Arrowhead: Herman Melville’s home with a spectacular view inspired many of his great works

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Petra Bjelica
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Settled by Europeans from 1745 onward, the agrarian community of Pittsfield, which at the center of the Merino sheep craze in the early 19th century, became home to the first agricultural fair on the North-American continent in 1807.

The expansion of water-powered wool production and other industries, which went hand in hand with deforestation and intensive tillage, halted the soil formation, leading to massive erosion in the area. Local industrial activities took their toll on air and water quality as well and yet made the region a prime location for burgeoning farms.

This is where Melville will spend some of the happiest days of his life.

One such typical example was built in the 1790s by one of Pittsfield’s early settlers, Captain David Bush. Consisting of a simple rectangular structure with five window bays and a large central chimney, the wood frame house was used as a farmhouse and an inn until 1844 when David’s son Charles sold the property to John Brewster.

Herman Melville in 1860

Adjacent to the house, located at 780 Holmes Road, was the property owned by Major Thomas Melvill, uncle of the famous writer and poet Herman Melville. Herman visited Pittsfield for the first time in August 1831 when he went to pay his uncle a visit and fell in love with the farm. After his father’s death the following summer, Melville’s mother took the family to Pittsfield to escape an outbreak of cholera.

Ever since then, Herman would spend countless hours working on his uncle’s farm and exploring the region. His attachment to the Berkshires grew deeper and deeper, and in the summer of 1850, he bought Brewster’s house, barns, and 160 acres of land with borrowed money in order to find the calm and solitude he needed for his writing.

The studio where Herman Melville spent the most productive years in his writing career. Photo credit

Arrowhead was the name he gave to the farm, because of the Native American artifacts he was constantly discovering while plowing the fields. It is where he would spend the following 13 years of his life, in the clamorous company of his wife Lizzie, his four children, his mother, and his three sisters. These are considered his most productive years.

Some of his major works first saw the light of the day in the second-floor library, away from the chaotic household, drawing inspiration from the spectacular view of the gigantic Mount Greylock, including his classic Moby Dick. Melville’s incorporation of aspects of Arrowhead and its surrounding natural beauty are a further indication of the strong influence that this place had on his writing.

The view of snow-covered Mount Greylock reminded Melville of a great white sperm whale’s back breaking the ocean’s surface. Photo credit

Although the house was renovated before the Melville family moved in, Herman changed the roof to a more stylish one, built the large barn outside, and made a series of small interior changes. He also added a porch after which his book The Piazza Tales was later named.

Unusual for a Berkshire house, this piazza was oriented to the north to face the awe-inspiring Mount Greylock, which had lured him to Pittsfield in the first place.

The title-page of the first edition of Melville’s masterpiece (1851).

Many of his best works were written at Arrowhead, including the masterpiece Moby Dick, remained unrecognized during his lifetime. His frustration grew along with his debts, as he could not make a living from his writing. Burdened with pressures to find paid employment, in 1859 Melville decided to leave the peace of the mountains, which he described in June as being “beyond expression delightful” and sold about 80 acres of land to settle his debts.

He sold the remaining land and buildings to his younger brother Allan Melville before finally returning to New York City in 1863. There, he found another desk job – that of a customs inspector – which he would keep for more than 20 years, abandoning writing prose almost for good. Many of the poems he wrote over 20 years later in his Weeds and Wildings, Chiefly, with a Rose or Two, undoubtedly harken back to the happy days spent at Arrowhead.

Arrowhead today. Photo credit

Melville continued to visit Arrowhead throughout the 1880s, and his brother lived there until 1927. The property remained in private hands until 1975 when the Berkshire Historical Society purchased it along with parcels of surrounding field and forest. The society restored most of the house to the way it had been in Melville’s time, undoing interior alterations, changing the windows to their original size, and restoring the piazza and the upstairs study from which Melville had enjoyed the view of the mountains from his rocking chair.

The home of the great American writer and poet has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

A National Historic Landmark, Arrowhead is today a non-profit historic house museum open to the public for organized guided tours during the warmer months of the year.