From the desk at which he wrote Moby-Dick—a touchstone of American literature and arguably the greatest seafaring novel ever published—Herman Melville could gaze upon the forested hills and sloping fields of western Massachusetts' Berkshire Mountains. In the summer of 1850, at age 31, the writer had moved from New York City, 150 miles south, to the outskirts of Pittsfield, then still a village, where he settled into a modest, mustard-yellow farmhouse called Arrowhead—for the Native American artifacts once unearthed on the property. After years of sailing the world aboard New England whaling vessels, Melville was trying his hand at farming; his plan was to harvest corn and potatoes, cabbages and hay. But in winter, the landscape turned his thoughts back toward the mariner's life.
"I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country now that the ground is covered in snow," Melville wrote a friend in 1850, shortly after beginning his 13-year Arrowhead stay. "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."
From Melville's cramped, book-lined study, visitors today take in a clear view of Mount Greylock, at 3,491 feet the highest elevation in Massachusetts. For Melville, the brooding mass of wintry Greylock called to mind, or so biographer Andrew Delbanco has speculated, a great leviathan, emerging from a roiling, whitecapped ocean. Although Melville's few surviving letters make no mention of this, his neighbor and fellow novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, once wrote that Melville spent his days "shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale" while staring at the snow-covered mountain. In his novel, Melville would describe Moby-Dick as a "grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air."
For more than 150 years, the Berkshires have inspired writers and artists, who took up residence here because land was cheap—no longer—and the vistas were enchanting. "The bloom of these mountains is beyond expression delightful," wrote Melville in his 1855 novel, Israel Potter, describing summer in the forests and pastures of western Massachusetts. "Each tuft of upland grass is musked like bouquet with perfume. The balmy breeze swings to and fro like a censer." From the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, novelists including Melville, Hawthorne and Edith Wharton, and landscape painters such as Thomas Cole and George Inness, flocked here. According to Carole Owens, author of The Berkshire Cottages—a survey of the palatial summer retreats constructed by millionaires in the post-Civil War Gilded Age—the influx of literary and artistic luminaries "gave the Berkshires a panache that attracted wealthy New Yorkers and Bostonians looking for more than just sylvan beauty."
In 1761, Sir Francis Bernard, governor of the colony of Massachusetts, conferred the name Berkshires on the region, in honor of his home county in England. Today, the area, whose 950 square miles offer a concentration of literary, artistic and historic treasures, beckons some 2.5 million travelers annually. In North Adams (pop. 14,000), the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) provides more gallery space for the display of 20th- and 21st-century pieces than any museum in New York City. At the southern end of the Berkshires, some 25 miles away, Lenox (pop. 5,100) is the site of the Tanglewood Festival, where hundreds of classical concerts and recitals are staged each summer; performances began here in 1936. And throughout the Berkshires, smaller museums, devoted to subjects ranging from the region's role in the Industrial Revolution to the work of its artisans, as well as landmark residences and repertory theaters, abound.
Amid all these cultural attractions, it's possible to overlook the extraordinary natural beauty here. I was nearly guilty of this oversight myself, until I took a back road from one museum to another and stopped to admire the view of forest and pasture from a stone bridge over the Green River near North Adams. Down a grassy embankment, cool waters eddied around glacial boulders. I clambered to the river's edge, rolling up my jeans to wade against a strong current; cedar waxwings soared and plummeted, snatching insects in the air.
It was such a desire for immersion in bucolic splendor that first drew Melville and Hawthorne to the Berkshires. They met on August 5, 1850, while hiking with mutual friends on Monument Mountain, just south of Pittsfield. As the party laid out a picnic, a sudden downpour sent its members scurrying for cover. Hawthorne and Melville took shelter under a rocky ledge, where they fervently discussed works in progress until the rain ended. Writing a few days later of their fortuitous encounter, Melville thanked Hawthorne for dropping "germinous seeds into my soul." Thus began one of the most celebrated friendships in the history of American letters.
In May of that year, Hawthorne, 46, and 15 years Melville's senior, had moved with his wife, Sophie, and two children, Una and Julian, from the town of Salem near Boston to a small cottage outside Lenox. Melville arrived in the Berkshires with his wife, Elizabeth, and their infant son, Malcolm, a month later. Hawthorne, the more established writer, had favorably reviewed Melville's novel Typee in 1846. After their initial encounter, Melville reciprocated with an enthusiastic review of Hawthorne's short story collection Mosses from an Old Manse.
Hawthorne encouraged Melville to transform his whaling experiences into fiction. When Moby-Dick was published, in 1851, Melville dedicated it to Hawthorne, "in token of my admiration for his genius." Hawthorne took only two days to read through all 700 pages and wrote an adulatory letter, which unfortunately no longer survives. But it moved Melville to reply: "I shall leave the world, I feel, with more satisfaction for having come to know you. Knowing you persuades me more than the Bible of our immortality."
As the Moby-Dick manuscript had grown ever thicker during the late winter of 1850, Melville journeyed five miles east of his farm to the Crane paper mill in Dalton for "a sleigh-load of paper." In those days, paper was manufactured from rags, making it far more expensive than the wood-pulp-based variety that would be introduced in 1876 by another Massachusetts mill. Melville, alas, never earned enough royalties to accrue a stash of another desirable product—dollar bills. (Crane began manufacturing the paper on which American currency is printed in 1776 and has retained that monopoly since 1879.)