Literary and Manual Labors: Pittsfield, MassachusettsRoundup
tags: Massachusetts, literature, Herman Melville, literary history, American literature
Jeffrey Lawrence teaches modern American and Latin American literature and culture at Rutgers University. He also serves as the director of research for the Pittsfield-based public humanities project The Mastheads. He is the author of Anxieties of Experience: The Literatures of the Americas from Whitman to Bolaño (Oxford University Press, 2018).
“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.
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