires in the summer of 1850, was a hike up Great Barrington’s Monument Mountain that brought together an impressive combination of local and metropolitan figures. The hiking party included the poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who owned the 260-acre Canoe Meadows estate, just a few miles from Arrowhead; lawyer Henry Sedgwick II, whose aunt Catharine Maria was the author of the best-selling regional novels A New-England Tale and Hope Leslie; and Evert Duyckinck and James T. Fields, kingpins respectively of the New York and Boston literary worlds. Melville and Hawthorne both made calls to the Sedgwick house at Stockbridge, which had long served as a stopping place for illustrious visitors to the region, among them the actress and activist Fanny Kemble, who had established her own place in Lenox (The Perch) in 1849. Fireside poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow spent his honeymoon in Pittsfield at his wife Fanny Appleton’s home on East Street, Elm Knoll, which contained a grandfather clock (still extant, and now displayed at Melville’s Arrowhead) that inspired Longfellow’s well-known poem “The Old Clock on the Stairs.”
The sheer density of this literary environment led cultural historian Richard Birdsall to describe the mid-19th-century Berkshires as the “American Lake District,” likening it to the iconic English region that fostered the British Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge.1
Pittsfield’s significance in the mid-19th century extended beyond its literary contributions. The Reverend Samuel Harrison, who presided over a devoted community of worshippers in the city’s Second Congregational Church, was the first African American pastor in the Berkshires. Just a few months after the Emancipation Proclamation, Harrison left Pittsfield to join the Union army as a chaplain for the famed all-Black 54th Regiment. It was his formal complaint—that soldiers “of African descent” were not receiving the same wages as white soldiers—that ultimately compelled Abraham Lincoln to retroactively grant all soldiers equal pay, regardless of the color of their skin. Harrison would later describe the town’s early African American community in a powerful sermon titled “Pittsfield 25 Years Ago.”
Melville’s manual and spiritual labors at Arrowhead did not just serve his own creative needs. They were also instrumental in building a mid-19th-century Berkshire literary community.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Berkshires continued to produce and attract extraordinary writers. These included W. E. B. Du Bois (in Great Barrington), Edith Wharton (in Lenox), and Edna St. Vincent Millay (in Austerlitz, just across the border with New York).
But Pittsfield’s trajectory diverged from those of the areas surrounding it. While Lenox and Stockbridge remained largely the domain of second-home buyers from New York and Boston—especially during the Gilded Age’s millionaire mansion-building craze—Pittsfield emerged as the industrial hub of Berkshire County. In 1901, the Stanley Electric Company erected a sprawling complex of power stations and transformers in the Morningside neighborhood that employed 1,200 workers. Two years later, General Electric acquired the property and the rest of Stanley Electric’s Pittsfield holdings. Pittsfield became a GE town; in the 1940s, at the height of its population, 13,645 of the city’s 55,000 residents worked for GE.
Pittsfield eventually became known more for its plastics factories than for its long-deceased literary celebrities. In the late 1960s, noted critic Ann Charters spent three summers in Pittsfield searching for the “ghosts” of the city’s literary past. And yet, as she wrote of the retired workers in her rooming house on West Housatonic Street, “None of them had thought at all about Herman Melville, one of their neighbors.”2
Over the next half century, a series of plant closures, worker strikes, and price-fixing scandals culminated in GE’s decision, in 1986, to all but eliminate its Pittsfield operations (by the 1990s, fewer than seven hundred GE employees remained). Deindustrialization hit the city particularly hard. In the 1990s and 2000s, residents and resources flowed out of Pittsfield at an increasingly rapid rate.
In a 2019 USA Today article on the 25 fastest-shrinking cities in the United States, Pittsfield was ranked number 21—the only metro area in New England to appear on the list.3 Walking down North Street today, one encounters an aging infrastructure with shuttered storefronts and long, spare sidewalks that bear little resemblance to the bustling thoroughfares depicted in photographs from a century ago.
For the past few years, I have spent each July in Pittsfield working as the director of research for a public-humanities project called The Mastheads. The project was founded in 2016, by third-generation Pittsfield resident Tessa Kelly and her partner Chris Parkinson, born and raised in Williamstown, on the other side of Mount Greylock. The mission of The Mastheads is to galvanize Pittsfield’s current cultural community by looking to its literary past.
The project began when Kelly and Parkinson, both practicing architects, designed and constructed five portable writing studios inspired by the works of five Pittsfield-based writers during the 1840s and 1850s (see photograph at the head of this article). Now installed on the north meadow of Arrowhead, the studios allow residents and visitors alike the chance to experience the Pittsfield landscape from the “perspective” of Melville, Hawthorne, or Holmes.
One of my roles has been to stage a series of public conversations on how the literary history of the Berkshires helps us make sense of where the county is now. In that capacity, I have not only frequented the archives of the Berkshire Athenaeum and the Berkshire County Historical Society, I have also spent days at a time in the habitats of these historical authors: the Melville house in Pittsfield, Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Du Bois’s river walk in Great Barrington.
The Mastheads founding motto—borrowed from George Orwell—is “We must add to our heritage or lose it.” The motto speaks to the project’s conviction that the best way to celebrate Pittsfield’s cultural past is to build on it, not simply to memorialize it.
This conviction motivated us to devise a unique kind of writers’ residency: every year, five up-and-coming writers spend a month living in a communal house in Pittsfield and working in the writing studios. The idea is that the Berkshire scenery (and the knowledge of those who have preceded them there) will fire their imagination much as it did Melville’s. It also led us to develop the Fireside poetry program in the Pittsfield public schools, conceived and run (along with the writers’ residency) by poet and Great Barrington resident Sarah Trudgeon. The program features a diverse group of K–12 Pittsfield students reading texts by historic Pittsfield authors, in order to stimulate their own writing about the city they inhabit.
Hopefully the author of Moby-Dick would approve. He knew well that the boldest acts of creation are also acts of renovation.
This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhl.
- See Richard Birdsall, Berkshire County: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 1959), pp. 323–79. ↩
- Ann Charters, “Melville in the Berkshires,” in Evidence of What Is Said: The Correspondence between Ann Charters and Charles Olson about History and Herman Melville (Tavern, 2015). ↩
- Samuel Stebbins, “America’s Fastest Shrinking Cities Often Have Unemployment, Crime as Concerns,” USA Today, May 5, 2019. ↩