Don’t Call Me Ishmael – Part Two : Where a Mountain Inspired a Tale of a Whale : Herman Melville’s Arrowhead

Don’t Call Me Ishmael‘ was the title of a post here a year ago in which I wrote about a visit with a friend to the Mattapoisett Historical Museum to inspect the Ashley Whaling Mural a map of the south coast of New England from the mouth of the Connecticut River to Cape Cod. We also looked at Whaling Journals.

There was just time on Saturday 15 September, after our visit to The Norman Rockwell Museum and Stockbridge, to fit in a tour of Herman Melville’s home Arrowhead, just a mile along the road from our Lenox motel in Pittsfield, MA.

In the summer of 1850, seeking a reprieve from the heat and noise of New York City, Herman Melville brought his young family to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a place he had visited since childhood.

Flush with the success of his first books and entranced by his meeting of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Melville impulsively bought a nearby farm, which he named Arrowhead. That winter, ensconced in his study with its view of Mount Greylock, Herman Melville wrote his masterpiece ‘Moby Dick’.

Melville’s most productive years were those he spent at Arrowhead; works written here include ‘Pierre’, ‘Benito Cereno’ and ‘The Confidence-Man’. Melville and his family returned to the city in 1863, but Arrowhead remained in the Melville family until 1972.”

The Barn Shop and Information Desk

In a barn behind the house there’s a shop and the desk where you can book for a house tour. In another out-building there’s an exhibition “So Far From Home: Whalers and Whaler Art”.

“The exhibit explores how Polynesian artworks influenced the art of visiting whalers like Melville, with a display of images, text, scrimshaw, tattoos, and Polynesian art and artefacts. Collector Jeffrey McCormick loaned a large selection of scrimshaw and other items to make this exhibit possible.”

There are also some fine examples of Whaling Journals and a model of the whaling ship ‘The Wanderer’.

Model of The Wanderer

In the field next to the house and garden there’s a rather strange sculpture. It’s called ‘Ahab and the Whale’ and it’s a startlingly life-like straw sculpture by Michael Melle.

The house tour itself was fairly interesting (no photography allowed) and the best part was visiting the study and seeing the view of Melville’s inspiration Mount Greylock.

Mount Greylock from Arrowhead

In addition to the house tour and exhibitions there’s a self-guided grounds tour described on the free leaflet that you are given when booking your ticket. Complete with quotations from Herman Melville the leaflet details the immediate house surroundings and barn and the Arrowhead Nature Trail across the meadow and through the woods where Melville was inspired to write. Unfortunately, time was tight at this point and I was unable to undertake the Nature Trail. Something else for next time!

By pure coincidence I received a Folio Society newsletter just this week alerting me to the Moby Dick Big Read. Here is what it says on the website :

… an online version of Melville’s magisterial tome: each of its 135 chapters read out aloud, by a mixture of the celebrated and the unknown, to be broadcast online in a sequence of 135 downloads, publicly and freely accessible.”

A year ago I said I wouldn’t be reading ‘Moby Dick’ but this year I intend to start listening to The Moby Dick Big Read.

A book for young whale watchers

As for embarking on a Whale Watch Cruise – well, I still won’t be doing that – but I now have a husband who did! And he saw some!! The whale watchers return :

Herengracht Life

Before the weekend just past I was last in Amsterdam in the late 1960s when it was all hippy and flower power and full of people sleeping rough and doing I don’t know what. I was on a cycling holiday and staying in a Youth Hostel outside the city by the Zuyderzee. I was not impressed by Amsterdam and couldn’t wait to get back to Broek in Waterland.

My previous impression of the city has been totally overturned. I love it! And I especially love the area where I stayed with my 2 Swiss friends. Our Dutch friend has a lovely flat nearby too. Of course, this Amsterdam canal ring is now, not surprisingly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our B&B was at 21 Herengracht in one of those so picturesque 17th century canalside houses of which Amsterdam is famous but which I didn’t even notice on my previous visit. Loes, our host, explained about the plan of the house – the narrow canal frontage was because the houses were taxed according to their width, the house is really 2 buildings linked by a covered passage (some houses still retain this tiny courtyard) – our duplex apartment on the second and third floors was reached by a very very narrow spiral staircase and situated in the ‘servants’ house at the rear of the building.

Courtyard within the house links the front with the rear building.

Rooftops of Amsterdam from our rear window.

Entrance lobby with obligatory bike!

Within 5 minutes walk of the Centraal Station, past the multi-storey bike park, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht in this part of town are an oasis of calm and seemed totally tourist-free and almost totally car free. The bikes however could have proved hazardous – but we soon learned to look out behind us and step back onto the narrow pavement as we heard a tinkling bell approach.

Houseboat garden with sculptures!

Of course, the folk of Amsterdam don’t just live in these picturesque houses by the canals, they also live in houseboats on the canals. Due to housing shortages in the 1960s and 1970s living in houseboats here was positively encouraged by the city council.

I’ve written about whaling here before. My friend’s flat on the Keizersgracht is situated on the ground floor of a 17th century whaling house [Walvissenhuis]. That is why the shutters have ‘Groenland’ written on them.

It was so relaxing to meet up at the Cafe Papeneiland at 2 Prinsengracht (right in the middle of the picture). It is a typical Bruin Cafe whose walls have turned brown from generations of cigarette smoke of the local regulars who meet here at all hours.

I can’t wait for another taste of Herengracht life!

Don’t call me Ishmael

I have never read Herman Melville’s classic fictional work ‘Moby Dick’. That is, if you don’t count the numerous extracts from it that we had to read for English comprehension tests at school. I always marvelled that so much could be written on the subject of a whaling expedition – the Penguin Classics edition fills 720 pages.

On a recent trip to Cape Cod I spent a day with my friend Marion who lives on the other side of Buzzards Bay. She knew just what I would be interested to see  – A Chart of the Whale Coast of New England.  M had chanced upon a newspaper report telling about a mural that had lately been removed from a seaside (bayside) home, had been carefully renovated and was now hanging proudly in the local museum. After lunch we drove to the Mattapoisett Historical Museum housed in a former Baptist church.

The icing on the cake for us was that we were welcomed to the Museum and shown in detail the Ashley Mural (as it is called) by Mr Seth Mendell himself, President of the Historical Society and a primer mover in the preservation of this wonderful piece of local whaling history for the community.

Mr Mendell explained all the intricacies involved in the creation, removal, renovation and final re-hanging of the Mural via the photo proofs for his book which is due to be published this autumn.

In addition to the Mural we were introduced to various forms of whaling harpoon.

And we were delighted to inspect some very fine examples of Whaling Journals. After pages and pages of seemingly undecipherable handwriting there suddenly appear ink stamp prints of whale tails (indicating sightings/attempted harpoonings) and full whales (indicating capture). One of the museum copies was also decorated with beautiful drawings of full-masted ships.

Later we went off to find the house where the Mural had hung for 90 years. It was discovered hanging at an angle from the ceiling in the conservatory at the front of the house (20, Water Street, Mattapoisett) overlooking the bay.

Yet, even after all this new-found whaling knowledge I was still not tempted to take a Whale Watch Cruise out into the Atlantic Ocean! And will I read the book? ….. probably not.