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Four of the five Mastheads mobile writing studios, architectural interpretations of the original structures from which one of five American Renaissance authors wrote while in Pittsfield. Photo courtesy the Mastheads

The Mastheads/Tuesdays on the Terrace at the Berkshire Athenaeum

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By Monday, Jul 9, 2018 Arts & Entertainment

Pittsfield — Fans of Herman Melville’s tome “Moby-Dick” likely know that sailors aboard the Pequod — the vessel on which Ishmael sails — took shifts climbing up high into the masthead in order to procure a proper vantage point for spying whales. From this elevated perspective, one that affords new views of the world around them, crew members are simultaneously presented with the chance — given space large enough for a single person — to look inward and encounter new aspects of oneself. It is this spirit of vision and discovery that permeates Tuesdays on the Terrace, a collaboration between the Mastheads and the Berkshire Athenaeum, and highlights the series’ 2018 theme “Literature and Activism.”

Jeffrey Lawrence. Photo courtesy Rutgers University

“We selected a series of five writers who we felt had grappled with political or social issues in an interesting or engaging way,” said Jeffrey Lawrence, English professor at Rutgers University and organizer of the lecture series, of the 19th-century writers at center stage this month: Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Fanny Kemble, William Cullen Bryant, Herman Melville and W.E.B. Du Bois. “These individuals were dealing with the major issues of the 19th century — slavery and racial discrimination, women’s rights, the economic decline of the 1850s…[and] we are using these writers to think about the possibility of activism in the 21st century now,” he added.

Neil Roberts. Photo courtesy the Mastheads

For four Tuesdays in July, the Mastheads will host a literary lecture on the lovely outdoor terrace of the Berkshire Athenaeum. On Tuesday, July 10, in partnership with the Berkshire County NAACP — and in celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Berkshire County native W.E.B. Du Bois — professor Neil Roberts of Williams College will deliver his talk “W.E.B. Du Bois and Political Thought in the Shadow of Frederick Douglass.” Of this particular talk, Lawrence drew attention to the importance of  “looking back from the perspective of the 20th century on the history of slavery and the rise of Jim Crow segregation in the 20th century.”

“Du Bois is such an important intellectual in the history of the region,” said Lawrence, adding, “Focusing on these writers at this moment seems like an important thing.” Lawrence went on to emphasize “recognizing the legacy of these writers, who — in the case of people like Sedgwick and Kemble — [are] writers that tend to sometimes fall out of the common narrative that people tell about the literature of this region.” Lawrence went on to point out, “It’s really important to recognize Du Bois and his legacy,” noting that those writers highlighted by the Mastheads in the inaugural season “all have houses, and institutional structures that help them to promote their legacy,” something that, aside from the Du Bois Center, needs to be remedied going forward.

Dolores Hayden. Photo courtesy the Mastheads

Last week, professor Meredith McGill of Rutgers University discussed the work of  Berkshire writers and activists Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Fanny Kemble; on July 17, author, scholar and poet Dolores Hayden will speak on urbanism and design; on July 24, award-winning poet and professor Jaswinder Bolina will give a poetry reading and a discussion of his work as the founder of Write the Power, an online social justice community. Each of these lectures will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Berkshire Athenaeum, 1 Wendell Ave.

Jaswinder Bolina. Photo courtesy the Mastheads

“The Mastheads is a wonderful opportunity both to celebrate our literary heritage and to support the next generation of writers,” said Alex Reczkowski, director of the Berkshire Athenaeum. “The Tuesdays on the Terrace series builds on the inside/outside recipe that’s so beautiful in the writers’ studios — honoring the work and our inspiring landscape — and gives us an opportunity to review our local authors and their works with a critical eye,” Reczkowski added, noting, “This year’s focus on activism and social justice is important to the library, where we are very interested in understanding the authors in the context of their times and in terms of today’s values.”

Tuesday, July 31, will mark the Mastheads’ Summer Finale at Herman Melville’s Arrowhead. To mark the project’s last event of the summer, the Mastheads’ five writers-in-residence will give a reading of the work they produced in the innovative mobile writing studios — five sculptural studios, each the architectural interpretation of the original structure from which one of five American Renaissance authors wrote while in Pittsfield — during the month of July. The reading, which takes place between 6 and 8 p.m., promises to be a grand evening.

The Mastheads is a public humanities project in Pittsfield that seeks to connect residents to the literary history of the region, create a forum for thinking about place and support the production of new creative work. Founded in 2016 upon the legacy of five American Renaissance authors who wrote in Pittsfield, the Mastheads is at once an urban architectural experiment, a literary research initiative, a writers’ residency and an educational program. For more information, look for “The Mastheads Reader,” a carefully curated collection of writing by Pittsfield authors, complete with an introduction and scholarly apparatus, to pair with the July programming; The Mastheads x The Berkshire Eagle Folds, a series of four newspaper folds that include transcripts of the lectures and community conversations, writing by residents, as well as drawings, cartoons, poetry and other writing by local authors and Fireside students; and their website, https://www.themastheads.org.

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