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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Melville and the Mystery of October Mountain

October Mountain is a place of no little fascination to me. It has frequently made its way into the pages of These Mysterious Hills in a variety of different contexts, associated with UFOs, ghosts, unidentified animal sightings. Even more chilling, in some cases, are the rumors and sightings not put into publication.

The name given to that densely wooded spike of the Hoosac range has traditionally been attributed to local literary luminary Herman Melville. How it came from him to be accepted as the given name, though, has been stated variously, and is a subject of some debate.

Noted early Pittsfield historian and Melville biographer J.E.A, Smith, in discussing the works penned by the author while at Arrowhead, makes mention of an essay by that name. “October Mountain” he describes as “a sketch of mingled philosophy and word-painted landscape, which found its inspiration in the massy and brilliant autumnal tints presented by a prominent and thickly wooded spur of the Hoosac Mountains, as seen from the southeastern windows, at Arrow-Head, on a fine day after the early frosts.”

Smith repeated this description, nearly verbatim, in his classic Taghonic: the Romance and Beauty of the Hills, as well as in a biographical series on Melville he published in the Pittsfield Evening Journal following his death in 1891. Since then, the mention of this brief essay has been repeated in various other literary and historic sources.

Unfortunately, there is some considerable doubt that such a piece ever existed.

For one thing, though his wife Elizabeth very carefully preserved all of his manuscripts and other papers, no copy of anything like “October Mountain” is to be found among them. Nor is it included in any of her various listings of his works.

In an introduction to a new edition of Typee in 1892, Arthur Stedman, Melville’s literary executor, makes allusion to the pieces “I and My Chimney and “October Mountain” being published in Putnam’s Monthly. However, no trace of the latter is to be found in any issue of that publication. Perhaps more damning to the case for this essay is that among several hand-written edits in Elizabeth Melville’s personal copy of the 1892 Typee (currently in the Harvard library), this mention of “October Mountain,” is crossed out entirely, without comment.

Over the past century, numerous literary scholars and Melville biographers have scoured 19th century newspapers and magazines for this “October Mountain,” without result. Given this glaring absence, and the fact that all mentions of it seem to derive from Smith’s initial inclusion of such a piece, it seems likely that this is mere legend. Smith is known to have made frequent errors of this sort, and in fact, the very passage mentioning “October Mountain” begins with the false assertion that Melville purchased his Berkshire farm in 1852, rather than 1850.

The true origins of the mountain’s name, and likely of Smith’s confusion on this matter, can be found in another short piece, “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo,” published in 1853. In it, the author briefly mentions “a densely wooded hill… which I call October Mountain, on account of its bannered aspect in that month.”

This, then, is indeed the first use of the name, and perhaps Melville’s only mention of it in print. While the latter is difficult to determine with certainty, we can at least still trace the name itself to Pittsfield’s beloved author.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what such an essay might say, should it exist (and, with Melville manuscripts being uncovered as recently as 1988, there’s always a chance). Did he simply admire the scenery, or might he even then have known or intuited some mystery around the richly storied hill as he gazed out at it from the southeastern windows of Arrowhead?

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