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Berkshire Sites Showcase Melville As New Movie Details Story Behind Moby Dick

A new movie based on the tale behind the American classic Moby-Dick has Pittsfield historical sites eager to showcase what they have to offer on author Herman Melville.Moby-Dick has fascinated generations – as evidenced by the release of a movie related to the tale more than 160 years after it was published – but realizing Herman Melville wrote the novel while sitting in his Pittsfield home might be even more fascinating for locals.

And you can stand at the very spot where he wrote it, peering out the same window.

Peter Bergman is the director of communications and community relations at the Berkshire Historical Society, which is housed at Melville’s home known as Arrowhead.

“When he got here he was working on his sixth book called The Whale,” Bergamn said while standing in what was Melville's writing space. “He found in the view of Mt. Greylock from his study a persistent view of a white whale emerging from the ocean. It was his inspiration for Moby-Dick. He faced it every day.”

Bergman describes what Melville saw in Mt. Greylock in the winter of 1850-51.

“When it’s covered in snow it splits into two peaks,” he describes. “The front peak clearly and very plainly resembles the shape of a sperm whale emerging from the water and the high peak behind it is very clearly a white wave, part of that wake of the whale. When the ground out here is snow-covered around 11 in the morning when sun is reaching its apex, mists begin to rise off of the snow and ice and it looks like sea foam. It is the most miraculous view.”

Typically closed for the winter, the historical society is holding house tours across six days in conjunction with the release of the film In the Heart of the Sea. Based on a book of the same name, it recounts the sinking of the whaling ship The Essex in 1820. Bergman says Melville’s The Whale, which became Moby-Dick, was initially more closely based on the recollection of The Essex’s first mate.

“He had read Owen Chase’s own rendition of that story during his own first voyage in the 1840s and was taken as much by the whale as he was by the survival techniques of the sailors used for three months in whaling boats trying to find the current to flow to South America to avoid the savages on the Pacific islands,” said Bergman.

While that story was not told in Moby-Dick, Melville created the protagonist Captain Ahab, who is obsessed with carrying out revenge on the massive whale. Bergman says Melville, who lived in Pittsfield for 13 years, used the renowned Pittsfield Elm Tree that stood in Park Square to describe the physically-scarred captain.

“Even saying ‘Just like a tree that’s been struck three times by lightning,’” Bergman recited.

Meanwhile, the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield is considered one of the top centers for Melville studies. Home to numerous personal and family possessions, books by and about the author, along with an extensive collection of whaling artifacts, the Herman Melville Memorial Room draws about a thousand visitors a year. Local history department supervisor Kathleen Reilly describes tools sailors would make from whale bone for use aboard the ship along with decorated whale teeth made for their loved ones.

“They would do this kind of artwork and some of them were quite good,” Reilly said. “Sometimes you just see whale teeth that have been carved with nothing on them and then you see real decorative pieces that have all kinds of whaling scenes or sometimes poetry inscribed on them.”

Despite the collection and a room dedicated to the author, Reilly says some locals are unaware of the writer’s history in the area, but is hopeful the film changes that. However, Bergman says the movie takes some liberties with Melville.

“I wish Ron Howard had contacted us,” Bergman said. “We could have helped him.”

Despite his understanding from the reviews, Bergman still plans to see the film right away.

“In the movie he has Melville as an insecure young writer bribing the story of The Essex out of a survivor, which is something that Melville did not do,” he said. “He did not meet Tom Nickerson. He certainly didn’t have stacks of money to us to bribe a story out of anyone.” 

Click here for information on the Arrowhead tours and what the Berkshire Athenaeum has to offer.

Debuting in the U.S. on Dec. 10, click here to find show times from In the Heart of the Sea at The Regal Cinemas at The Berkshire Mall.

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