It's a fine summer morning as we motor over winding roads, under maple and elm trees, through small New England towns. To the north, a field of Queen Anne's lace and wild coreopsis glistens in the sunlight; to the south, charming old houses stand against the backdrop of the gently rolling Berkshires. Lushly green after a day or two of rain, this scenic area of western Massachusetts lures us with breathtaking views, countless historic and cultural attractions, and a literary tradition that embraces Melville, Hawthorne, and Wharton.
With only two and a half days to explore our destination — and time cut short by canceled flights, the bane of luckless travelers — my husband, John, and I manage to squeeze in a host of activities, resting between outings at the Cornell Inn in Lenox. It's a beautifully maintained collection of three houses dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, owned since 1998 by Doug and Billie McLaughlin. Our spacious room gleams, the hearty breakfasts hit the spot — especially Texas-style-eggs-hashbrown-and-red-pepper casserole — and the flower-bedecked grounds dazzle the eye. We could easily ensconce ourselves permanently on a terrace overlooking the lawn, koi pond, and gardens, evidence of Billie's amazing green thumb, as we gaze at blooms that spill, climb, and spread in fragrant profusion. But duty-bound to you, dear reader, we fire up the rental car and strike out to see the sights.
Throughout Berkshire County are dozens of museums, both traditional and contemporary. Among the former is one devoted to the works of Norman Rockwell and displays the 322 magazine covers that the hugely popular artist illustrated for the Saturday Evening Post beginning in 1916; his final cover was a 1960 portrait of John F. Kennedy, reprinted in 1963 in memory of the assassinated president. Rockwell was most famous for everyday scenes in twentieth-century America — a young couple getting a marriage license, a freckle-faced boy on the doctor's table, main street at Christmas time, and (my favorite, painted on a split canvas) a family heading off on vacation in high spirits and returning, as we all do, weary and grumpy but glad to be home. But he also tackled social issues. In New Kids in the Neighborhood (1967) two black children face three white youngsters, with a moving van in the background. The kids appear wary yet eager, as a white adult peers surreptitiously from a nearby window. Located in the artist's hometown of Stockbridge, the Norman Rockwell Museum includes his studio, which still holds the brushes, canvases, and other tools used to illustrate, in such telling detail, the small-town America he observed and loved.
Another traditional draw is
, founded in 1955 by Singer sewing machine heir Robert Clark and his wife Francine, and located amid 140 tranquil acres that feature walking trails and a lily pond. Famous for its permanent collection of French Impressionist works, The Clark boasts paintings by Monet, Degas, Pissarro, and more than 30 by Renoir. We enjoy a traveling exhibition called "The Unknown Monet" — previously shown only at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the first to showcase the painter's works in drafting, caricatures, and pastels. Each room here offers a feast for the eyes, from works by Old Masters to those of American painters including Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington, not to mention a fine array of English silver, furniture, and porcelain.
Moving on to edgier venues, we visit the sprawling MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) made up of no less than 27 late-nineteenth-century buildings that originally comprised a textile plant. Since 1999, the space has been home to the nation's largest center for contemporary visual and performing arts. With its exposed brick and beams, and its focus on cutting-edge artists, MASS MoCA reminds me of Memphis' South Main Arts District.
An enthusiastic young intern greets us with a smile and directs us to the first exhibit, "Spencer Finch: What Time Is It on the Sun?" The series of works is described as "operating precariously in the gap between the objectivity of scientific observation and the subjectivity of creative expression" — while I'm operating in the gap between say what? and yeah, right. But I come to admire Finch's attempts to capture sunlight, wind, candlelight, and color through various media, including a group of industrial fans he used to reproduce the changing wind blowing across the shores of Thoreau's Walden Pond.
That piece complements another installation that I really like, titled Sunlight in an Empty Room (Passing Cloud for Emily Dickinson, Amherst, MA, August 28, 2004) crafted of clothespins and cellophane the hue of a summer sky. To duplicate the color of the cloud on that August day, Finch employed a colorimeter, which, I learn, measures the absorbency of a particular wavelength of light. I can't help but be awed by an artist who, between November 2000 and May 2002, kept a dream diary at his bedside and recorded, as best as he could remember, every color from his dreams.
My husband, though he'd rather be back at The Clark, gives thumbs-up to a piece in another exhibition — Standing Mitt with Ball , a 12-foot-high sculpture of lead, steel, and cypress by Claes Oldenburg, a veritable monument to a first baseman's glove. In addition to MASS MoCA's traveling exhibitions, the museum also hosts lively dance and theatre performances.
Artists aren't the only ones inspired by the Berkshires. Author Herman Melville, whose farmhouse, Arrowhead, is open for tours, could lift his eyes to mountain slopes and envision, or so it's said, the back of a great white whale. Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne forged a deep friendship while hiking the region's forests and meadows; in fact Melville dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne.
For me, Edith Wharton's home, The Mount (located in Lenox) is a must-see. I have read House of Mirth — for which Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize in 1905 — more times than I can count, and I gaze in wonder at the bedroom where Wharton penned this novel along with 40 others including The Age of Innocence and Ethan Frome . "Sitting up in bed, her paper supported by a hard board, she worked faithfully each morning from 6 to 11, with her small dogs strewn around her," says our tour guide, Molly McFall. "As she wrote, pages drifted to the floor to be collected later by her secretary." Morning light, which Wharton craved, streams in through tall windows affording a splendid panorama.
Before her reputation as a fiction writer took shape, Wharton was known for her architectural and horticultural insights, evidenced in her 1897 book The Decoration of Houses . The Mount was designed on the book's principles of harmony, simplicity, and symmetry, and is tucked in woodlands behind a promenade of sugar maples. Wharton shunned New York and Newport society and its obsessions with status and wealth — a world she revealed with unflinching honesty — and found her muse in the bucolic Berkshires. She entertained often but intimately, with a dining room table that seated no more than six to eight, and always, adds McFall, "with a jar of dog biscuits on the table." We admire the library, with its handsome oak carvings and books by Balzac, James, and Goethe, to name a few, and the drawing room with plaster moldings that serve as frames for paintings.
My only disappointment at The Mount is a steady downpour that limits our exploration of Wharton's magnificent gardens, planted between 1901 and 1907, that encompass three acres. I do manage a stroll through the English garden with its perennials and herbaceous border, but get only a rain-misted glimpse of the sunken Italian walled garden and the "lime walk" of linden trees. I leave, hoping to return some bright summer day to see more of this National Historic Landmark.
One evening in the Berkshires we dig in to — of all things — a pulled pork barbecue dinner at the Mountainside Playhouse at the foot of the Bousquet Mountain Ski Resort. The food's tasty, our host and servers are friendly (they claim to love my Southern accent), and the proprietor's dog lying near the bar lends a homey touch.
In the Playhouse, we enjoy many a good guffaw as The News in Revue — billed as " The New York Times meets Saturday Night Live " — aims its barbs at such newsmakers as Paris Hilton singing "It's a Hard-Knock Life"; Bill Clinton crooning "She's a Panderer" about Hillary; and Karl Rove advising an especially dumb Dubya. After a frustrating experience at the airport, John and I hoot at the skit about airport security — "Standing at the checkpoint watching all the bags go by." And anyone who has ever called their online service hoping in vain to reach a service rep who speaks plain English will shout amen to these lyrics by the show's writer Nancy Holson:
"Gonna type up, dial up, you think you're callin' Dayton,
Gonna type up, dial up, it's ringin' in Bombay. . . .
Gonna type up, dial up, gonna help you get online,
But you all go "HUH?" no matter what I say."
If News in Revue ever makes it to Memphis, see it .
Another night we attend a showing of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit , at the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF), affiliated with nearby Williams College. Since its founding in the late 1950s, many famous actors have graced WTF's stage, including Michael York, Christopher Reeve, Blythe Danner, Bebe Neuwirth, Olympia Dukakis, Gwyneth Paltrow, and others. Blithe Spirit not only entertains but also features, to our surprise, a native Memphian in a supporting role. Adriane Lenox, a Hamilton High graduate who won a Tony award in 2005 for best feature actress in Doubt , is sharp and funny as Mrs. Bradman, who with her doctor husband, joins friends in a hilarious seance.
Before we head home, we stop to visit the Hancock Shaker Village. The Shakers were a Christian sect, named for their ecstatic trembling during worship, who lived communally at Hancock. Today, as we wander through the village with its 20 buildings dating from 1790, and the medicinal garden with its quaint old names — comfrey, sweet Cicely, foxglove, fleabane — the village exudes a peace I'd like to wrap around myself. Farm animals rest in the huge round barn, humans pluck bright-red currants and drop them into baskets, wildflowers sway in a light summer breeze, and the Berkshires rise like a green bowl around us.
Regrets? I have a couple. Beyond not seeing all the gardens at The Mount, I wish our itinerary had coincided with that of Tanglewood, the beautiful summer home of the Boston Symphony, and a legendary cultural center that offers classical, jazz, and pop music concerts in a gorgeous setting, but no performances were scheduled for the few days we were there. I also regret not seeing the leaves change colors, which they may well be doing by the time you read this. Late September through mid-October is prime leaf-peeping season.