Otsego Hall, the residence of James Fenimore Cooper

Huntington Library


Pieces of the Past

Dispatches from a spine-tingling day of visits to the places where James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and Thomas Cole created their most famous works.
[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the eleventh installment in the series.]

To anyone who has read this far in this journal, it is probably evident that Abby is a great sport and a forgiving spouse. She threw herself into the planning and execution of this journey with a buoyant spirit, despite the pain and fatigue left over from her accident five years ago. She explored tips on RV websites and videos, remained alert for tunnels lower than 12 feet, and tolerated the intermittent hot water of Bertha’s shower.

Abby also allowed me to see the historic sites we visited with new eyes. She told me, intentionally and between the lines, what might intrigue someone with a normal degree of interest in American history. It was fun seeing Abby’s surprise, concern, and delight about details of the nation’s past I knew too well.

As we pushed east in New York and into Massachusetts, we visited places where I was especially transfixed by apparently mundane houses and uninspiring works of art. For the past three years I had lived every day in the world of America between 1800 and 1860. I had come to admire artists and writers, often isolated, who struggled to find visions that captured something essential about the new nation. I knew details of their family lives and financial challenges, of their enduring failures and fleeting successes. I had tried to imagine the places where they lived and worked, the landscapes they loved. I longed to see those places with my own eyes.

Driven by my determination to witness such things, we found ourselves two of the only people in Cooperstown, New York who were uninterested in baseball. Through a great coup in marketing and historical revisionism, the small town had made itself the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Its relatively few streets were lined with shops selling memorabilia and fan gear. We bypassed all of those places, and set our sights instead on the Fenimore Museum.

Cooperstown had been founded and named by the father of James Fenimore Cooper. The younger Cooper was the author of novels that defined, in the 1820s, many of the themes that still preoccupy American culture 200 years later. His characters Deerslayer and Leatherstocking became the prototypes for the solitary male hero at odds with his time and place. His Last of the Mohicans established the image of the noble but perpetually disappearing Native American. I admired Cooper’s audacity more than his books, but I wanted to see the place that inspired his work.

I also wanted to see the place that inspired his daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper. Her book, Rural Hours, published in 1850, is now recognized as a pioneering work of American environmental writing. Growing from her close attention to the changes over a year in the landscape around Cooperstown, and written in an appealing voice, Rural Hours has won belated admiration. Susan devoted much of her life to maintaining her father’s works and reputation after his death in 1851, subsuming her identity in his. Copies of her book, apparently recovered from a library sale, appeared in a display case at the Fenimore Museum along with a pair of her glasses and a single paragraph about her. There was nothing else that I could find.

Bookcase at the Fenimore Museum [Image: Ed Ayers]

The Fenimore Museum is a lovely place, filled with fascinating exhibits on many subjects, but I was taken with items that would have bored most visitors. I saw Thomas Cole’s painting of The Last of the Mohicans, an early work by the most important artist of the era, a work that ennobled American Indians. The painting’s teetering rock teetered a bit too symbolically, but the majesty of the gathering and the mountains spoke nevertheless.

“The Last of the Mohicans” at the Fenimore Museum [Image: Ed Ayers]

In another room, I was excited to see a small, luminous painting: William Sidney Mount’s Eel-Spearing in Setauket. Mount was the most famous genre painter of the era, portraying everyday people doing everyday things. This painting showed a middle-aged Black woman at the bow of a small boat, a young white boy watching as she raised her spear to plunge into the water. The painting had been commissioned by a man who remembered the scene from his childhood, and enlisted his nephew as a model. Such representations of comradeship between Black people and white people, across lines of gender and generation as well, were uncommon. I had seen images of the painting in books and online, but it was remarkable to stand so close to the actual object, and see the brush strokes in paint rather than pixels.

“Eel-Spearing in Setauket” at the Fenimore Museum [Image: Ed Ayers]

After viewing those small but meaningful objects, we set off for the Hudson River Valley to visit the home of Thomas Cole. Cole had come to America from northern England at the age of 17. Traveling from one city to another with his family as his father tried to establish a wallpaper business, Cole taught himself from a book. He painted scenes of falls on the Hudson near a popular travel destination and displayed them in a window in New York City. There, in the 1820s, Cole was discovered by patrons and encouraged to paint more scenes of the area, including the Last of the Mohicans.

Doing well but aware of the deficiencies of his training, Cole traveled to Europe and Britain to learn from the paintings of the masters. He returned to the United States fired with the excitement of portraying scenes no artist had painted before, growing into the great apostle of American painting as the Hudson River School arose around him.

So successful did Cole become that his paintings can seem mundane today. Pictures of waterfalls, mountains, and fall foliage have become the stuff of countless Instagram postings. The Cole House helped us see his creation with new eyes. Recordings of his words filled a room of his house as images of his work moved on the walls around us. I had read those words and studied the paintings, but hearing and seeing them there gave them new life. So did seeing the unfinished painting on which Cole was laboring when he suddenly died at the age of 48. The view from his home was not the same view it had been during his time there — a road now ran nearby — but one could feel the spirit of reverence for nature that inspired Cole’s work.

Recreation of Thomas Cole’s studio at Thomas Cole National Historic Site [Image: Ed Ayers]

The day had been intense for me in a quiet way. Abby had enjoyed the visits, though I found it hard to explain my excitement about the paintings and the books behind glass. After several bad leads from Bertha’s GPS, we managed to find our way to Kaaterskill Falls, the object of some of Cole’s first paintings. The overlook was impressive, making us appreciate Cole’s skill in evoking the landscape’s spirit.

We crossed the Hudson into Massachusetts to visit Pittsfield, the home of Herman Melville when he wrote Moby-Dick. The weather was perfect, as it had been throughout this leg of our journey, and the Berkshire Mountains were as lovely as I had imagined. Abby and I grew up surrounded by the southern Appalachians, so we feel at home among such terrain. We were eager to see Arrowhead, as Melville called his home.

At all of the other museums and historic sites we have visited, I have made an effort to hide any knowledge I may have of the place and its history. At Arrowhead, however, I made the mistake of asking a question that betrayed more engagement with Melville than any reasonable person would likely have. The kind tour guide then turned to me several times as we made our way through the house to see if I had anything to add to her presentation. I tried to deflect her questions, suggesting that we talk about things after the tour. A woman in our group agreed, not inappropriately, that we should have our “secret conversations” on our own time.

Embarrassed and chastened, I fell silent as we entered the room where Melville had written one of America’s greatest novels. I knew something of the context — that he had borrowed the money from his father-in-law to buy the house, that he lived not only with his wife and child but also with his mother and three of his sisters, and that he purchased the house in part to live near Nathaniel Hawthorne, who rented a small house six miles away. I knew, too, that as he wrote he looked out upon Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts, its shadowy presence resembling a great whale.

View of Mt. Greylock from the desk where Herman Melville wrote Moby-Dick, Pittsfield, MA. [Image: Ed Ayers]

The room, its desk up to the window, was haunting. Only 30 years old at the time, his family growing, Melville knew he needed to write a novel that could justify his irrational extravagance in purchasing this place. Ambition consumed him as he pored over Shakespeare and the Bible, writing of distant seas in the dim light of the Berkshire winter from dawn until his eyes ached.

But his novel failed to accomplish what he so desperately needed it to accomplish. Reviewers did not understand his purposes — or if they did understand, they reviled his questioning of Christian belief. Melville had risked everything in this room and had failed, so far as he or anyone else at the time knew. He would remain in the house for the next decade, writing other great works while falling farther into debt and despair.

Two of those works were long stories, “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno,” read by generations of students in high schools and colleges across America. At the time, Melville included them in a collection he called The Piazza Tales, named, perhaps for the “piazza” — actually, I saw, a narrow porch–below his study window. In the title story of the book, the narrator looks upon a distant house, idealizing its occupant, only to discover that its occupant looks upon his own home with corresponding illusions.

The porch at Arrowhead, Herman Melville’s Pittsfield, MA home. [Image: Abby Ayers]

The land of Arrowhead was resplendent during our visit there. Abby and I enjoyed the nature trail that rose up the hill behind the house. The guide told us that Melville had been in love with a young woman who lived in a grand house at the end of the path.

Walking the grounds of Arrowhead. [Image: Ed Ayers]

After Moby Dick’s modest sales and the befuddlement and outrage that met another book of his time at Arrowhead, The Confidence Man, Melville’s father-in-law paid for him to travel to the Holy Land. The older man, distrustful of Melville’s judgment and trustworthiness, relieved Melville of his debt for the house, but deeded the property to his wife. Melville had failed with every aspiration at Arrowhead. The family left the Berkshires in 1863 for New York City, where Melville would work quietly as a customs inspector for decades to come. After his death in 1891, “Billy Budd” was discovered among his papers and then published in the 1920s. It was only then that Moby-Dick, championed by British admirers, was finally acknowledged as a great novel, and Melville as a great writer.

I talked about all these things as we drove to the campground. As I heard myself, I was reminded how strange it must be to be married to a person so transfixed by old books and old paintings, who felt a rush of excitement from standing in the spaces where Thomas Cole painted and Herman Melville wrote. Abby listened patiently, as always, unsurprised when her husband missed turns and forgot directions, his judgment obscured by visions from a distant past.