Arrowhead Executive Director Lesley Herzberg described the relationship between the library and the historical society at Arrowhead as a partnership.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — For Herman Melville's 200th birthday, the Berkshire Athenaeum is being recognized as a literary landmark and its Melville collection is growing this fall.
"For over 75 years, the Berkshire Athenaeum has been the home of the largest collection of Melville family, personal memorabilia in the world as well as one of the largest research collections available for scholarly research," said Kathy Reilly, who heads the local history department.
Melville had written his famed Moby Dick while living in the Berkshires and many more. His home at Arrowhead still preserves the desk on which he wrote 'Billy Budd.' Arrowhead is the place people can go, look out the window, and take in what the famed author experienced. Melville's presence in the Berkshires has been well-documented and has become a destination for many.
"His time in the Berkshires included visits to the Melville farm, now the Country Club of Pittsfield, Balance Rock, Pontoosuc Lake, Hancock Shaker Village, and Monument Mountain among others. The landscape of the Berkshires and his beloved Arrowhead inspired him to write some of his best-known works," said Lesley Herzberg, executive director of the Berkshire County Historical Society.
Meanwhile, the library's collection of scholarly work on Melville continues to grow. In 1953, the Melville Memorial Room was opened and has been an attraction for scholars to delve deeper into his work. Melville's descendants donated material on his life as did scholar after scholar. The collection has continued to grow.
This year, one the leading Melville scholars, Hershel Parker, is donating his entire life's work to the Berkshire Athenaeum.
"Our trustees have accepted the gift officially, which will arrive this fall. In order to provide for the proper storage of the extensive collection, we will soon be adding to our compact shelving system in the local history department," Reilly said.
"This is an expensive undertaking in which professor Parker has already made a generous contribution. Additionally, we've received a donation of $10,000 from Jennet Cook, who is here today. This is in memory of her mother Janet Cook."
Jennet Cook began to sob a bit when Reilly announced that to a crowd of more than two dozen people on Thursday as library officials unveiled a plaque dedicating the library as a literary landmark. Cook's mother, Janet, had been a longtime volunteer at Arrowhead and close friend of Parker, and Parker had begun his life's world at the library.
Parker is now H. Fletcher Brown Professor Emeritus at the University of Delaware and the author of a two-volume biography of Melville and editor of a 15-volume edition of Melville's writings, among other works.
"This particular collection will bring many, many younger, developing Melville scholars to Pittsfield to dive into areas of professor Parker's collection. He said there are lots of little kernels in there that people can develop further," Reilly said. "I think it would be a real draw for Pittsfield."
The collections grew so big that the library needs to add more shelving and get new material to protect it. The $10,000 donation will help make that happen along with other donations from Parker himself, donations the library is looking to take in and a contribution from Community Preservation Act funding.
"His decades-long relationship with Pittsfield and the athenaeum, back to the days of research with then local history supervisor and longtime library trustee Ruther Degenhardt, helped him decide that he wanted to share his Herman Melville research legacy with the world by bringing it here. This is a major collection and will add to the richness of what we offer every visitor," said Pam Knisley of the Friends of the Berkshire Athenaeum.
Fittingly, the recognition falls on what would have been Melville's 200th birthday. A series of events are being held throughout the week to recognize the occasion -- from a birthday party Thursday night to a marathon reading of "Moby-Dick" to tours and a community day at Arrowhead to a hike up Monument Mountain, where Melville had met Nathaniel Hawthorne.
"It's become my second home. I absolutely love it. Not only do I write there, but I also give tours, I work in the gift shop. I do pretty much everything because I love it so much," Arrowhead author in residence Jana Laiz said.
Laiz said Melville loved the Berkshires and being a such a fan of his work, she can feel the energy and inspiration in the Berkshires that led to the writing of many great pieces of American literature.
State Sen. Adam Hinds agreed that there is "something profound" about the region and the city of Pittsfield. He said the city should take advantage of it being the inspiration for Melville and other authors.
"It also comes down to the community's role to make sure we are capitalizing on that as best we can," Hinds said, before reading a Senate citation recognizing the event.
Mayor Linda Tyer is already kicking around ideas to "put our stake in the ground" in recognizing that Pittsfield is Melville's home. She's already in talks with others about celebrations and events to recognize the author and the region.
"I think there are opportunities to celebrate this on a much grander scale," Tyer said.
Tyer reflected on her own experience reading Melville. "Moby-Dick" was required high school reading and it didn't mean much to her then. But, a couple of years ago she was asked to participate in the marathon reading of the novel and it struck her in a brand-new way.
"I went up to Arrowhead and spent about a half an hour reading, 10 or 12 pages in the first third of the book. As I was reading aloud, it started to come to life for me, the brilliance of the writing, the words, the passages and the way they were structured," Tyer said. "I thought I really have to re-read this now that I have some experience in the world and can appreciate the writing."
Mayor Linda Tyer says the city could do more to celebrate being the home of Melville.
And maybe others will get that same sense, too, with the celebration of his work. State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier said the Berkshire Athenaeum in another 200 years will likely be gone. The books and CDs will likely have morphed into a different technology.
But, she said Melville's words, role in history, and the sense of community he brought to Pittsfield will never be gone.
She further expressed awe at how the Berkshire Athenaeum has become a perfect center for the community and she also presented a citation from the House of Representatives.
"The Berkshire Athenaeum is one of our best examples of community. In the same building where you have kids downstairs in reading circles, and mom and me sessions, and teenagers breaking out a little bit, having accessibility for everybody whether it is through books on tape or being able to physically be accessible, and then to have the accessibility for professional researchers who are doing top-level work all in the same building," Farley-Bouvier said.
"Right across the aisle, we have access to English language learning material for our newest neighbors. This is all happening at the same place."
The literary designation is part of that recognition. United For Libraries is a program that recognizes locations across the country for the roles they played in literature: the taverns, parks, buildings, and other places where famous authors wrote to the places they were born. Melville had lived here and had taken inspiration from the Berkshires.
"From start to finish this was a team effort and everybody worked incredibly hard to make this day, and all of these events, happen," Amy Chin, from the Friends of the Berkshire Athenaeum said.
With that, the festivities began with Chin joining Library Director Alex Reczkowski in revealing the plaque that will hang in the Melville room.
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