Interview with Betsy Sherman on Herman Melville’s Arrowhead

Literary Tourist in The Berkshires 

Herman Melville lived at Arrowhead (so named because of arrowheads found nearby in the soil during planting season) from 1850–1863, during which time he wrote some of his best known works: Moby-Dick, The Confidence-Man, and The Piazza Tales, a short story collection named after his porch, of which he wrote:

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.

Built in the 1780s as a farmhouse, it was located adjacent to property owned by Melville’s uncle Thomas, who Melville visited in his youth. He purchased the property in 1850 with borrowed money and spent the next twelve years farming and writing. Money problems forced him to sell the property to his brother, and return to New York City in 1863 whereupon he eventually found work as a customs inspector.

The house remained in private hands until 1975, when the Berkshire County Historical Society acquired it and some of the original 160-acre property. The Society restored most of the house to Melville’s period and operates it as a house museum; it’s open to the public ‘during warmer months.’

I visited Arrowhead to learn more about why it should be on the Literary Tourists’s bucket-list.  Listen here to my conversation with Executive Director Betsy Sherman

Connecting with Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde Statue (4503030408).jpg
Statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square, Dublin

I’ve just finished reading Richard Ellmann’s splendid biography of Oscar Wilde. Filled with telling detail about the man and his times, illuminating insights and deeply empathic passages, the work is one of the most engaging I’ve ever read. Here’s how it ends:

“His work survived as he had claimed it would. We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”

Biography, when written this well, joins reader and subject in ways that only true-life friendships can approach. I felt a real void after finishing this book, and, to bring in literary tourism, a desire to explore the various places and books referred to in it. With this in mind, Dublin would be a pretty good starting point.   Dublin is one of 28 Cities of Literature around the world. It’s filled with all sorts of literary things to do and places to visit, including  Oscar Wilde House  and The Oscar Wilde Collection at Trinity College’s Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.

Ted Hughes on Hedgehogs

In  Letters of Ted Hughes ( edited by Christopher Reid) you´ll find a letter from Hughes to Edna Wholey in which he says he hears

“a commotion in the hedge, and after a while, out trundled a hedgehog, merry as you like, and obviously out for a good time. I thought he might make a jolly companion for an evening so I brought him in. After a while I noticed he had disappeared and later heard a noise just like the sobbing of a little child, but very faint, and it continued for long enough. I traced it to a pile of boxes, and there was my comrade, with his nose pressed in a pool of tears, and his face all wet, and snivelling and snuffling his heart out. I could have kissed him for compassion. I don’t know why I’m so sympathetic towards hedgehogs.”

Did you know that you can stay in the house that Ted Hughes was born in? It’s located in Mytholmroyd  in West Yorkshire, England, Check it out here. Unfortunately, I don’t think they can guarantee the company of any hedgehogs, but there is an annual Festival that you can attend. If rare books and archives excite you, as they do me, you can always make the trip to Emory University in Atlanta.  The Rose Library holds an impressive collection of Hughes’s papers, you might even be able to find the letter quoted above. The library also holds Ted’s private library, as well as books formerly owned by Sylvia Plath.

What they don’t tell you about Victor Hugo’s home in Paris

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by David d’Angers

Victor Hugo lived on the second floor of the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée in Paris from 1832 to 1848. He wrote some of his major works here, including a large part of Les Misérables…and received, among many friends, Lamartine, Vigny, Dumas, and Gautier, along with other noted writers and artists. But he didn’t just dine with them. Apparently he had peepholes installed into guest bedrooms so he could watch their amorous activities. Hugo in fact did more than watch. His mistress Juliet estimated that in one two year period he had sex with more than 200 different women.

The 5/6 room apartment at Place des Vosges presents three separate periods in Hugo’s life: before, during and after exile in Guernsey. You’ll find displays of the gothic furniture he designed, family portraits, memorabilia and some astonishing interior decoration he designed during his exile. There are temporary exhibitions of his photographs and drawings, and first editions of various famous books he wrote. A library is open to the public by appointment. The museum organizes talks in the apartment, and provides guided tours. Plus, entry is free. A visit here gives you a sense of what a multi-talented colossus the man was!

For more information, click here.