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The Berkshires for bookworms

I’ll admit it. I always thought of Moby-Dick as the lima beans of great literature—good for you, but hard to digest. On a recent trip to the Berkshires to tour Edith Wharton’s estate, though, I learned that Melville’s home was not too far away. Intrigued to see how the author of such a weighty tome lived, I added a stop there to my itinerary.

Visiting both authors’ homes provided a fascinating study in 19th-century class and society in America. Should you be headed to the Berkshires—for live music at Tanglewood, a Shakespeare performance, or rugged adventure in the mountains—consider stopping for a visit at the homes of these literary greats. Even if you’re unfamiliar with their works (as was my traveling companion), you won’t be disappointed.

Wharton’s Estate: The Mount

I was first assigned Wharton’s Ethan Frome in high school. “Even if you read this in the middle of July,” my teacher promised, “you’ll feel icy cold by the time you’re done with the book.” He was right. Wharton’s depiction of an endlessly gray New England winter is so spot-on that I was easily transported to the Berkshires with little stretch of the imagination.

The Mount, Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, has been open to the public since 2002. There, bookworm tourists can see the bedroom where Wharton wrote her masterpieces, the suite Henry James would stay in when he visited, and a display of first-edition covers of Wharton’s many works. First-edition and rare books are also available for purchase at the Mount’s bookstore. A recent acquisition, not to be missed, is Wharton’s library, brought over from England. Returned to their original home, her books look handsome in the space intended just for their display.

Witnessing the extensive care the author took in planning her estate and gardens is an unexpected bonus to visiting the Mount. An authority on interior design, Wharton used her home as a showcase for elegance, symmetry, and practicality. Much like her books, the Mount’s details are chosen with economy, so function and aesthetics work together to create a space that’s both visually attractive and livable. When I asked the curators some of the comments they get from visitors, “I could live here” and “It’s elegant but not overwhelming” are frequently mentioned.

The Mount hasn’t always been so polished. Neglected for years and left in a state of disrepair, the estate is undergoing a massive restoration. There’s evidence of progress with each new visit, such as living areas restored to their former glory with authentically reproduced wall colors, plaster accents, and décor—all in accordance with original photographs of the home and Wharton’s taste—as well as seasonally changing gardens.

Summers bring the “Wharton on Wednesdays” event, featuring readings of her works on Wednesday evenings in July and August; “Selected Shorts,” readings of short pieces by famous authors; and the Amy Clampitt Poetry Series, an August festival celebrating American poets. Lectures on a variety of topics of interest to Wharton are also held regularly throughout the summer months.

Visiting information: Open May through October, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. $16 for adults, $11 for students, free for children six and younger. A one-hour guided tour is $4.

Melville’s estate: Arrowhead

Imagine a prolific, best-selling novelist discouraged from writing and falling into financial trouble after receiving several bad reviews. His passing is noted with little more than an incorrect obituary, and his works become lost to the ages … until, upon the selling of his Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home, two trunks are discovered in the attic. The trunks contain a manuscript, Billy Budd, which is posthumously published to great acclaim. Moby-Dick is re-published, and Herman Melville, years after his death, cements his place as one of the greatest American authors.

At Melville’s home, Arrowhead, you’ll hear these little-known stories, told by an expert guide, and also see the trunks in which Billy Budd was found. Perhaps most inspiring is Melville’s writing room, the space where Moby-Dick was written. This modest chamber features a stunning view past Arrowhead’s farm to Mount Greylock, which—in just the right lighting and weather conditions—resembles a great white whale cresting out of the sea.

A tour of the house also features original editions of several Melville works, and you will see his beloved chimney, a focus of his famous essay, “I and My Chimney,” the mantle of which still boasts inscriptions from Melville. Other worthwhile portions of the tour include tales of Melville’s friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne—Hawthorne’s influence inspired Melville to improve his writing—and original artwork by Maurice Sendak, who designed the cover for a Melville biography while briefly in residence at Arrowhead. The property is also hosting a new exhibit on writers in the Berkshires, on view through the 2007 season.

After seeing Melville’s writing room, gazing at the whale-like Mt. Greylock, and learning his riches to rags and posthumous back to riches story, I’ve been inspired to give Moby-Dick another try.

Visiting information: Open from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Closed Thursdays. $12 for adults, $5 for students, $3 for children ages six to 14, and free for children five and younger. Admission includes a guided tour of the house (by appointment only) and self-guided tour of the visiting exhibit.

Getting there

The Berkshires, particularly Lenox and Pittsfield, are easily accessible from Hartford, New York City, and Boston. It’s about three hours by car from either Boston or New York, or an hour from the greater Hartford area. This is a gorgeous drive in the fall when the mountains are awash in fall foliage.

Here are some good bets for where to stay once you arrive:

  • The Interlaken Inn in Lakeville, Connecticut, about an hour south of the authors’ homes, features spacious guest rooms and fitness facilities near a lake. The inn has a “Visit with Edith Wharton & Herman Melville—Writers’ Excursion” package that bundles your room rate with admission tickets to both the Mount and Arrowhead, dinner for two, and breakfast; rates are $249 midweek or $300 on weekends. The inn’s restaurant, Morgan’s, specializes in cuisine made with local ingredients, organic produce, and hormone-free meats.
  • The Cranwell Resort, Spa & Golf Club, a luxury property in Lenox, Massachusetts, offers a “Culture in the Country” package including one night’s lodging, two sets of two tickets to your choice of area cultural attractions (including Arrowhead and The Mount), breakfast buffet for two, and full use of the resort spa. Rates start at $385 for weekday stays, weekends start at $460.
  • The Red Lion Inn, Stockbridge, has put together a “Literary Landscape” package from $395 per night, including accommodations, dinner for two, breakfast, and two tickets to both Arrowhead and The Mount. This offer is available from May 28 through September 20.

If these package rates are too steep, consider putting together your weekend getaway a la carte. The Berkshires Visitors Bureau offers an extensive list of hotels, inns, B&Bs, lodges, motels, and more.

If you’re planning to visit the Berkshires, be sure to carve out some extra time for a tour of these literary locales. Like me, you may never look at Moby-Dick the same way again.

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