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Berkshire Writing Project Explores A Literary History of Activism


A unique project in the Berkshires combines architecture, literature, and social activism. WAMC reports on the second year of the Mastheads project.

In year one of the Mastheads, we built five mobile writing studios that were based on authors who were writing in Pittsfield during the American Renaissance,” Tessa Kelly told WAMC.

Working with her husband Chris Parkinson, Kelly co-created The Mastheads – initially funded by a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts in 2014. The project is now funded by a variety of organizations and community members. The two also run the architectural firm Arcade in downtown Pittsfield. The first year of the program brought five young authors to Pittsfield, pairing their work with educational programming.

“We got some feedback last year that people would like to learn about more Berkshire authors through the lens of The Mastheads,” Kelly told WAMC.

This year, the project will explore themes around literature and activism based on the writings of Berkshire authors around the time of the Civil War.

“We’re looking at Catharine Maria Sedgwick, Fanny Kimball, Herman Melville, William Cullen Bryant, and W.E.B. Du Bois," said Kelly. "And as we did last year, we’ve produced a reader, the Mastheads reader, which starts with about a 15-page introduction by our director of scholarship Jeffrey Lawrence who’s an English professor who helps us kind of research and situate what we’re doing each year.”

“Some of the topics that come up as you’re thinking about the 19th century are the questions of slavery and racial discrimination in the 19th century," said Jeffrey Lawrence, assistant professor of literature at Rutgers University, and Mastheads team member. “In the case of W.E.B. Du Bois, his work on racial discrimination in the early 20th century I think has found real echoes in contemporary works that are talking about the ongoing legacy of segregation in the United States, things like Black Lives Matter.”

Throughout July, The Mastheads will offer a lecture series to accompany the literary inquest, including a presentation on Du Bois by Williams College Political Science professor Neil Roberts at the Berkshire Athenaeum on July 10th presented in conjunction with the Berkshire County NAACP.

“Working together as a community – I mean, that’s something that he was very strong on," said Berkshire County NAACP President Dennis Powell, reflecting on Du Bois’ civil rights legacy. A native of Great Barrington, he co-founded the group in 1909. “When you look at all the goals and objectives that the NAACP has been working on for the last hundred years, it’s all relevant today. It’s a way to keep us grounded and understanding that we have to as a nation be able to co-exist, to work together, for the common good – and what is the common good? The common good is us.”

Kelly and The Mastheads team are preparing for the arrival of this year’s writers.

“They all get here on July 1st," said Kelly. "They’re coming from all over the country. We have someone coming from Alabama, Los Angeles, Florida, Brooklyn, and Cambridge.”

The writers will be producing works out of the five Mastheads mobile writing studios placed on the campus of Arrowhead, the historic home of Herman Melville in Pittsfield.

“We’re trying to extend the legacy of being inspired by the Berkshires through writing,” Kelly told WAMC.

For more information on The Mastheads readers, the full schedule of the lecture series, and the visiting writers, click here. A kickoff party for the month-long literary bonanza is scheduled for 6 p.m. Sunday, July 1st, at Hotel on North in Pittsfield.

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