Herman Melville and Arrowhead

Herman Melville and Arrowhead

Melville’s associations with Berkshire County began in his childhood. The grandson of two Revolutionary War heroes, Melville was born in New York City in 1819. His mother, Maria Gansevoort Melville, was the daughter of General Peter Gansevoort of Albany, who was called the “Hero of Fort Stanwix” due to his role in the defense of that fort in Rome, New York, during the Revolution. (Melville would name his second son Stanwix in honor of that event.) The Gansevoorts had come to the new world in the 1600s and established themselves as one of the first families of Dutch Albany.

Melville’s father, Allan Melvill, was also from a prominent family, this time from Boston. Allan was the son of Thomas Melvill, the son of a Scottish immigrant who achieved wealth as a merchant. Thomas Melvill, too, had a revolutionary pedigree, having been a participant at the Boston Tea Party and a major in General Washington’s army. Washington later appointed Melvill Commissioner of Boston and Charlestown Harbor, an appointment reaffirmed by Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. It was Thomas Melvill who first bought property in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1816.

After their marriage in 1814, Herman’s parents had settled in New York City and begun their ascent in New York society. Young Herman’s world was one of servants and dancing schools. When Herman was only 11, however, Herman’s father went bankrupt, forcing the family, which now included eight children, to flee the creditors and move to Albany. Just two years later, Allan Melvill died, leaving his widow with eight children under the age of 17. Herman and his older brother Gansevoort were pulled out of school in order to help support the family.

In 1832, Melville (after Allan’s death, Maria added an “e” to the family name) made his first visit to Pittsfield to visit his Uncle Thomas who lived in the house owned by Major Thomas Melvill. Herman fell in love with the Melvill farm and spent many happy hours there working the farm and hiking the land. His annual visits there would continue until 1850, when Melville decided to move his family to Pittsfield permanently.

In the years after Allan Melvill’s death, Herman received only sporadic educational instruction and he struggled to find a vocation. He worked as a bank clerk, a clerk in a cap and fur store, and a schoolteacher in Pittsfield and in New York State. He took a surveyor’s course and went west hoping to find a job. He also did a stint in the merchant marine, sailing on the St. Lawrence as a “boy” in 1839.

In 1841, Melville signed on the whaler Acushnet and set sail from Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on a three-year whaling voyage. He jumped ship in the Marquesas Islands, motivated to leave by an unpleasant captain, and spent four weeks among the natives before boarding other ships for a trip to the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii.

After months working in various jobs, for awhile as a bowling pin setter, Melville became restless again and joined the United States Navy, sailing for New York on the ship United States. He returned to New York no more clear on his future occupation, but filled with marvelous stories.

After settling back with his family in Lansingburgh, New York, outside Albany, Herman began to write down his stories at the urging of his sisters. The result was five books all drawing on his experiences at sea. Typee (1846) was based on Melville’s adventures after jumping ship in the Marquesas Islands; its sequel was Omoo (1847). Mardi (1849) was a South Seas fantasy. Redburn (1849) was a semi-autobiographical account of Melville’s days in the merchant marine, and White-Jacket (1849) told the tale of life on a U.S. man-of-war.

Melville enjoyed moderate success with these novels and was now an established member of the American literary scene, although he was not making much money from his writing. He had also won the heart and hand of Miss Elizabeth Knapp Shaw of Boston, the daughter of an old family friend, Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The young couple settled in New York City, with Melville hoping to make a career as a writer.

In 1850, Herman, Lizzie, and their baby son Malcolm spent the summer in Pittsfield at the Melvill farm. Herman was inspired by the beauty of the region, particularly the view of Mount Greylock, highest point in Massachusetts, from the farm house window. He was working on a story about the whale fisheries as well as writing some literary reviews for a friend’s magazine when he was invited to go on a picnic to Monument Mountain, just south of Pittsfield. Also invited on the excursion were two other literary notables: Oliver Wendell Holmes and Nathaniel Hawthorne, both Berkshire residents. Melville and Hawthorne met for the first time and struck up an instantaneous close friendship.

image The impulsive Melville made the decision to follow Hawthorne’s example and move permanently to the Berkshires to find a quiet solitude in which to write. Melville thought of the beautiful view of Mount Greylock from the Melvill farm, and within a week had purchased the neighboring farm which commanded a similar view. He named the farm Arrowhead after the native relics he discovered as he was plowing the fields. The home would remain his for the next 13 years, and there he would write some of his finest works.

The house at Arrowhead had been built in 1783. A rambling old farm house, it became the home for Herman, Lizzie, Malcolm, and three more children, all born at Arrowhead: Stanwix, Bessie, and Fanny. Herman’s mother and sisters Augusta, Helen, and Fanny all moved to Arrowhead as well. Sister Kate and numerous other friends and relations would make their home there as well at various times. It was a busy, chaotic household.

image Herman created a refuge from this chaos in his second-floor library. Keeping to a regular writing schedule, he completed four novels, a collection of short stories, and 10 magazine pieces, as well as beginning work on a volume of poetry. The works Melville wrote at Arrowhead included Moby-Dick, Pierre, The Confidence-Man, Israel Potter, a collection entitled “The Piazza Tales,” and such short stories as “I and My Chimney,” “Benito Cereno,” “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids.”

Arrowhead influenced him greatly in his writing. The view of Mount Greylock from his study window, the one that brought him to Arrowhead, was said to be his inspiration for the white whale in Moby-Dick. He dedicated his next novel, Pierre, to Mount Greylock. His short story, “The Piazza,” begins at Arrowhead and takes a magical journey to the mountain.

Melville incorporated features and aspects of Arrowhead into several stories. The piazza, after which the story and the book “The Piazza Tales” were named, is a porch Melville added to the north side of Arrowhead shortly after he purchased the property. Visitors can still stand on that porch and look at the same view Melville had when he spent hours there in his rocking chair.

Now, for a house, so situated in such a country, to have no piazza for the convenience of those who might desire to feast upon the view, and take their time and ease about it, seemed as much of an omission as if a picture-gallery should have no bench; for what but picture-galleries are the marble halls of these same limestone hills?—galleries hung, month after month anew, with pictures ever fading into pictures ever fresh. – Melville in “The Piazza.”

image The story “I and My Chimney,” published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1856, contains one of the most complete descriptions there is of Arrowhead during the Melville occupancy. The story is a fictitious account of the efforts of a wife to remodel an ancient farm house by replacing the central chimney with a grand hallway. Melville used Arrowhead as a model for the house, and the story is filled with accurate descriptions.

It need hardly be said, that the walls of my house are entirely free from fire-places. These all congregate in the middle—in the one grand central chimney, upon all four sides of which are hearths—two tiers of hearths—so that when, in the various chambers, my family and guests are warming themselves of a cold winter’s night, just before retiring, then, though at the time they may not be thinking so, all their faces mutually look towards each other, yea, all their feet point to one centre; and when they go to sleep in their beds, they all sleep round one warm chimney[.]

So proud of this story was Herman’s younger brother Allan, who moved into Arrowhead after his brother moved out, that he had inscribed on the chimney itself text from the story. The text remains for the visitor to see, along with an original copy of the story.

The beauty which surrounds the property also made its way into Melville’s works. The novel Israel Potter is based on the life of a real person born in Rhode Island. In his novel, however, Melville moved Potter’s birthplace to the Berkshires and devoted the entire first chapter to a lyrical description of the area surrounding Arrowhead. (Visitors can see this same view from the Nature Trail on the property.)

In fine clear June days, the bloom of these mountains is beyond expression delightful. Last visiting these heights ere she vanishes, Spring, like the sunset, flings her sweetest charms upon them. Each tuft of upland grass is musked like a bouquet with perfume. The balmy breeze swings to and fro like a censer. On one side the eye follows for the space of an eagle’s flight, the serpentine mountain chains, southward from the great purple dome of Taconic—the St. Peter’s of these hills—northwards to the twin summits of Saddleback, which is the two-steepled natural cathedral of Berkshire; while low down to the west the Housatonic winds on in her watery labyrinth, through charming meadows basking in the reflected rays from the hill-sides.

Melville lived, farmed, and wrote at Arrowhead for 13 years. But during that time, although he was writing his best work, he was not making a living from his writing.


Melville’s family life was punctuated with moments of joy and with difficulties. His four children enjoyed the bucolic life in Pittsfield, although Lizzie had difficulty with her hay fever and frequently took trips back home to Boston. As much as Melville loved the Berkshires, he grew frustrated at the lack of success of his writing career and found his debts mounting. With family pressures to find gainful employment, and during the disruptions of the Civil War, Melville decided it was time to move his family from his beloved farm and return to New York City. There he found work as a customs inspector at the New York Customs House, a job he held for over 20 years, working six days a week with only two weeks of vacation a year. The man who had sailed the world and written the greatest of American literature now found himself confined to a desk job that paid four dollars a day.

Melville sold Arrowhead to his brother Allan, who used it first as a summer home and then moved there permanently. Melville continued to visit Arrowhead through the 1880s. The Melville family owned the house until 1927. In 1975, the Berkshire County Historical Society purchased the house and began its restoration.

Melville stopped writing prose almost entirely for the rest of his life, turning to poetry and self-publishing five volumes before his death in 1891. In 1886 he presented Lizzie with a book of poetry entitled Weeds and Wildings, Chiefly, with a Rose or Two. Many of the poems were about happy days at Arrowhead. His final published work was Billy Budd, the only prose he had written since 1857; it was not published until 1924, 33 years after Melville’s death.

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