Three Houses and a Book

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Edith Wharton built The Mount in Lenox, MA in 1902. Photo: edithwharton.org

I have always loved to visit the homes of my favorite authors, to see in person where they lived and wrote. So far, I have visited the homes of Thomas Wolfe, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau’s temporary home of Walden Pond, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. This summer I was able to add to this list by touring three historic literary sites—all National Historic Landmarks—in the fabled Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. My visits to Edith Wharton’s The Mount in Lenox, Herman Melville’s Arrowhead in Pittsfield, and the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site in Great Barrington were edifying, inspiring, and provided a striking study in contrasts. My visit to the latter was motivated by the Crozet Library Book Group’s selection of The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, which generated lively discussion on September 12 and is briefly reviewed at the end of this article. The library book club meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on the first Monday of each month, and all are welcome to attend.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was one of the most successful women authors in America, who drew upon her insider’s knowledge of upper class New York lifestyles during the Gilded Age (roughly 1870 to 1900) to realistically portray—and satirize—their lives and values. In 1921, she became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature for the Age of Innocence. Her first novel (and my personal favorite), House of Mirth, was an immediate bestseller when it was published in 1905; she is also famous for the haunting novella Ethan Frome. As an accomplished interior designer and co-author of The Decoration of Houses (1897), in 1902 she designed The Mount and its stunning gardens herself. The Mount is nothing short of palatial. Inspired by classical Italian and French architecture, the entire structure—from halls to doorways, windows, and staircases —is symmetrical, with high-ceilinged rooms, marble fireplaces, tapestries, and molded plaster garlands decorating walls and ceilings. We lunched at the elevated stone Terrace Café, then descended its sweeping staircase to the grounds, which include a formal garden, fountains, grape arbor, and pond. Novelist and frequent visitor Henry James described it as “a delicate French chateau mirrored in a Massachusetts pond.”

Herman Melville wrote Moby Dick at Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA, where he lived from 1850 to 1863. Photo: massmoments.org

Herman Melville (1819-1891), author of Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), Billy Budd, is best known for his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851)—which he wrote while living at Arrowhead in Pittsfield. Many critics consider it the single greatest work of American literature. He purchased this large, comfortable farmhouse on 160 acres in 1850, where he lived with his wife, four children, mother, and three sisters until 1863—while also enjoying the companionship of other literary notables such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Oliver Wendell Holmes. He named it for the many Indian artifacts dug up while farming the property. The house features large rooms, wide-planked hardwood floors, a glorious view of Mount Greylock from Melville’s writing desk—which has been compared to a whale emerging from the waves—and a large covered terrace that he called a piazza. The generous fireplace, commemorated in his short story “I and My Chimney,” is inscribed with his writings. In spite of Melville’s short-lived fame for his tales of the South Pacific, Moby Dick was a critical failure. He was forced to sell Arrowhead and return to New York, where he worked as a U.S. Customs Inspector for 20 years while continuing to write poems and short stories, such as “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno.” Although he died in relative obscurity, the discovery of the unfinished manuscript of Billy Budd in the 1920s launched a reassessment known as the Melville Revival, and his true literary worth was finally recognized.

The Love Song of W.E.B. Du Bois

William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) was as important an author, sociologist, and scholar as either Melville or Wharton. Considered the Father of the Civil Rights Movement, in 1895 Du Bois became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, and in 1910 co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He preferred his name be pronounced Du Boys to disassociate himself from the French. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), he argued that “the [central] problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” and protested tirelessly against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and discrimination in education and employment. He wrote The Talented Tenth (a collection of articles by the African American intellectual elite), and Black Reconstruction in America (1935), plus three autobiographies. He was awarded the Springarn Medal in 1920 and the Lenin Peace Prize in 1959. But after visiting his National Historic Site, created in 1969 at the location of his boyhood home in Great Barrington, my son and I were nonplussed. 

In stark contrast to the grandiose Mount and sprawling, cozy Arrowhead, Du Bois’ homesite consisted merely of an “interpretive trail” through the woods, peppered with eight or ten illustrated signs about his life, and leading to the ruin of his boyhood home (duboisnhs.org). Along the way, we passed a large “legacy boulder” that was dedicated in 1969 by the W.E.B. Du Bois Memorial Committee, with a keynote speech by Julian Bond. Although plans began in 2014 to create the Du Bois Museum and Center for Freedom and Democracy in the former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church in downtown Great Barrington, a project which has received several grants from the National Park Service and the state of Massachusetts, its progress is currently on hold due to lack of funding (duboisfreedomcenter.org). What a contrast to the well-funded Mount National Committee and Berkshire Historical Society management of Arrowhead—a difference which underscores the message of Jeffers’ novel.

Plans are underway for a W.E.B. Du Bois museum and Center for Freedom and Democracy in Great Barrington, MA. Photo: archaeologyincommunity.com

The bestselling Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois, by poet and University of Oklahoma professor Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and was longlisted for the National Book Award, a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Fiction, an Oprah Book Club selection, and one of the New York Times’ 10 best books of 2021. In addition to being a celebration of W.E.B. Du Bois—who briefly appears as a character—this book is an epic history of racial injustice and justice in this country, told through the experiences of one extended family whose descendants still live on Creek Indian land. The book chronicles its transformation from the Place in the Middle of Tall Trees to Wood Place Plantation to the fictional town of Chicasetta, Georgia. Jeffers writes that “the original transgression of this land was not slavery. It was greed, and it could not be contained.” She prefaces each chapter with a Du Bois quotation—similar to his prefacing each chapter of The Souls of Black Folk with a “Sorrow Song” from slave times or a quotation by a major author. Perhaps these “love songs” replace his “sorrow songs.” As Ron Charles comments in his Washington Post review, “Jeffers constructs her story to illustrate the integration of African and Indian pain in America. Almost immediately, the genealogies of her White European, Native American, and enslaved African characters begin to mingle in a collage of expediency, love, and rape.” This beautiful book spans multiple generations from the Indians, through slavery and Jim Crow, to the 1990s, encompassing college life, marriage, childbirth, advanced degrees, and addiction. As Veronica Chambers notes in her New York Times review, “One of the many triumphs of Love Songs is how Jeffers transforms this large history into a story that feels specific and cinematic in the telling.”

This legacy boulder was placed in memory of W.E.B. Du Bois in 1969 at the site of his boyhood home.

Dreams and visitations lend a supernatural element to the book. Book group members found the numerous stories of sexual abuse—extending from slavery into present times—disturbing, which made the book painful to read at times. Ailey, the protagonist, through her research in pursuit of a Ph.D. in history, discovers truths about her ancestors she never imagined. Chambers adds, “Ailey’s quest is this: How does a young Black woman craft a life that is joyful and whole against the backdrop of the American South, where the land is a minefield of treasures and tragedy?” Charles (WaPo) notes that “Jeffers’ story traverses a geography of unspeakable horror, but it eventually arrives at a place of hard-won peace…. At 800 pages, it is, indeed, a mountain to climb, but the journey is engrossing, and the view from the summit will transform your understanding of America.” 

W.E.B. Du Bois (Photo courtesy W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site outside Great Barrington, MA)

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