Chapter 13. Romanticism in the Berkshires


In its very early history, religious concerns dominated American art and literature. During the Revolutionary period, political concerns prevailed. As political and economic stability grew in the new nation, attention could be paid to more purely artistic concerns. And when Americans turned to the world of art, they found it dominated by the romantic movement. Romanticism, in part, was a reaction against the restraints and rules of classicism. It stressed such ideas as sensibility, primitivism, love of nature, mysticism, and individualism. (Not exactly a list of Puritan virtues! Indeed, American romanticism can be seen as a revolt against puritanism.)

In order for an American romantic movement to develop, the harsh religious spirit in the country had to be softened. This was accomplished to some extent via the rise of Unitarianism, which became very successful among more literate classes, especially in and around Boston.

The freer religious climate allowed the spread of the philosophy of transcendentalism in literary circles. This belief system stressed that knowledge could be obtained by individuals intuitively--knowledge that transcended the reach of man's senses and the narrow confines of puritanical ministers. Emerson declared that one should even write one's own Bible.

Transcendentalism's stress on the ability of man to find God in nature provided American romantics with a defense against the charge of the Europeans that America had no real history about which to be romantic. The stress on finding God and truth in nature allowed the Americans to emphasize the pristine nature of the nation's forests and mountains as a source of romantic inspiration. The Hudson River School cultivated this love of nature in their landscape paintings. This so-called school began in 1825 with Thomas Cole's early landscapes and lasted for over fifty years. Some other artists in this tradition are Albert Bierstadt, Jasper Cropsey, and Asher B. Durand.

In America in general and New England in particular there occurred a flowering of literature in the romantic age from 1815 to 1865. Chard Powers Smith (1946:311:312) in the book The Housatonic: Puritan River, writes that "Between 1816 and the Civil War the banks of the Housatonic produced a literature that cannot be rivaled by any other region during any other American forty-five years except by the production along the Charles River in the same period, the Charles with its ostentatiously literate shores of Cambridge and Boston."

An interesting question is why so many talented authors arose in New England at this time. Part of the explanation is found in the great educational tradition and respect for education within the region. Another explanation is the considerable need for a rebellion of spirit against the harshness of Calvinist doctrine that more completely dominated New England than other regions.

Intimately tied to the break from Calvinism is the growth of Unitarianism in New England. Van Wyck Brooks states in his book The Flowering of New England that much of this flowering was a flowering of Unitarianism. The cry for greater religious freedom complimented the new emphasis on romanticism. And, in turn, romanticism, with its stress on individual feeling and interpretation, was itself part of the growth of religious liberalism in America.

Those persons most prominent in the literary world of the upper Housatonic River Valley were brought together on August 5, 1850, by David Dudley Field, Jr., a prominent New York lawyer, who lived in downtown Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The day began with a hike up Monument Mountain. The mountain got its name from the stone monument built here to the memory of a young Indian girl who killed herself by jumping to her death because she could not marry a man from another tribe. With binoculars from the top of the mountain, one can see the David Dudley Field Carrilon tower, the white spire of the Congregational Church, and Naumkeag in Stockbridge, and the Searles Castle in Great Barrington.

The hike ended with dinner and a hike through the Ice Glen in Stockbridge. In the party were Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Sedgwick of the literary Sedgwick family, as well as a few others. On the hike up Monument Mountain the group read a poem by another Housatonic River writer, William Cullen Bryant.

You can recreate some of the excitement of that August 1850 day by hiking up Monument Mountain. It is a steep climb so you have to be in pretty good physical shape, but the views are worth it. Park at a picnic-rest area on the west side of Route 7 a short distance north of Great Barrington and just south of the junction of Route 7 and Monument Valley Road.

One can also visit the homes of the literary men who hiked up Monument Mountain that August day. Two of the homes are in Pittsfield. Herman Melville moved to Pittsfield in 1850, preceded a year or so earlier by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who lived nearby. The same year that Melville settled in Pittsfield, Nathaniel Hawthorne moved to Lenox. Among the hikers, the most permanent resident was Henry Sedgwick whose family lived in Stockbridge. William Cullen Bryant, of the first generation of romantic writers, came from the Berkshire area. His house is located east of Pittsfield.

The only other prominent author associated with the area was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was a casual visitor to the Housatonic River Valley. In 1840 Longfellow began a twenty-seven year flirtation with the valley when he came wooing Miss Frances Appleton, who stayed at the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge. He married Fanny in 1843. Longfellow purchased a piece of Housatonic River territory known as the Oxbow. The love affair with the area lasted until 1867 when Longfellow sold the Oxbow and left the area for good.

The Sedgwick Family

The Sedgwicks were the leading intellectual family of the Housatonic River Valley, and Catherine Sedgwick was the leading woman novelist of her era. Her brothers were lawyers, but were also greatly interested in literature. They had all encouraged the literary career of William Cullen Bryant. Indeed, the Sedgwick home became a mecca for distinguished literary people from all over the world.

Catherine published in 1822 A New England Tale -- a short story influenced by Unitarianism (into which she had been introduced after her father's death by Dr. Channing). After the publication of her first book, Catherine divided her time between the homes of brothers Theodore in Stockbridge and Charles in Lenox. She published six more novels, which were greatly admired and widely accepted. In the winters in New York City she was included in the intellectual oligarchy of Fitz-Green Halleck, James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, and Samuel F. B. Morse. In 1832 Fanny Kemble, a famous English actress, came to the United States and made her way to the company of Catherine. In 1835 Washington Irving visited the Sedgwicks and Catherine published her last novel, The Linwoods.

In 1838 her brother Robert had a mild stroke. Catherine accompanied him and his family in 1839 on an European trip that lasted for two years. Shortly after their departure for Europe brother Theodore died, and shortly after the family's return from Europe Robert died. Catherine then went to live with brother Charles in Lenox. She died in Lenox in 1867.

The Sedgwick house (privately owned) is located just a few blocks walking distance west of the Red Lion Inn on Main Street, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Theodore Sedgwick, delegate to the Continental Congress and friend of George Washington, built the house in 1785 close to the banks of the Housatonic River. After looking at this private house you should walk down to the cemetery.

Walking down the cemetery's paved road, look off towards the right and you will see several graves arranged in a circle. This is the Sedgwick "pie" where Theodore and Catherine and other members of the Sedgwick family are buried. It is said that the graves are arranged in a circular fashion so that on Judgment Day when all arise from their graves Sedgwicks will only gaze on Sedgwicks.

Buried next to Catherine is Mum Bett, the first slave to win her freedom through the Massachusetts courts. Mum Bett ran away from the John Ashley house and lived with the Sedgwicks. Theodore Sedgwick even worked on the case to free Mum Bett. (You can visit the Ashley House near the Connecticut-Massachusetts border where Mum Bett worked as a slave.)

Eden Hill, (off of Prospect Hill Road across from Naumkeag -- privately owned), was the home of David Dudley Field who masterminded the hike up Monument Mountain. At that time Field lived in downtown Stockbridge. Field was very active as a lawyer following the Civil War. In 1857 he became the chairman of the commission to codify New York law and was responsible for much of New York's Penal Code and Code of Civil Procedures.

Field came from a very distinguished family. In 1858 Cyrus Field sent the first transatlantic cable. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln appointed Stephen Field to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1878 David erected the Children's Chimes Tower with native stone in Stockbridge as a memorial to his grandchildren. It is located on the very spot where the Little Church in the Wilderness stood, in which John Sergeant preached to the Indians.

William Cullen Bryant

With his 1817 poem, "Thanatopsis," William Cullen Bryant became one of the first writers to produce a truly quality piece of American writing. As an editor of a leading New York paper he was also deeply involved in every political issue of his times.

Potash Hill Road, off Bryant Road, Cummington

This is a six foot stone obelisk across from Dawes Cemetery. It marks the site of Bryant's birthplace. William Cullen Bryant was born in 1794 in a cabin two miles from the village of Cummington, Massachusetts. His father was a physician who had trouble making ends meet. In 1799 the family moved into the Snell house (belonging to the parents of Bryant's mother). This was to be Bryant's home until he left at the age of twenty-two to practice law. He later purchased and restored this house as a summer residence.

Bryant's father, a Federalist, served several terms in the legislature beginning in 1806. Undoubtedly, Bryant picked up some of his interest in politics from his father.

Bryant studied at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, entering the sophomore class in 1810. He roomed in West College, the older of the two campus buildings. At Williams College Bryant met Charles Sedgwick, whose family would prove so important to Bryant later. Bryant was disappointed in Williams College and withdrew in the third term of his sophomore year with hopes of entering the junior class at Yale. Unfortunately, his father's finances did not permit such an expenditure.

As an alternative, he opted to study for a career in law. Despite his obvious lack of enthusiasm for the legal profession, he was diligent enough to reduce the usual five-year course to four and be recommended for admission to practice in 1815. He began his practice in Plainfield, but after six months became a partner in a law firm in Great Barrington.

In 1817 the magazine "North American Review" (established in 1815 as an outgrowth of a Unitarian publication) published five of Bryant's poems, including the famous "Thanatopsis." This poem marked the beginning of a truly American, as distinct from a British, poetry.

In nearby Stockbridge Bryant took up company with the Sedgwick family beginning in 1820. The Sedgwick family had four sons, all lawyers, and a daughter, Catherine, who became a novelist. All were deeply interested in literary matters. He met some of the Knickerbocker writers -- James Fenimore Cooper, Fitz-Green Halleck and Robert C. Sands -- at the homes of Henry and Robert Sedgwick. Here he also met painters such as Thomas Cole.

Bryant House (private)
362 Main Street, Great Barrington

In 1821 Bryant married Frances Fairchild. The couple lived in this Main Street house from 1821-1822. Not long after his marriage, Bryant published a volume of his poetry, Poems by William Cullen Bryant. It was partly at the urging of the Sedgwicks that Bryant decided to abandon law and try his hand at earning a living by literary journalism in New York. He became the editor of the "New York Review and Atheneum Magazine."

In 1826 he became an assistant editor of the "Evening Post," working his way up to the editor spot by 1829. His investments in this newspaper eventually made him a prosperous man. Bryant gradually turned the paper into a liberalizing force. He was a Jacksonian and later supported the abolitionists. He still continued his poetry, coming out with a book of poems in 1831, at which time the country acknowledged him as its foremost poet.

Bryant and his family had been living in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1844 Bryant started renovating a house in Roslyn, Long Island. The house overlooking Long Island Sound was built by a Quaker in 1787. Bryant would spend two to three days every week at Roslyn from early spring until winter.

Bryant House
One and one-quarter miles down Bryant Road (off Route 112/9), then one-half mile to the house after the sign, Cummington, MA (Open Sat-Sun 1-5, June 15 to Oct 15)

In the summer of 1865 Bryant decided to purchase the family homestead (his boyhood home) at Cummington. He remodeled it as a summer residence, adding a library wing to the dwelling. Unfortunately, Bryant's wife died the following year.

In the parlor one sees examples of Rococo Revival furniture from Bryant's house in Roslyn. In the library are some of his medical supplies. Bryant today might be called a "health nut." He had stomach problems and migraine headaches (the latter may have stemmed from the lead used in the pewter dishes). To ease his bodily ills Bryant studied homeopathy, a method of treatment wherein drugs are given to produce in a healthy person symptoms similar to those of the disease.

The house here is still in a very isolated area. To the west are mountains with very few houses in between. In his bedroom one finds simple cottage furniture. Bryant loved to exercise and one routine involved pole-vaulting over his bed. Also in the room is a basket in which he kept his barbells. Bryant loved Turkey, and that is where he first started growing his beard. In the servants' quarters he even set up a Turkish room.

In his later years, while still writing editorials for the "Evening Post," Bryant worked on the translation of the Iliad. The work helped him take his mind off the death of his wife. At Cummington Bryant would take daily walks around the countryside -- walks of up to ten to fifteen miles. He died in New York City in 1878.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorn was born in 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. His father, a sea captain, died in 1808 while on a long voyage. When Hawthorne was twelve years old, the family moved to Raymond, Maine where they lived for three years before returning to Salem. This influenced his later decision to choose Bowdoin in Brunswick, Maine as his college.

After graduating from college in 1825 he returned to his family in Salem. He concentrated on his writing publishing many articles. In 1837 he published Twice-Told Tales, which first brought him some fame.

Hawthorne fell in love with Miss Sophia A. Peabody. Her sister Elizabeth ran a Boston bookstore that was intimately involved with the transcendentalist movement. Hawthorne did not care much for the philosophy, but had to be diplomatic because the sisters were deeply involved in it.

In 1839 Hawthorne received an appointment to the office of salt and coal in the Boston Custom House -- a position he held for two years. In 1841 he joined the transcendentalist utopian community of Brook Farm with the hope that membership would provide some way to support a future marriage to Sophia. The Brook Farm experiment proved not to be a source of income for Hawthorne, but he proceeded with his marital plans anyway, marrying Sophia in 1842. Following the marriage the couple lived in Concord, Massachusetts. Bryant was on cordial, but not intimate, terms with the transcendentalist authors living there.

The couple left Concord in 1845 when the owner decided to take over the Old Manse house where the Hawthornes lived. The Hawthornes needed money desperately, and through the help of his friends, Hawthorne finally got a government patronage job in the Salem Custom House in 1846. He lost this job in 1849 following the Whig victory in the presidential election of 1848.

Hawthorne had produced little in the way of writing while he held the government post, but after he lost it he started work on what became The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850. Some reviewers complained that the book was immoral. The book, however, can be seen as a criticism of the harshness of puritan religion.

Hawthorne Cottage (not open)
West Hawthorne Street, Lenox

While The Scarlet Letter created somewhat of a scandal, the publication along with it of the story "The Custom House" produced a storm so intense in Salem that the Hawthornes decided it would be best to leave for the Berkshires. In the story Hawthorne satirized the various Salemites involved in the controversy surrounding Hawthorne's loss of his position at the Custom House.

The previous autumn Hawthorne had obtained a house in Lenox. He settled into the house in June 1850, thereby escaping the heat of Salem. He lived here until November 1851. During this period he worked on what became The House of the Seven Gables, published in April 1851.

Although the cottage looks isolated, Hawthorne received many visitors from the literary world here. For entertainment the family listened to Hawthorne read aloud, and he often played with his children around the cottage.

Shortly after moving in, Hawthorne met Herman Melville on the hike up Monument Mountain. The men visited each others' houses. However, Melville idolized Hawthorne so much that his attentions took on an almost erotic tinge. The men were just too different in temperament. Hawthorne, a virtual misanthrope, was made uneasy by Melville's attentions. This proved too much for Hawthorne. It was probably one of the reasons why Hawthorne decided to leave Lenox. He settled in West Newton in eastern Massachusetts, later moving back to Concord.

In 1853 Hawthorne was appointed consul to Liverpool and lived in England from 1853 to 1857. He followed this with a stint in Italy from 1858 to 1859, after which he returned to England. He returned to Concord in the summer of 1860. He died in 1864 while on a trip with his friend, ex-President Franklin Pierce.

Herman Melville

Of the various authors involved with the excursion up Monument Mountain in 1850, perhaps Melville was the one most ahead of his time. While others were fighting with the Calvinist version of religion, Melville went beyond this issue to accept the scientific view of nature, a view which reached fruition in Darwin's 1859 Origin of Species. In this acceptance he moved closer to the emerging trend of realism.

Melville was born in 1819 in New York City. In 1830 the family moved to Albany after the father's importing business failed. Just two years later the father died, leaving the family heavily in debt. This meant that Melville would have to start work at an early age. He served as bank clerk, farm helper, store clerk and, finally, in 1837 as a school teacher in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

In 1841 he shipped aboard the "Acushnet," a whaling ship, bound for the South Seas. The cruise, as usual for a whaling ship, lasted four years. Melville, however, did not last four years as he and another man jumped ship at the harbor of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands.

He lived with a supposed cannibalistic tribe, escaping to join the crew of an Australian whaler. Melville was no happier on this vessel and was placed ashore at Tahiti to be tried for mutiny along with other crewmen. Informally released, Melville eventually wound up on his third whaling vessel -- this time completing the voyage. He returned to the United States via enlisting in the United States Navy. Back in the states in 1844 he started writing about his sea adventures. These adventures, Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847), proved popular.

In 1847 Melville married Elizabeth Shaw and settled in New York City. He had a hard time making ends meet as a writer as his more ambitious effort, Mardi (1849), was not accepted by the public. He then published two "potboilers," Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850).

780 Holmes Road (Open Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 1-5, June 1 to Oct 1; Nov 1- May 31 by appointment only)

In the summer of 1850 Melville took his family to Pittsfield and in September bought a farm there. At this time he met Hawthorne. He became so enthralled with the man that he may have helped chase him away from Lenox. While at Pittsfield, Melville worked on his master-piece, Moby-Dick, published in 1851. It received mixed reviews.

The Melville home was actually built as an inn in 1795. The tour starts with a fifteen minute video on "The Berkshire Legacy" that deals with the authors. In the former dining room are artifacts from sea trips south of the Hawaiian Islands. In the chimney room, Allan Melville put inscriptions from "I and My Chimney" above the fire place. The family used the north parlor for more formal occasions. You can see Mt. Greylock from the window. Outside is the piazza. Upstairs in Melville's office is his table that he used as a writing desk. You can also see Mount Greylock in the distance from this window. The red barn on the grounds is where Melville and Hawthorne would talk. It is now used as a gift shop/video showplace.

Melville moved from Pittsfield to New York City in 1863, exchanging residences with his brother. After many unsuccessful years of trying, he finally got a job as a customs inspector in 1866, a job he held until 1885. His later life was marked by complete withdrawal from society. He finished the manuscript of Billy Budd three months before his death in 1891.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes was perhaps the greatest English language conversationalist since Dr. Samuel Johnson. He carried this conversational style into his writings for the "Atlantic Monthly," which he helped establish.

Born in 1809 into the Cambridge home of a Congregational minister, Holmes went to Harvard at the age of sixteen. In 1830, just before making a commitment to study medicine as a career, he wrote the poem "Old Ironsides," which brought him some notoriety and helped save the ship from planned destruction.

Holmes was a resounding success in his medical career. After medical studies in both Boston and Paris, he obtained his degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1836. He helped found the Tremont Medical School in Boston and Harvard appointed him professor of anatomy and physiology, and then dean of their medical school.

Holmesdale (private)
497 Holmes Road, nine-tenths of a mile north of Melville's house make a right turn onto a dead end street -- the white house at the top of the hill on the left is Holmesdale

In 1848 Holmes' wife inherited $2,000. The couple decided to build a house in Pittsfield on property inherited from his mother's side of the family. The house, called Holmesdale, was located on a 300 acre plot called Canoe Meadow. The family would usually spend their summers here.

Holmes became the favorite target of criticism for the abolitionists in the winter of 1855-1856, because he referred to them and the prohibitionists as "moral bullies." This brought down upon him the ire of the entire abolitionist movement. With his feelings bruised and his income somewhat curtailed by the popular hostility, Holmes felt he could no longer afford Holmesdale. The family sought sanctuary in Boston. He sold the place in 1856 after holding it for a total of seven years.

Although Holmes ran afoul of the abolitionists, he wrote articles for the newly established abolitionist-backed magazine, "The Atlantic Monthly." Holmes wrote a series of articles in conversational style set around a breakfast table at a boarding house. This format allowed Holmes to comment on anything and everything, and the series, referred to as "The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table," made him immensely popular.

Along with Longfellow and Emerson, Holmes in his later years became a virtual literary deity in Boston. It was these men that Twain, much to his own regret, satirized at a December 17, 1877 dinner in honor of John Greenleaf Whittier. Holmes died in 1894.

Other Sites

While in Stockbridge visit the Ice Glen. Near Laurel Hill Avenue there is a footbridge over the Housatonic River giving access to this rocky area where ice can remain even in August. Residents of Stockbridge would often have an Ice Glen Parade through the area at night. See the chapter on "Wealth in the Berkshires" for other sites to visit in the area.

While in Pittsfield you can visit the Hancock Shaker Village (US 20, five miles south of Pittsfield). Also visit the Berkshire Museum (39 South Street) which contains a great deal of material on the Berkshires area. Among the exhibits are those dealing with rocks and minerals, birds of the Berkshires, stuffed animals, local Indians, paintings by Hudson River Valley painters, and a large map of the Berkshire area with lights indicating the high points. Also be sure to drive to Mount Greylock. The Visitors' Center here has a nice view of Pittsfield and Lake Pontusuc. Here are exhibits on the Civilian Conservation Corps, which built the trails on Mount Greylock. Also here is an observation tower from which are beautiful views of the town of Adams.


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