Up the Masthead

The other day I was sitting in Melville’s house, writing at his desk. Outside, fallen leaves scudded by in the light Berkshires breeze. It was the 166th anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick, a fact I realized with a bit of a shiver only after I returned home. Melville loved this corner of Massachusetts, and over the thirteen years he lived at Arrowhead, his farm in Pittsfield, he composed his greatest works in its second-floor study. And now here I was, staring at a blank page and breathing similar air. When I needed to stretch my legs I walked outside and in a few paces stood before the door of his dear friend Hawthorne, but no one was home. Same at Oliver Wendell Holmes’s place, and Longfellow’s too. Thoreau’s house was locked, a piece of paper printed with the words “Writer at work, do not disturb” laid on the doorstep.

Actually, I was at a shadow Arrowhead, a proxy second-floor study in the form of a freestanding tiny house. That the similar homes of four other quintessential Massachusetts writers of the mid-nineteenth century were only steps away from each other was a function of the same sleight-of-hand that brought these mobile writing rooms into existence and to the same patch of ground on the campus of Mass MoCA, a vast contemporary art museum housed in a defunct textile printing factory in North Adams. Architects Tessa Kelly and Chris Parkinson built succinct architectural quotations from the houses of five American Renaissance writers for the purpose of using “history as a platform to support the imagination and production of new creative work in Pittsfield.” Last summer these were scattered throughout northwest Massachusetts, five writers selected for residencies. Now together at Mass MoCA until the end of October and possibly beyond, they have been made available to anyone who reserves a three-hour slot. A mini-residency in a mini-house. But the experience had nothing small about it. It was vertiginously expansive. The less there is to observe the more there is to see.

The project is aptly named The Mastheads, after chapter 35 of Moby-Dick, in which Ishmael describes the visionary effects of standing watch in a minuscule aerie above the infinite sea, “lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie”

that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it.

Melville is just as surely depicting the act of sitting in a small study before the boundless white of the writing sheaf.

Each writer who goes into retreat — a circumstance that partakes of every aspect of Webster’s definition, from “to go back or backward” to “religious retirement” to “an establishment for the mentally ill” — faces both inward and out. What surrounds a writer matters integrally to what is produced there. There is the privacy of the “room of one’s one” that becomes permission; there is the solitude of the mountaintop upon which one either writes or gazes from afar. Every work of literature in existence incredibly enough began the same way, with someone entering a room and placing a mark on a previously blank surface. From void to plenitude, using only vaporous materials: thought, hope, bravery, foolhardiness. What Melville, for one, encountered inside his writing room was more dangerous than anything he faced on a whaling ship in the Pacific.

Not only does environment provide the specific conditions under which a work is made, it is in a way the only subject.

Mount Greylock, dominating the landscape of this portion of the state, also dominates the imagination of those who write here. From its height, Thoreau viewed “such a country as we might see in dreams, with all the delights of paradise,” as he wrote in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Its humped form might have inspired the figure of the white whale in Moby-Dick. Melville went on to dedicate Pierre: or, The Ambiguities to the mountain itself. In its shadow I shut the door on Melville’s studio and tried not to freak out.

Even though the battery on my phone had mysteriously died, the main occasion for emotional meltdown these days. Even though the idea of sitting anywhere Melville sat, even representationally, should have been terminally crushing to anyone who has entertained the notion of calling themselves a writer. Even though there was little way to procrastinate beyond going to peer into the other little houses, subtly different but all also the same, with ascetic pine interiors containing identical desks, single chairs, and benches — because you never know when you will need to recline. Even though I had to go find a rock to keep the latchless door closed against the wind that kept blowing it open, leaving me feeling exposed and unable to concentrate. (The houses’ doors, and walls, were admirably thick, perhaps to withstand the inevitable banging of heads against them.)

It happened all at once, then. I felt at ease and I felt time expand. Three hours was a yawning eternity that would end all too quickly.

Later I wished I could have known what was going on over there in Thoreau’s cabin: was inspiration coming in the louvered windows in great pine-scented gusts and its occupant transforming it into genius on the page even as I stared at knots in the wood? Had the spirit of Longfellow come to sit in his, minting money with every new line of Evangeline? Was Hawthorne in residence, changing fiction forevermore?

As I had approached North Adams, not knowing which of the little houses to which I would retreat, I had secretly wished for one. There was no disputing the honor of writing in the presence of the ghost of Holmes or Hawthorne or Thoreau. The only one I found myself hoping I might avoid was Longfellow’s, given the unappealing model of a writer who was a huge success in his lifetime but whom posterity has largely dismissed: the time for the first possibility had anyway passed, and the second was already all but assured. But I held out particular hope for Melville, grief-filled though his life might have been. Pierre received a major review under the headline “Herman Melville Crazy”; his first book of poetry’s modest printing remained largely unsold a decade later. The second attempt at a poetry book, his epic, had to be privately printed. The total run was a quarter of the first’s — with half of that ending up pulped. Only after his death did the world realize its mistake.

So in his house, how could I not: I wrote about writing. I thought about the conditions, and the courage, necessary for its production. I thought about how many separate pieces of wood made up the blank wall in front of me. Page after page of my notebook turned, except during those elastic minutes spent staring through the slit of window onto the green world beyond, where I heard as if for the first time the sound of an airplane crossing the sky. When I next looked inside, there it was. Nothing, and everything.

The less there is to observe the more there is to see.