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On the Trail of Hawthorne & Melville

R.Cheek
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Retrace the steps of these famous scribes on a visit to Monument Mountain.

Nathaniel Hawthorne once lived in the Old Manse in Concord.

Bernard A. Drew is a journalist and historian. He lives in Great Barrington.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Special Places, The Trustees’ member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

 

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A wingy forest junket of a few hours’ duration, more than a century and a half ago, has earned a small corner of the Berkshires a place in American literary history second only to Walden Pond.

by Bernard A. Drew

Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville on August 5, 1850, struck up a lasting acquaintance on Monument Mountain, one that afforded the Scarlet Letter scribe opportunity to converse with an intellectual equal and the Omoo man thoughtful direction for his in-progress seagoing adventure about stalking an albino whale.

Hawthorne noted in his diary that he had ascended the Great Barrington knob with a party that included Melville. No “eureka” moment. Melville wrote nothing. Their friendship came later. Cornelius Mathews’ foppish articles for Literary World let on that “Town Wit,” as he called Oliver Wendell Holmes, apparently swallowed too much champagne, as he came “near losing his foothold and tumbling straight down a thousand feet.” Melville, he indicated, was intoxicated with the height and “certainly fancying himself among the whalers of the Pacific, for he perches himself astride a jutting rock, like a bowsprit.” Hawthorne was a gloomy gus – Mathews called him “Mr. Noble Melancholy.”

Picnic host David Dudley Field Jr. arranged dozens of excursions over the years – though none other caught the public’s fancy. The Young Men’s Association of Pittsfield as early as 1869 staged what is still the best-attended re-enactment – some 175 people traveled to the mountain by train, 25 more by carriage or wagon. “The Monument Mountain party…were driven part way up the mountain, and then climbed on foot to the craggy summit, whence their eyes were regaled with the glorious panoramas,” The Berkshire County Eagle reported on June 10, 1869. The hoofers surely followed the original route, as the road and path to the top were not yet touched by colliers or loggers or trail builders. But again, no one wrote down the specifics.

I set out in winter 1999 to determine exactly what route – of at least four viable ones and a handful of less-likelies – the 1850 party took to reach Squaw Peak. Seven years and some 403 hikes over burbling streams and beneath shady hemlock branches later, wearing out two pair of rugged Skechers shoes, absorbing the rudiments of forest forensics from author and naturalist Tom Wessels and accumulating a file drawer of clippings, photocopies and notes, I have identified and mapped 262 charcoal hearth sites on the mountain, four quarries, two cabin sites, four tan bark roads and uncountable charcoal wagon roads, all testimony to Monument’s now well-disguised industrial past.

I am satisfied, largely through evidence on the land, that today’s Indian Monument and Squaw Peak trails on Monument Mountain Reservation shadow, but only partially follow, the ones (hidden but still there) taken in 1850. That in no way dims the fun of the Berkshire Historical Society’s re-staging of the literary picnic, an annual event since 1977. Someone always recites William Cullen Bryant’s verse, “Monument Mountain,” though the toast is non-alcoholic – considering the antics of the original, you can understand why.

Learn More

Retrace the steps of these famous scribes on a visit to Monument Mountain.

Nathaniel Hawthorne once lived in the Old Manse in Concord.

Bernard A. Drew is a journalist and historian. He lives in Great Barrington.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2006 issue of Special Places, The Trustees’ member magazine. To subscribe, join The Trustees today.

 

Join Us
Donate
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