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The Whale Road: Melville’s Massachusetts by land and sea

JEFF FRAZIER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The best pilgrimages are the ones of inspiration, devotion, and creativity that trace the wake pattern of a life.

If the sea fever strikes you, celebrate with a road trip over the various land and seascapes of the state, weaving in and out of Herman Melville’s life and the pages of his greatest novel, “Moby-Dick; or The Whale.”

PITTSFIELD

“I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country. . . . My room seems a ship’s cabin.”

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Personal correspondence, 1850

Arrowhead, Melville’s farmhouse in Pittsfield, could just as easily be the end of a Moby-Dick tour as the beginning. Easily reached off the Massachusetts Turnpike going west, and far from any visible ocean, Arrowhead is where the author wrote the entirety of his 1851 novel.

Appropriate lodging for a man who made his name and fortune writing travel narratives, Arrowhead was built in the late 18th century as a travelers’ waystation. Melville, having fallen in love with his uncle’s estate in the Berkshires, bought the former inn, wanting to create a life for himself as a gentleman farmer. He named it after the Native American artifacts he turned up while plowing the fields. He installed a small piazza on the north side of the house where he and his friend and “Moby-Dick” dedicatee Nathaniel Hawthorne could have intellectual and artistic jam sessions without interruption from their families.

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The holy of holies is Melville’s study. The tour saves that for last because it is what you want to see: a big, sparsely-furnished room as wooden as a whaleboat, with a light-green cast to the light. You can look north out over the top of the desk at the view Melville saw every day when he sat down to write from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., catching the best light of the day for his imperfect eyesight: the great back of Mount Greylock, breaking above the tree line in the distance like a sperm whale’s dorsal hump over waves.

After the tour you can wander the grounds and walk across a meadow on the way to the Berkshire woods where Melville collected firewood.

The next part of the tour zips east across the Commonwealth on the Mass Pike, turning south at Route 495 to head to your next destination.

NEW BEDFORD

“[A]ll these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

“Moby-Dick,” Chapter 6

“Moby-Dick” begins in New Bedford, the site of Ishmael’s meeting with Queequeg at the Spouter Inn. New Bedford is the newer of the two 19th-century whaling capitals of the world and feels more industrial-workmanlike than Nantucket, its older sister to the southeast. Melville shipped out of here on the Acushnet for his own brief stint as a whaler.

The gem of the downtown, still a working harbor with cobblestoned side streets, is the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Within sight of the sea, the museum is remarkable for the balance it strikes between celebrating the harpoon-wielding ingenuity and bravery — the economic basis for the town’s most prosperous era — and a remorseful concern and awareness for whales. Cabinets full of scrimshaw and artillery banks of lances keep company with the skeletons of whales who died through beaching or injury, as well as interactive displays about the whales’ voices and migration patterns.

From New Bedford take Route 195 to Route 25 to cross over onto Cape Cod. Take the ferry from Hyannis.

NANTUCKET

“For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.”

“Moby-Dick,” Chapter 2

Melville never saw Nantucket until the year after “Moby-Dick” was published; he created the world from its reputation. Nantucket is the home of Ahab, its docks frequented by the ranting prophet Elijah, where Captains Peleg and Bildad try to rip Ishmael off as he signs aboard the Pequod, and where the Pequod ships out.

Nantucket was also the harbor home of the Essex, the whaleship sunk by a massive sperm whale in 1820, its demise an infamous incident upon which Melville based the climactic scene of his novel. After the book’s publication Melville made a pilgrimage to Nantucket, where by chance he met the Essex’s Captain Pollard — by then in his second career as a nightwatchman for the town — at the intersection of Center and Ocean streets. Nantucket historian Nathaniel Philbrick calls the site “a holy epicenter.”

The programs at the Nantucket Whaling Museum are well worth attending: first-class narratives told animatedly by docents, accompanied by slides from the museum’s research library. Next door is an old candle factory that in hot months is redolent of the warm scent of the whale oil soaked into its beams.

Nantucket can be expensive, but an overnight in one of the many whaling captains’ houses that have been converted to inns and bed-and-breakfasts might be worth the investment.

Back in Hyannis, drive up the Cape on Route 6A, the old King’s Highway, threading your way along the National Seashore for the sand cliffs, seal sightings, and the endless horizon of the ocean.

PROVINCETOWN

“[E]ven so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being . . . deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.”

“Moby-Dick,” Chapter 87

As much as Melville’s novel details the hunt, also present is his immense awe of the living creature, so finish with a whale watch. We chose to voyage out of Provincetown because Melville mentions it by name in “Moby-Dick,” and the drive up the muscular curved arm of the Cape to its far land’s end seemed a fitting end to the excursion. We took the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch, but there are several local outfits.

We powered out at a rapid clip to Stellwagen Bank, the huge underwater island between Cape Cod and Cape Ann. On this new kind of whaleboat, the joy of the watchers is nearly as sublime as the activities of the whales: Almost uniformly, people lose their language and are reduced to gasps and cheers.

We all became expert at spotting whales: looking first for where the gulls went arrowing (they spy the whales deep beneath the waves) and then for where the humpbacks’ bubble nets rose like green halos. Then the whales would appear, slick backs breaking the water, their blowholes chuffing, their faces grinning gates of baleen. One whale breached twice for us, surrounded by spray that refracted the sunlight. It was a prime example of a whale, celebrated by the astonished laughter of children and others for whom whales are no longer resources, but restored to their status of sea gods.

Laura Marjorie Miller can be reached at bluecowboyyo
ga@gmail.com.
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