Thursday, October 15, 2009

The First Stop Along the Housatonic Paper Trail

The Housatonic Heritage Paper Trail explores the rich history and social legacy of the paper industry which has relied on the waters of the Housatonic for more than two centuries. As one of the lead researchers, I will keep you up-to-date on what we find along the way.
Peter Hopkins

Last week, I attended an "Out & About" gathering of members of the Connecticut League of History Organizations and the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area at Herman Melville's Arrowhead home in Pittsfield, Mass. We were treated to an informative presentation by Betsy Sherman, director of the Berkshire County Historical Society, which is housed at Arrowhead, and a lively tour of the house and the history associated with it.

So one might ask, "All well and good, Peter, but what's this got to do with paper?"

In 1855, Melville penned The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids. The Tartarus focuses on a fictional visit to Devil's Dungeon paper mill by a seedsman in need of paper. The story is a very dark accounting of Melville's feelings about factories and the working conditions therein, especially for women.

"Suddenly a whirling, humming sound broke upon
my ear. I looked, and there, like an arrested
avalanche, lay the large whitewashed factory.
It was subordinately surrounded by a cluster of
other and smaller buildings, some of which, from
their cheap, blank air, great length, gregarious
windows, and comfortless expression, no doubt
were boarding-houses of the operatives."

And, it's pretty much downhill from there.

We surmise that Melville based his view of paper mills on those in Dalton, as history records that in February of 1851 he wrote to his friend Evert A. Duyckinck, on paper watermarked "Carson's Dalton MS" that he had just made a sojourn to the mill to pick up "a sleigh-load of paper. A great neighborhood for authors, you see, is Pittsfield."

Several other famous 19th-century authors made the Berskshires their home, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edith Wharton. As we explore further the relationship between paper and this beautiful valley, we'll see if there are Paper Trail connections with them as well.

The view from Herman Melville's writing desk
at Arrowhead. Mt. Greylock, the highest
point in Massachusetts, is in the distance.

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