I drove up to the Berkshires in Massachusetts in late May. I had this trip planned for 2020, but then a pandemic happened. Finally in 2022, I felt comfortable enough to stay in a hotel (the Yankee Inn was better that expected—microwave, fridge, and freezer along with a free breakfast) and visit Edith Wharton’s house, The Mount. She has been one of my top favorite fiction writers for decades, and I’ve only recently become interested in her nonfiction on topics such as home decoration, gardens, and travel.
I’ve long been a fan of Wharton’s fiction, especially The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. This fiction inspired in me an interest in the Gilded Age that Wharton chronicles, and I used her quotes and mentions in my multimedia presentation on the Gilded Age, months before HBO’s series began. Tours of The Mount began on May 15, and my spot was reserved for May 16. I already had a ticket for a live interview planned for the 15th at the Mahalwe Theater in Great Barrington (Debbie Millman and Roxanne Gay) and I didn’t want to over-schedule my days. I wanted plenty of time to take notes and journal, and possibly also put down some inspired writing.
Before I set out on my Berkshire journey, I noticed that the hotels listed their proximity to the Norman Rockwell Museum. That would be an interesting excursion and might suggest a future essay, blogpost, or presentation. I booked a tour there, too, for one of me free days in Lenox, Massachusetts. And once I got to Lenox, I noticed there was a house nearby in which Herman Melville lived. I’ll go there, too! I had an interesting thing to do each day, and still plenty of time to relax and write. I was filling my well of ideas.
I drove north to Massachusetts on a Thursday and checked in to the Yankee Inn. I was thrilled with the hotel. It was quiet and my room had a writing nook with a large desk and chair. The posters on the walls were retro ski pictures clueing me in to the fact that this is a popular ski area. (I wouldn’t have known that otherwise, not being a skier.) I settled in and tuned in to a streaming lecture about Ralph Waldo Emerson I had planned. I got hooked on streamed lectures and book talks during the pandemic when various libraries and museums were forced to put their content online. There are still many available, and I attend whenever I can. Being an introvert, I thought this was the best way to spend my first evening in my hotel.
|My writing nook|
I headed over to the NormanRockwell Museum on Friday.
|The Norman Rockwell Museum|
It’s near the charming village of Stockbridge which Rockwell thought was charming, too. He painted a famous Stockbridge portrait of the shops that remain there, still. The museum is a newer construction away from the village. His house is there, and his last studio. For a while he had a studio on the second floor of one of the shops in the famous painting, but moved to his property later on. The studio wasn’t open for visitors yet (maybe Memorial Day), but I could walk all around it and imagine creating art in such a fabulous, tranquil setting complete with pond. There were some nature trails, but I didn’t walk them. I regretted that because what else did I have to do after touring the museum besides going back to the hotel? Maybe I was afraid I would get a tick or something.
|Norman Rockwell's Studio|
The museum supplied a thorough education on the life and work of Norman Rockwell. Always in museums I pick out my favorite thing or two, and here I chose Home for Christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas)—read more here: https://www.nrm.org/images/mobile-app/msc/msc-Steph.html
and the four paintings representing the Four Freedoms:
- Freedom of Speech
- Freedom of Worship
- Freedom from Want
- Freedom from Fear
When FDR spoke about the Four Freedoms as what we are fighting WWII for, Rockwell thought hard about what he could do. He arrived at a solution: he would make paintings about those freedoms so that regular citizens could understand. People might not click with abstract ideas, and were more likely to understand a painting. The four paintings are hung together and I was happy to see postcards of each freedom individually as well as an extra-wide card with all four in the gift shop. Take a look at them here: https://www.nrm.org/2012/10/collections-four-freedoms/
Home for Christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas) was everywhere as well, and I came out of that shop with another extra-wide card of it, a refrigerator magnet, and a cross-stitch kit which when done-up will be extra-wide like the original painting. On my last day in the region, I took myself out for lunch in a Stockbridge café located in the central building of that painting, the second floor of which was Norman Rockwell’s studio for a time.
Saturday was devoted to Herman Melville’s Arrowhead, a mere four miles from my hotel. This turned out to be the very location where Melville wrote Moby Dick! I find authors’ houses interesting, but when their actual desk is right there in front of me I’m thrilled. This is where it happened! I’ve seen Pearl S. Buck’s desk and Louisa May Alcott’s and others, and could barely contain myself. My friends heard all about these desks, and now they’ll hear about Melville’s. His is positioned near a window where he could look out and see Mount Greylock which he imagined as the whale!
Melville's writing table with Mount Greylock just beyond those trees
I could imagine someone who had never known high-definition TV convincing himself that the mountain was a whale, sure. He even built a piazza (porch) on that side of the house so that he could sit outside and gaze upon his whale.
The Arrowhead tour before mine had four people on it, and the one after mine had ten. My tour was just me, and I was able to chat with the guide without worrying that I would bore other tourists with my questions. I told her I’m a writer and that I was especially interested in a later work, Billy Budd, for an essay I was starting to write. He didn’t write Billy Budd in this house, she said. He wrote that later on when he house-swapped with his brother and moved back to Manhattan. After his early success with his first few groundbreaking novels, and moderate success with Moby Dick, Melville’s writing career took a nosedive and he couldn’t afford to keep Arrowhead and its property going. So he moved his family to Manhattan where he got a job but kept writing (Billy Budd among other novels), and his brother and family moved into Arrowhead.
|Melville's Arrowhead--that's the piazza on the right side|
Arrowhead has its own walking trails, and although it was a hot day I decided to walk them. One went into the woods where the trail was well marked but still rather wild. The other marked the boundary of a field, fallow now, but yielded crops in earlier years. All totaled, I walked about three miles in that unseasonal heat, and I was glad for my car’s air conditioning. Back to the hotel I went to ponder my Melville visit and look closely at the books I bought there. I and My Chimney is a short memoir about the central chimney of Arrowhead and how it prevented any remodeling ideas Mrs. Melville presented Herman with. That chimney was central to the house tour, too. While looking at my new books, I noticed a tick on my salmon-colored pants and brought him/her to the bathroom sink drain promptly. Proud of myself for not over-reacting to a dreaded tick, I soon found another, already embedded in my calf. Without tweezers or other amateur surgical instruments, I used Neosporin and my embroidery scissors to extract the bug. In pieces. The following week, back in New Jersey, my doctor told me I had successfully gotten all of the bug but prescribed a course of antibiotics and daily Neosporin on the wound. Back at work in Pennsylvania, a clever colleague named my tick Moby Tick, and that’s what I mostly remember about Herman Melville’s nature trails.
|Beware of ticks|
Sunday was free until Debbie Millman and Roxanne Gay’s interview at the Mahalwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. I learned of this event from The Mount, Edith Wharton’s House. They provided my pandemic experience with many book talks and lectures, and I’m still on their email list even though most of their offerings are now in-person. I was thrilled to have the chance to attend this interview as both women are important writers. Millman was meant to be the interviewee. She has an award-winning podcast which focuses on design as well as a big book of her best podcast interviews. Gay was to be the interviewer, but as it turned out, their interview was really a conversation. Either way it would have held my interest for hours, and the beautiful Mahalwe Theater was a posh setting. This excursion was the furthest from my hotel at 20 miles, but I got to drive through Stockbridge which I recognized immediately from the Norman Rockwell painting.
The reason I drove the four hours to Massachusetts is The Mount. This was Edith Wharton’s home from 1902-1911, just after the Gilded Age she chronicled in her stories and up to when she divorced her husband Teddy and moved to France. I listened to her book, The Decoration of Houses during the car ride from New Jersey, and learned a lot of things that I would see on this tour. For example, she loved symmetry. Even if she had to create fake window or doors, she insisted that everything be balanced. She disliked ruffled curtains, but strangely had them in her boudoir, an office connected to her bedroom. This boudoir is where she would sit at a central table to pay bills, talk to staff, and conduct the business of running the estate. She actually wrote in her bed, every morning, like someone else I know.
|Edith Wharton's The Mount|
The Mount features gardens and trails. After the trauma of the Moby Tick incident, I skipped the trails and focused on the gardens. There are two, the Flower Garden and the Italian Garden. It was early for flowers to be blooming in the former, but there was a center fountain providing visual and aural niceness, and a few pops of color. I remember a few tulips, notable to me since New Jersey is finished with tulips. The Flower Garden and the Italian Garden are connected by the Lime Walk, two rows of Linden trees with a path between. The Italian Garden, as Edith Wharton describes in Italian Villas and Their Gardens, does not feature lots of flowers but instead shrubbery, masonry, and furniture. It’s too hot in most of Italy to grow flowers, so the gardens are really rather outdoor hangouts with few flowers. Having for years tried to grow petunias and begonias at our family’s beach house, I understood this immediately. I’m not there to water typical annuals every day, so the only flowers I can nurture are geraniums and portulaca. I imagine it would be even more difficult in Italy!
|Columns in the Italian Garden at The Mount|
I toured the house and learned
that Edith Wharton loved dogs. She always had a few, and there were dog beds
(fancy ones) in odd places in the house. She kept a glass jar of dog biscuits
at her place on the dining room table.
Dog biscuits in the dining room
That dining room table was round, by the way, because Edith Wharton liked to be able to see everyone with whom she was eating and promote good conversation. It was set for tour visitors as she would have had it. A recurring theme on this tour is that Wharton did not subscribe to the confined fanciness she wrote about in her Gilded Age novels. She rebelled against it. The house was inviting and welcoming. It seemed comfortable. We saw an actual librarian in the library who was more than happy to say a few words about some treasure in that room. She showed us some books that were signed to Wharton, one by her friend, novelist Henry James. She spent a lot of time and energy on this library, and roughly half of her books came home to stay there. She died many years after The Mount years, in France, and her will stipulated that her books would be divided between two young men. One of those kept his books in a warehouse in which the Wharton books were destroyed, and the books belonging to the other young man found their way back to The Mount. The Mount’s library would be a dream to explore, and the librarian seemed willing to help scholars explore it.
|Part of The Mount's Library|
All in all, this turned out to be a fantastic solo trip, one I wouldn’t mind repeating since these destinations are so committed to providing special exhibits, lectures, and book talks which are like catnip to me.