Shortly after moving to Arrowhead, his farmhouse on the outskirts of Pittsfield, Mass., Herman Melville wrote to a friend: “I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is covered in snow. I look out my window in the morning when I rise as I would out a port-hole of a ship in the Atlantic.”
The year was 1850, the peak of commercial whaling in the U.S. The bustling ports of Nantucket and New Bedford, Mass., were the industry’s early centers; across the state, Melville contemplated the view from his study of a snowy Mount Greylock, which is said to have inspired his white whale.
Today several important works by Melville, along with books about whaling that influenced him, are part of the collection at the Chapin Library. Among them is a first edition of Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket, an important book in the literature of whaling and a primary source for Melville in writing Moby-Dick, says Wayne Hammond, assistant librarian at the Chapin.
Chase’s descendent O. Stuart Chase ’54 gave the book and the rest of his whaling collection to the Chapin in 2004. A retired headmaster of the Eaglebrook School in Deerfield, Mass., the alumnus “wants more people to be able to see it,” Hammond says. “And he believes in the value of using rare books to serve the college’s educational mission.”
The gift added important context about whaling to the library’s Melville works, which in 2001 were the basis for an exhibition commemorating the 150th anniversary of Moby-Dick. The Chapin holds most of the author’s writings in first editions, as well as several of the best-illustrated editions of Moby-Dick, Hammond says.
“Melville is a major American author,” he says, “and we’re interested in books that influenced him but also more generally with the economic and social aspects of whaling.”
The Chapin’s collection, Hammond adds, “provides historical background for the continuing issue of commercial whaling and wildlife preservation.”
Among the Chapin’s books on whaling are (above, left) Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, with Notes of a Sojourn on the Island of Zanzibar: To Which is Appended a Brief History of the Whale Fishery, Its Past and Present Condition, by J. Ross Browne (Harper & Brothers, 1846) and (right) Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket, by Owen Chase (W.B. Gilley, 1821). Photos Courtesy of the Chapin Library, Gift of O. Stuart Chase ’54.