Geeking out at sacred literary spots

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 5/3/19

With a deadline looming last Monday morning, I wrote a column, quickly, about the whirlwind road trip my wife and I took the week before, that column focusing on the intrinsic value of maps.

Fully …

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Geeking out at sacred literary spots

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Posted

With a deadline looming last Monday morning, I wrote a column, quickly, about the whirlwind road trip my wife and I took the week before, that column focusing on the intrinsic value of maps.

Fully rested this week, and without the pressure of a deadline, a few more musings on a couple of the places we visited were in order, I thought, so here’s a bit more about our trip.

If someone were to create a Mt. Rushmore-esque tribute to American literature on the stone face of a mountain, the likenesses of Herman Melville, author of “Moby Dick,” and Mark Twain, author of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” would be prominent, so we were thrilled to visit the homes where these two authors wrote their greatest works.

In Hartford, Connecticut, we toured the intricately-designed, 11,000-square-foot home of Mark Twain. The beloved novelist, humorist and social observer, though he died 109 years ago, is immortal through the priceless work he left us.

Here’s one of my favorite Mark Twain quotes, from his memoir “Following the Equator.” Twain wrote: “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.”

Such quotes were available on t-shirts in the gift shop, along with a slew of other Twain merchandise, and we left with a bagful of our share, including a bottle of a beverage called Huckleberry Fizz.

Photos weren’t allowed inside the home, and that was just as well. It was enough to inhabit this sacred space for an hour or so, to stand in the room where Twain composed “Huckleberry Finn,” about which, no less an authority than Ernest Hemingway said was the spring from which “all American literature comes.”

As a younger man, on the strength of “Tom Sawyer,” “Huck Finn,” and “Life on the Mississippi,” I would have listed Twain as my favorite writer, and he’s still high in my top five; but last summer, after reading “Moby Dick” for the first time (the skimming I gave it for a college course doesn’t count) Twain’s station on my list was supplanted by Melville, whose home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, an hour-and-a-half drive from Hartford, was the final stop on our literary tour of the East Coast and, for me, the most special.

Where there were 14 of us (including our guide) on the Twain home tour, our visit to Melville’s home (he named the two-story house “Arrowhead”) was more intimate. My wife and I had arranged a couple of weeks prior to take a private tour of Melville’s home, which hadn’t yet opened for the season. As it happened, a fellow Melville admirer, a young man from Texas who’d driven to Massachusetts alone for the purpose, showed up at Arrowhead just at the time we did and, because of his good timing, took the off-season tour with us. Who the bigger Melville geek was — me or him — was up for debate, though the fact I showed up wearing a Melville t-shirt might have given me the edge, though he snapped far more pictures than I did; regardless, having another fan along for the experience made our experience immeasurably better.

Making our way slowly through Arrowhead, we saw the table at which Melville and his large family gathered for meals, the bedroom — and the actual bed — where Melville slept, the so-called piazza (most of us would call it a porch; but then, we aren’t Melville) that inspired his “Piazza Tales,” of which the short-story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is one.

But the coolest and most awe-inspiring part of our two-hour tour was seeing — and not just seeing, but standing in — the study where Melville wrote “Moby Dick,” the novel many bibliophiles (Hemingway notwithstanding) consider the world’s best.

Unlike Twain’s home, photographs were allowed, sort of, inside Arrowhead. A sign informed us that photos were permitted for “personal use,” but our guide cautioned that Arrowhead’s staff sort of frowns on the practice. To be respectful I limited myself to just a few choice opportunities for pictures.

The most revelatory artifact, one I couldn’t resist capturing with my camera, was the harpoon Melville retained as a souvenir of his own whaling experiences and four years spent at sea, a period early in his life which, of course, influenced his writing, in 1851, of his masterpiece.

The old iron whaling tool — the author used it as a fireplace poker — stood upright against a brick fireplace in Melville’s study, alongside his wooden walking stick.

Seeing all this — the study, the desk, the old whaling implement — was an experience difficult to put into words, so I won’t even try.

Some experiences like that, you just can’t sum up, maybe because they’re so extraordinarily special.

In that spirit, and to end my two-part travelogue and bring it full-circle with my column last week about maps, I’ll close with a quote from “Moby Dick,” Melville here describing the fictional island, called Rokovoko, from which tattooed harpooner Queequeg hails.

Melville wrote: “It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

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