The Berkshires

The hills are alive with the sounds of Tanglewood plus modern dance, the art of Norman Rockwell and a literary tradition that goes back to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville

In 1851, Herman Melville completed his opus, Moby-Dick, in the shadow of Mount Greylock (the view from his study); some see the form of a white whale in the winter contours of the peak--"like a snow hill in the air," as Melville put it. (Michael Christopher Brown)
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Shady, tree-lined Dalton (pop. 4,700) remains a company town, where the Crane Museum of Papermaking draws 2,500 visitors in its June through October season. According to company historian Peter Hopkins, mill founder Zenas Crane chose the location "because the nearby Housatonic River provided power and water without mineral impurities, and because there were plenty of rags available in nearby communities." Peddlers arrived in horse-drawn carriages to unload their bundles; Crane laborers sorted the fabrics and cut them into small pieces. The shreds were then dropped into enormous vats where huge beaters, powered by a mill on the Housatonic, churned the rags in water, turning them into pulp. "That's where the expression 'beaten to a pulp' comes from," says Hopkins.

Another Berkshires landmark, a 19th-century Shaker village on the edge of Pittsfield (pop. 43,900), eight miles northwest of Arrowhead, also attracted Melville, who admired the crafts produced here; over time, he purchased several household items, including a sewing box and pincushion. Today the Hancock Shaker Village, a farm and workshop complex set on 1,200 verdant acres, is a museum, having closed as an active community in 1960. The Shakers, a Christian sect—so named for the trancelike trembling its adherents exhibited during ecstatic worship services—emigrated from England to America in 1774. A belief in celibacy, communal life, gender equality and dedication to manual labor defined the movement. At their peak in the 1830s, some 300 Shakers lived at Hancock, where they crafted elegant furniture, farm implements and household items. Although the Shakers subscribed to fundamentalist theology, they nevertheless "used the best-available technology and most sophisticated marketing," says Todd Burdick, director of education at Hancock, as he conducts visitors through a collection of 22,000 objects in 20 historic buildings.

Within a few years of the publication of Moby-Dick, the Melville-Hawthorne friendship began to wane. Perhaps the contrasting fortunes of the two were at least partially to blame. Hawthorne's great work, The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850, sold more copies in its first ten days than did Moby-Dick in three years. Melville's novel would not be recognized as an American expression of genius until the 1920s, three decades after the author's death in 1891. Unsuccessful at farming as well, Melville returned to New York City in 1863 and took a job as a customs inspector.

Melville had lapsed into nearly total obscurity by the time that the young Edith Wharton became a published writer in the 1880s; she would later confess that she "never heard his name mentioned, or saw one of his books." Wharton completed her masterpiece, The House of Mirth (1905), at her lavish, 113-acre Berkshires estate, The Mount, in Lenox, only a dozen or so miles south of Arrowhead. The unflinching portrayal of hypocrisy and social climbing in wealthy New York City in the late 19th century placed her in the pantheon of great American novelists, and the book broke all sales records at the time. "It was the Da Vinci Code of that era," says Stephanie Copeland, president of The Mount Estate & Gardens, today one of the most important tourist draws in the Berkshires.

Wharton, who inhabited the upper echelons of the Gilded Age society, described that world with an acid pen, complaining that in Boston she was considered "too fashionable to be intelligent," while in New York, her primary residence, she was said to be "too intelligent to be fashionable." She dismissed Newport, Rhode Island, the favorite summer haunt of the rich, as a place obsessed with status. By contrast, The Mount, as Wharton described it in her 1934 autobiography, A Backward Glance, conferred "country cares and joys, long happy rides and drives through the wooded lanes of that loveliest region, the companionship of a few dear friends, and the freedom from trivial obligations which was necessary if I was to go on with my writing."

Constant attention to The Mount, as well as its gardens and woods, easily occupied as much of Wharton's time as did her novels. "She chastised her acquaintances, including the Vanderbilts, for building country homes that resembled English castles plopped down in a New England setting," says Copeland. Their Newport "cottages," to Wharton's mind, were meant to inspire awe and envy from the moment the manors came into view, a mile or more away from their entrances. The Mount, on the other hand, emphasized Wharton's insistence upon discretion and privacy; the estate lies hidden behind a half-mile allée of sugar maples. The white-stucco residence, in the British Georgian style, also combines aspects of Italian and French architecture. Its largely unadorned forecourt is surfaced in gravel.

Tree-shaded lawns slope down to an Italianate garden with a stone pergola at one end and an English garden planted in perennial beds and herbaceous borders at the other. "I am amazed at the success of my efforts," Wharton wrote to her lover, Morton Fullerton, in 1907. "Decidedly, I'm a better landscape gardener than novelist, and this place, every line of which is my own work, far surpasses The House of Mirth."

After moving into The Mount in 1902, Wharton lived there for nearly a decade. Her routine was to wake at dawn in a bedroom that looked out over forest to Laurel Lake, and to remain in bed until 11 a.m., writing furiously, allowing pages to drop on the rug, to be collected later by her secretary. Afternoons and evenings were meant for intimate meals and gatherings limited to no more than six guests, invited for a few days or a long summer weekend. Henry James, describing a 1904 sojourn at The Mount, declared himself to be "very happy here, surrounded by every loveliness of nature and every luxury of art and treated with a benevolence that brings tears to my eyes."

Seven years later, the Berkshires idyll came to a close for Wharton. Her marriage to the handsome but boorish outdoorsman, Edward Robbins Wharton—"Dear Teddy," she always called him—had ended by 1911. So had the affair with Fullerton. Wharton moved to Europe and arranged to sell The Mount. The building and estate fell into disrepair until about 1980, when a nonprofit organization, Edith Wharton Restoration, began resurrecting the house and gardens—a process only now nearing completion. The Mount is open from April through October.

By the time Wharton died at age 75 in 1937, a momentous transformation was under way barely two miles west of her former estate. That same year, the Tappan family, descendants of wealthy Bostonian merchants and abolitionists, had given their 210-acre Tanglewood estate in Lenox to the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) for summer performances. The name pays homage to Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales, a short-story collection published in 1853. (The small Lenox cottage where the novelist wrote that work is located on the property.)

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