Chapter 26

Chapter XXVI

Pittsfield, A Home of Poets, 1885

Pittsfield, in the valley of the Housatonic, chiefly interested us from its intimate connection with two of. the most honored names in American literature the poets Longfellow and Holmes. East Street, a fine old thoroughfare leading north from the public square, contains the old Appleton mansion, the girlhood home of Henry W. Longfellow’s wife, the abode of the poet for several summers, and the abiding place of the famous "old clock on the stairs," which suggested one of his best-known poems.

The place long since went out of the family, but has been little changed; the "antique portico" of the poet’s day has given place to a modest little porch, and the two Balm of Gilead trees that once shaded it have been cut down, but the poplars and elms and the broad lawn are still there. Within, a monkish old clock still stands on the landing "half-way up the stairs," although truth compels one to state that it is not the poet’s monitor, that having followed the family fortunes to Boston; but one may see in the parlor the figured wall paper purchased by a member of the



Pittsfield, A Home of Poets, 1885

family in Paris during the war of 1812, and, in the absence of paper-hangers, put on by the ladies of the household. One does not realize until he learns the traditions of the old house how literal is the poem with which it is identified. The house is said to have been built by Thomas Gold, an ancestor of the poet’s wife and a descendant of the Golds of Fairfield — a famous family in Connecticut annals. He came to Pittsfield while a young man to engage in the practice of the law. Of great natural ability and pleasing address, he soon became the leading man of the village, in church and state as well as in his profession. While his fortunes were at the flood he built this mansion, and soon after brought from a neighboring town a beautiful and accomplished woman to be its mistress. In that time the house was noted for its "free-hearted hospitality" —

"Its great fires up the chimney roared,

The stranger feasted at its board."

It became a rallying point for the worth and wit and beauty of western Massachusetts. When he was in middle life trouble came to the master of the mansion: it was whispered in the village that too profuse hospitality had impaired his fortune. The world looked coldly on its former favorite, bandied reflections on his good name, and one morning was startled to hear that he had been found dead in his bed. A daughter had married a wealthy Boston merchant, and



Pittsfield, A Home of Poets, 1885

when her daughter grew to beautiful womanhood she became the wife of Longfellow while yet his laurels were all unwon. This is the village story of the old mansion. The house was a favorite haunt of both the poet and his wife, and while it remained in the family most of their summers were spent here. One sees how naturally the poem connected with it assumed form in the poet’s summer-day musings. The village street, the ancient country seat, the tall and ghostly poplars, the wizard old clock, its recording hands, the feasts, the births, the dreaming youths and maids, the bridals, the funerals every picture conjured up by the poet’s rhymes once existed here. It is not always one can trace so minutely the growth of a fine poem in the master’s mind.

Doctor Holmes became identified with Pittsfield through his mother’s family, the Wendells. Quite early, it is said, Jacob Wendell, of Boston, purchased of the Indians nearly the entire tract on which Pittsfield now stands, and built a dwelling on the purchase, which remained in the family name until within, a few years past. The Autocrat, thus introduced to Pittsfield through his family connections at an early age, some time after his marriage built a pleasant country house on a little elevation some two miles east of the town that had once formed a part of his ancestor’s estate. Here he spent the summers of seven years, writing, it is said, a large part of the ‘Autocrat of the



Pittsfield, A Home of Poets, 1885

Breakfast Table’ and several of his best-known poems, and leaving it at last of necessity and with regret. In proof of Doctor Holmes’s regard for Pittsfield, we were shown the following characteristic passage from a letter written to a friend in this city: "I can never pay my debt to Pittsfield for giving my children their mother, and myself seven blessed seasons, and seventy times seven granaries full of hoarded reminiscences."

From the old Appleton place, in town, we walked out one morning to the poet’s former home. Down East Street, and then a sudden turn to the right, and we came soon to the outskirts of the city and to the Housatonic, or rather one of its branches, brimful, and here degraded to the duty of turning the mill-wheel of a tannery. Pushing on through green fields, at a blacksmith shop we made another sharp turn to the right, and a mile further on crossed the main body of the Housatonic. From this point a five minutes’ walk brings one to the gate giving access to the grounds, which are quite extensive. The house has little to distinguish it, but is beautifully situated on a little eminence commanding a view of the meadows and river to the city, and of the all-encircling mountains.

The property is now owned by a gentleman of New York, who has slightly remodeled the interior. We were kindly shown the library in which the poet wrote, but nothing further remains to remind one of his occupancy.