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

Salem Massachusetts Before and After

Literary Tourist in Salem

This is a before and after story. Before: We’d first visited Salem some years ago primarily to check out The House of Seven Gables. It’s New England’s oldest wooden mansion, and inspired

.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name. Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersol, had inherited the property from her wealthy sea captain father in 1804, the year Hawthorne was born. Later on, Nathaniel used to visit the house frequently between 1845-1849 when he was a surveyor at the nearby Custom House. During this time he wrote his first critically acclaimed and best known work, The Scarlet letter.

We learned all of this, and a lot more, from our tour guide. She was terrific, and made all the difference. I’m kind of ambivalent when it comes to writers’ houses. Many of them can seem fake and contrived. Tourist traps. If, however, the guide is informative, animated, and funny, the experience can be really enjoyable. This, as I say, was the case with ours.

Gift shops are always fun. And this place has a dandy. It sells lots of funky literary stuff, including this tea pot

Salem is also home to an evocative cemetery

where Nathaniel’s ancestor John Hathorne is buried. And yes, Nate changed the spelling of his name to avoid any connection with the old judge, the only one involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions; plus there are some truly beautiful old ships docked here,

beside which you can

Anyhow, getting back to before: when we were first in Salem I took great pleasure in browsing through the Derby Square Bookstore.

It’s one of the most overstuffed floor-to-ceiling shops I’ve ever visited. Not that the stock was all that interesting. It wasn’t. And even if it was, there’s little chance of being able to pull much out, without taking down the entire stack.

Hard even to see who you were paying your money to.

For presentation alone however: Most memorable!

Now, however, after, when we visited last month, the store is much changed.

Bookshop, Salem

I was pleased to see that the building was still occupied by a bookshop, but it’s nowhere near as remarkable.

***

While my companions followed the scarlet brick road (okay line) around town – no double inspired by Hester Prynne’s walk of shame – I decided to do some writing/surfing at this fine local, dog-friendly,

dog motiffed

coffeehouse. The service was spirited

as was the coffee. Lots of electrical outlets, wooden floors, good music, artisan beer – the perfect writers’ hangout. As for the name,

Gulu, Gulu, romantically, “Marie Feldmannova and her husband, Steve Feldmann, named their quirky place for the cafe in Prague where they met.”

For advice on what to do and when to do it – Halloween and witches cast a spell over the place in October – check out Salem Tourism’s website here.

Audio: Top 10 Literary things for you to do in Houston

Attention Literary Tourists! I met with Kristi Beer from Inprint Houston, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring readers and writers in Houston, Texas. Founded in 1983, Inprint fulfills its mission through the nationally renowned Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, the Cool Brains! Reading Series for Young People, and literary and educational activities in the community that demonstrate the value and impact of creative writing, and support of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. All of this constitutes an important contribution to Houston’s rich and diverse cultural life.

Who better then to question about how the Literary Tourist might best spend his or her time in Houston than someone at the center of this vibrant organization. Listen here to our conversation

Know Before You Go

Visit Houston has a great website filled with useful information about accommodation and cultural activities taking place in the city. You’ll also find special ticket rates and admission offers to Houston’s most sought after museums, theaters and art galleries.

[Please note that this interview was conducted several years ago, so check the Inprint website for information on current and upcoming events etc.]