Arts and Culture

Whale’s Tale

ArrowheadStoried Berkshire Sites in Melville’s Life

The Berkshires is home to a tremendous amount of history. You can, with the aid of a bit of research, walk the same paths as abolitionists and civil rights leaders, a Continental Army officer, and major league Baseball players. In this case, however, we will tread in the footsteps of a famous American author and three important locations that marked his time in the Berkshires. 

Herman MelvilleHerman Melville visited the Berkshires several times in his youth, most notably operating his uncle’s farm in 1837. In 1850, now living in New York, he visited Pittsfield again with his wife and son. During this trip, Melville was invited by a friend to a picnic on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington. The picnic was attended by other luminaries visiting the Berkshires, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. A sudden thunderstorm overtook the picnickers, and Melville found himself sheltering in a cave with Hawthorne, already a famous author. They had a lengthy conversation, developing a friendship in the process of discussing the work Melville was laboring over at that time, known to him as The Whale. This friendship saw some of the most productive years of both writers, particularly in Melville’s case.

You can visit Monument Mountain, now a Trustees of Reservations property, and enjoy three scenic trails steeped in history. (Two trails have recently been renamed to pay homage to the Indigenous descendants of the people who once called the area home: Mohican Monument Trail and Peeskawso Peak.) Along the way you may discover the cave in which Melville and Hawthorne fatefully sheltered so many years ago.

Perhaps inspired by his new friendships in the Berkshires and his lasting attachment to the land, Melville borrowed money and bought the farm next to his uncle’s, just down the road from the home of Oliver Wendell Holmes. He moved his family in and began farming the land, naming the property Arrowhead for the native artifacts he discovered. According to a letter Melville wrote in May 1850, The Whale was certainly already in progress, but it was at Arrowhead in 1851 that he finished what would become (in time) his most famous work. 

In recognition of his influence, Melville dedicated the novel to Hawthorne, who in his own 1851 work A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, referenced Melville “shaping out the gigantic conception of his ‘White Whale’ while the gigantic shape of Greylock looms upon him from his study window.” This may have contributed to the notion that Mt. Greylock helped to inspire the image of a breaching whale in Melville’s mind. Melville went on to write several other noteworthy works at Arrowhead, including I and My Chimney, in which Melville described the home’s massive central chimney and The Piazza Tales (named for a porch Melville had installed on the house to offer a nicer view of Mt. Greylock). Indeed, it is the view of Greylock that seems to have been what most captured Melville’s attention. He would go on to dedicate Pierre, an 1852 novel, to “Mt. Greylock’s Most Excellent Majesty…” You can visit Arrowhead, now restored and home to the Berkshire County Historical Society, to enjoy landscape and house tours and special events. You can still see the historic view of Greylock Melville enjoyed.

At last, we come to the other mountain, the whale itself. Mt. Greylock is the highest point in  Massachusetts, and has been an inspiration to a number of writers over the years, from Hawthorne and Melville to Bill Bryson and J.K. Rowling. It’s easy to see how Melville imagined the image of a breaching whale when looking at the peak from a distance, and how generations of writers after him were enraptured by its natural beauty. You too can visit Greylock and appreciate the majesty with numerous hiking trails and vehicular access to the summit during the warmer months. (For the backcountry skiers, try your hand at skinning up and skiing down the famed Thunderbolt trail.) Take a cue from Melville and visit Mt. Greylock for some inspiration of your own.

Interested in tracing more of Melville’s footsteps? You are in luck! The Berkshire County Historical Society, City of Pittsfield, Berkshire Athenaeum, and Trustees have compiled and mapped the Melville Trail. Enjoy other literary and historic journeys in the Berkshires with visits to Edith Wharton’s The Mount, Susan B. Anthony Birthplace Museum, Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail, Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, and Crane Museum of Papermaking. Find additional ideas to explore here.