Melville's Arrowhead

Melville’s Arrowhead

This morning (8/5/14), we set out for Herman Melville’s Arrowhead. Like most American’s, I have never been a huge fan of Melville, and I have never read Moby Dick though I did enjoy “Billy Budd.” But, as we were in the neighborhood and I cover Melville in class, I thought I owed it to myself to get a better understanding of the man. I’m definitely glad we did. Our time there definitely made Melville more three dimensional.

Melville's view from the Piazza--his neighbors all thought he was building it on the wrong side since it was away from the sun

Melville’s view from the Piazza–his neighbors all thought he was building it on the wrong side since it was away from the sun

We ended up taking two tours, and I’m glad we did. I had read in the reviews of the place many who said how amazing their tour guides were, so I was rather disappointed when our first tour sounded like reading a text book, giving amazing facts with little finesse. Our second tour guide, however, supplied everything missing in our first tour guide’s presentation, sounding much more like reading a novel with all the personal details and drama I’d hoped for. Here’s a bit of Melville’s life that I gleaned:

"Piazza" where Melville wrote "The Piazza Tales"

“Piazza” where Melville wrote “The Piazza Tales”

Melville seemed to have had a rough life from start to finish. Born third of eight children, Melville had the first big change as an eleven year old when his father went bankrupt, forcing the family to move to New York. His father then died a year later, forcing Melville to quit school and begin working. His brother insisted they continue their education through their own reading, and Melville did. He worked as a banker, a teacher, and then finally at 19 signed on as a cabin boy headed to England. In Liverpool, he signed on as a whaler to the Marquesas Islands. But the life of a whaler was a difficult one, requiring hard labor and a three year commitment. Melville and a young friend decided to jump ship–an illegal decision–and hid out on the island. There, they were embraced by a tribe of cannibals, who were so fond of them that they found it difficult to leave. Melville had hurt his foot, so was unable to escape, but his friend escaped, promising to bring help which never came. Melville wasn’t afraid they’d eat him, though; he was afraid they’d tattoo his face and he’d never be able to return to normal society. Finally, another ship docks and provides him an opportunity to escape. But, no sooner has he joined the crew, that they decide to mutiny and Melville lands himself in jail in Tahiti. He’s eventually able to get to catch a whaler to Hawaii, where he will be able to get passage home in exchange for service in the US Navy. At last he returns home, where he gets married, writes about his experiences abroad, and is an instant success.

Front view of Arrowhead

Front view of Arrowhead

It is in the height of this success that he buys Arrowhead. His move to this area put him in contact with Nathaniel Hawthorne, whom he would encounter on a hike up Mount Monument arranged by friends who thought the two authors should meet. An account was published that the two authors were caught in a rainstorm and had a secret conversation which resulted in the production of Moby Dick–However, this account was published forty years after both authors’ deaths by someone who was not on the trip. Whatever the truth, we know that Melville admired Hawthorne immensely, as with the success of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne represented everything Melville aspired to be: successful, handsome, happily married, and wealthy. Melville will dedicate Moby Dick to Hawthorn, perhaps giving rise to the rumor of Hawthorne’s influence on the story. Yet, while Hawthorne loved Moby Dick, the critics deemed it a dismal failure. This disheartened Melville, who wrote another book which did even worse. Melville will eventually swear off prose, turn to poetry, which never takes off, and finally give up on writing altogether. He will leave Arrowhead, which he can no longer afford, and swap houses with his brother to finish out his days working in a custom house for $4.00 a day.

Barn where Hawthorne and Melville met while the piazza was being constructed

Barn where Hawthorne and Melville met while the piazza was being constructed

But his literary disappointments were nothing compared to his personal tragedies. In addition to a variety of financial troubles, he suffered the loss of all but one of his four children. His oldest son Malcolm died at 18. He belonged to a militia group which was obsessed with pistols. One evening, he came home at two in the morning. His mother had waited up for him and noted that he did not smell of alcohol. She proceeded to lecture him about the choices he was making, and Malcolm, remorseful, promised it would not happen again. In the morning, however, he did not get up for work, and Melville told his wife to let him sleep and pay the consequences for his actions. But when Melville returned in the evening, he had still not come down, so Melville broke the door down to discover his son dead with a gunshot wound. The coroner determined it a suicide, but the Melville’s fought it in court, stating that their son was happy, ambitious, and well-loved. So, the death certificate will be changed to an accident. His next son, Stanwix, will be discovered dead in a hotel room in San Francisco. The death certificate here says “Causes unknown,” though the speculation is Tuberculosis. His daughter Bessie was virtually crippled by arthritis by early adulthood. Only Francis lived until adulthood, married happily, and had four girls of her own.

Arrowhead

Arrowhead

When Melville died, the newspapers mentioned “An obscure author” had died. It’s only a fluke that he didn’t remain obscure. The final push actually came through a manuscript discovered after Melville’s death. His wife found “Billy Budd,” and it seemed finished. She contemplated publishing it, but didn’t want to give the critics another opportunity to slam her husband. Her decision was to lock it in a breadbox–a breadbox that would be passed to daughter, then granddaughter. It might have remained there, had not Professor Raymond Weaver been assigned to write about Melville and sought out his granddaughter Eleanor, keeper of the Melville papers, for information. When he read it, he thought it could be published with a bit of cleaning up. This publication led to a resurgence in interest in Melville that has continued until the present. The desk and the breadbox are currently on display at the town library.

Hancock Shaker Village

Hancock Shaker Village

From Arrowhead, we headed to the Hancock Shaker Village.  This is an incredible place of peace and tranquility.  Because of the two tours at Arrowhead, we only had about two and a half hours at the village, but had it been a few degrees cooler, I could have spent all day.  The grounds are beautiful in both architecture and many gardens.  But, in addition to the gorgeous scenery, visitors can hear the stories of the Shakers.

For those who don’t know, the Shakers were the most popular Utopian society. They broke off from Quakers when they banned dancing. That dancing is a huge part of Shaker culture is evidenced by the fact that in England, where the group started, founder Anne Lee got arrested for dancing on a Sunday. But, she believed Christ’s spirit had come on her equivalently to the Second coming of Christ. Amazingly, she shared this with her small group of followers, and they believed her, establishing the United Society of believers in Christ’s second coming. It is the critics of their dancing that will call them “Shakers.”

Women's side of Shaker Dining Room

Women’s side of Shaker Dining Room

Because they believed Jesus had already come in spirit on their founder, they viewed the Bible as history written by flawed people. It was helpful, but the real deal was the Spirit of God moving on them in worship where they would sing and dance. Worship services varied in length, with the longest service being 22 hours! They merely lasted until the got what they felt they needed. Their services were open to everyone.

Peaceful Tranquility

Peaceful Tranquility

But, as other Utopian Societies before them, the Shakers emphasized community. Their founder stated, “You can get to hell all by yourself but it takes a community to get to heaven.” What made this community unique was not their commitment to celibacy, as many modern people believe, but rather their commitment to gender equality and racial equality. Another unique aspect is that men and women lived in the same house as brothers and sisters. While many today focus on the struggle of celibacy, it’s easy to see the draw the Shakers had to others–especially the down and outers. The community took in orphans who were kept until 18, when they decided whether or not to stay. They also took in a lot of single moms or women in abusive relationships. The peaceful setting and respectful community must have seemed like heaven to these young women.

Shaker School House

Shaker School House

A few things struck me as especially fascinating. First, in a time of deep racial inequality, Shakers reached out to the African American community and were a part of the Underground Railroad. One man who settled with his three girls later decided he wanted to leave. When his daughters wanted to stay, he tried to use slavery laws to get his three girls to leave with him, claiming they were his property. The Judge, however, ruled in favor of girls.

Horse Treadmill--fun invention for power production

Horse Treadmill–fun invention for power production

Another interesting point was the Shakers political involvement. Though they were pacifists and against voting, they were so much against alcohol consumption, that the only time they voted was to elect a Prohibition candidate. They did, however, find other ways to lend their support. One of my favorite discoveries was the fact that they sent Abraham Lincoln a chair because they thought he needed something comfortable to sit in with all that he was dealing with politically.

Finally, I was surprised to find the Shakers love of technology. Where one usually thinks of religious orders as shunning worldly things, the shakers were well known for many inventions. They were the first to use seed packets, the inventors of the broom design we all know and love, and many other inventions. One of the coolest things I observed was their arrangement for milking. In the circular barn, each cow would pick her own stall. The worker would undo a peg to let the cow approach the food.

Barn Design

Barn Design

When she had settled, he would replace the peg, securing the cow’s neck between two bars. The platform the cow was standing on was shorter than the cow, arranging her hindquarters off the platform. This way, all excrement fell out of reach of the cow and the milker. I love the ingenuity that looks at a problem and says, “What can I do to make this better?”

In 1960, though, the last Shakers left this area. Now, there is only one community left in Maine. Founder Anne Lee in one of her visions stated that the Shakers would start small (the original group was eight), grow large (about 6000 at its height,) and shrink to where a small boy could count them on his hand (Currently, only three remain.) But, she said it will grow again. I guess we’ll have to see.

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