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Arrowhead, the Pittsfield farmhouse that gave birth to ‘Moby-Dick’

A suggestion from Berkshires Calendar magazine for an interesting place in the Berkshires to visit, even in the days of COVID.

He called it Arrowhead, because of the native American arrows that had been dug up on the property. Although he was a New York transplant and former seaman who had traveled the world and had even once jumped ship, author Herman Melville believed he had found paradise in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, when he purchased his farm in 1850 with a loan from his father-in-law. After moving in with his wife of three years, Elizabeth, the writer would remain at Arrowhead with his growing household for over a decade, until he had to move back to New York City in 1863. Melville’s time at Arrowhead was exceedingly productive, however, for it was there that he penned perhaps the most famous American novel ever written: Moby-Dick.

 

Herman Melville, 1870. Oil painting by Joseph Oriel Eaton. The portrait now hangs in the Edison and Newman Room in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

Oddly enough, the Berkshires proved to be the perfect location for the young writer — he was only in his thirties at the time — to pen the ultimate seafaring narrative. “I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country now that the ground is covered in snow,” he wrote in 1850, the year he had made the area his home. “I look out my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin; & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail on the house, & I had better go on the roof & rig in the chimney.”

The mind of an author can be an extraordinary thing, and Melville’s was certainly stimulated by the Berkshires and the Arrowhead farm he worked with his own hands. For it was in the Berkshires that Melville met famed author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was to become a close friend and major influence. Indeed, it’s reported that it was Hawthorne who encouraged Melville to transform the book that was to become Moby-Dick from a dry work about whaling to the epic novel we know today. Life in the Berkshires so stimulated the author that, while composing the novel, he eschewed the traditional literary form in favor of a massive, wide ranging, in-depth, philosophical tome on the nature of obsession, evil, the need to “get away,” and, of course, whaling.

Life at Arrowhead was so idyllic to Melville that he wrote about his daily routine there. “Do you want to know how I pass my time? “I rise at eight — thereabouts — & go to my barn — say good-morning to the horse & give him his breakfast. (It goes to my heart to give him a cold one, but it can’t be helped) Then, pay a visit to my cow — cut up a pumpkin or two for her, & stand by to see her eat it — for it’s a pleasant sight to see a cow move her jaws — she does it so mildly & with such a sanctity. — My own breakfast over, I go to my work-room & light my fire — then spread my M.S.S. on the table — take one business squint at it, & fall to with a will. At 2-½ P.M. I hear a preconcerted knock at my door, which (by request) continues till I rise & go to the door, which serves to wean me effectively from my writing, however interested I may be.”

 

Title page of Moby-Dick. Courtesy of Berkshire County Historical Society

Unfortunately for Melville, Moby-Dick, his literary masterpiece, proved to be ahead of its time. The novel ended up being a financial and critical disappointment after it was published in 1851. What’s more, his literary reputation slipped into obscurity. Eventually Melville had to leave Arrowhead in 1863 to find employment in New York. And it was in New York where the author eventually died, forgotten, in 1891. It’s wasn’t until the 20th century that the world finally took notice of Moby-Dick and its author once more. Now both the book and the man who wrote it are viewed as pillars of Western Literature. What’s more, Arrowhead, the farm where Melville wrote his masterpiece, is still standing and is available for tours. Visitors should check out the Berkshire County Historical Society’s website in order to schedule a tour of the New England farm where the ultimate novel about the sea was born.

Arrowhead is preserved and maintained by the Berkshire County Historical Association.  Tours are available and being booked through May 2021, with limits on the number of visitors in each tour, following the opening and operating guidelines from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Please call or email the Berkshire County Historical Society.

 

 

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Editor's Note: This Resource Guide is a companion to our article "The Thrill of the HUNT", from the August-October, 2022, issue of Out & About with The Berkshire Edge magazine. Hard copies of the magazine are available for free...

The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.