Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s historic house in Pittsfield, leads a marathon reading of Moby-Dick in early August and an annual hike up Monument Mountain in Great Barrington to commemorate Herman Melville’s meeting with Nathaniel Hawthorne. I have walked the loop on the mountain on a late summer afternoon and thought of the day they met.
The rock is harbor-seal grey and slick. Granite has a rough knap to it, something to grip. This stone is smooth under the knee I have wedged to scramble onto it. The trail seems to have disappeared into the tumble of stones.
I walked up here on pounded earth and bare rock along the ridge, and the slope seemed to drop away a few feet ahead into the tops of the white pine. Now I am easing my way onto the boulders at the top of Monument Mountain.
It’s not a difficult hike by Berkshire measures. The trail head just off Route 7 starts high up, and long stretches of the walk run flat and broad, smelling of earth and hemlock needles. The Indian Monument trail feels like an old road sunk between high banks.
Only the ridge is a scramble, and at the top a cheerful group of people are already resting in the late summer sun. They seem to have met casually up here and renewed an old acquaintance. A young woman points out Mount Greylock on the horizon and swings the talk to Herman Melville, who saw that shape and thought of sperm whales.
Not that the mountain looks like a whole square-headed 50-foot-long bull whale. Melville saw it as the back of the whale as it surfaced to blow and breathe and dive. Betsy Sherman, the director at Arrowhead for many years, explained this to me one morning when we walked through Melville’s house together. Melville could see Mount Greylock from his desk, but looking out from here I think it looks more like a whale’s back than I have ever seen it, slate blue with the hills around it in green waves.
Sherman and the Berkshire Historical Society say Melville talked about Moby Dick up here with Nathaniel Hawthorne, the day they met — they have an account of it from Joseph Smith, a local poet who described that picnic afternoon. Melville and Hawthorne famously took shelter from a rainstorm and started talking.
Looking down from the ridge, I wonder where the cave is, and what they said in the dark, leaning against the quartzite walls.
Many people have wondered about that conversation. If Smith is right, they got carried away in talking while the rain dripped off the rock. I know that kind of conversation, when ideas seem to build faster than you can say them, when you make connections you didn’t know you had and your voices tumble over each other.
Maybe the story has held on because a thunderstorm seems exactly the right time for a talk like that — one that began a galvanic friendship.
It holds onto me because both of them seem lonely. Melville, restless, ambitious and depressed, had fallen from his early success as a writer of traveler’s tales. Hawthorne, shy and solitary, had just published “The Scarlet Letter,” the book that made him a bestseller with the condemned and ardent Hester Prynn. They don’t seem to have had many people to talk to openly.
I want them to have something boyish and unbound in their lives, before the Civil War and the customs house closed in.
In the photo above, Mount Greylock shows in the distance, from the top of Monument Mountain. Herman Melville thought the ridge of Greylock looked like the back of a sperm whale surfacing above the waves. (Photo by Kate Abbott) This post is adapted from a By the Way column that ran in Berkshires Week in the Berkshire Eagle on Sept. 10, 2014. My thanks to Kevin Moran.