Cape Cod (Penguin Nature Library)

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My Summer with Henry: On Thoreau’s ‘Cape Cod’

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In the summer of 2013, I walked into Parnassus, one of the numerous second-hand bookshops on Cape Cod. Its front room is a gold-mine of rare editions of literature dedicated to the Cape and Massachusetts. Of those was a Houghton, Mifflin 1904 edition of Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod, in two volumes. The covers were cloth bound and embossed with a golden art-nouveau design. I ran my finger down the discolored spines and begged the shopkeeper down to a slightly more affordable price-tag before emerging from the store with the volumes wrapped in a brown paper bag.

Buying Thoreau’s Cape Cod on Cape Cod resonates with a predictable sentimentality that I’m all too aware of. It too closely resembles what I think of as Thoreauvian pilgrimage practices: the hajj to Walden Pond, the leaving of pencils on his grave in Sleepy Hollow. What Lawrence Buell has, tongue possibly in cheek, characterized as the procedures of an “American cult.” Having spent over five years of my life reading Thoreau for a graduate degree I often resist the mawkishness that so often accompanies the hagiographic version of Thoreau, one that can be completely detached from Thoreau himself.

Yet how could I ignore this earnest imbrication of events weighted by the volumes in my hands? I stood there in the sunshine and knowingly held a little bit of Cape Cod’s history: from place of conception through posthumous publication in Boston’s Ticknor and Field’s 1865 edition to this lush 1904 reissuing, complete with water color illustrations, that had found its way to a bookstore on the Cape some 100 years later; a place that no doubt would be unrecognizable to Thoreau today even as he correctly predicted that “the time must come when this coast will be a place of resort for those New-Englanders who really wish to visit the sea-side” and then incorrectly predicted that “at present it is wholly unknown to the fashionable world, and probably it will never be agreeable to them.” The Cape Cod in my hands opened into a landscape that felt completely unrelated to the historical bohemian zenith I was visiting.

The truth is that Cape Cod is not necessarily the book that springs to mind when thinking about Thoreau today, even as we arrive at its 150-year anniversary. Its publication brought together a compilation of essays that he had sporadically been working on for over a decade. Thoreau’s first encounter with the Cape began about two years after he left his sojourn at Walden Pond and was living back in Concord with his family in their new house on Maine Street. He decided to visit the Cape in order to “acquaint himself with the ocean and sea shore,” as his biographer Walter Harding explains. After that first visit in 1849, accompanied by his close friend Ellery Channing, Thoreau went again in 1850 on his own and one final time in 1855 with Channing again.

His excursions became the basis of some lectures which he gave at the Concord Lyceum, where his audience, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “laughed till they cried.” Then a short series of essays (that were to later become the first four chapters of the book) were published in Putnam’s Magazine in 1855 before being halted due to their irreverent take on Cape Codders. Thoreau pokes fun at the toothless women he sees (“but we respect them not the less for all that; our own dental system is far from perfect”); at their husbands who look “pickled;” at the dry, bare landscape across Dennis and Chatham; at the scarcity of decent meals (“this is where [fish] are cured and where, sometimes, travelers are cured of eating them”); at the torrential rain, which means he can only imagine the sun and long distance views that the local guide books promise him. Where his oratory audience had been amused, his readership, it seems, was less so. As a result, it wasn’t till after Thoreau’s death in 1862 that the full series of essays saw publication as Cape Cod, edited and compiled by his sister Sophia and his frequent travel companion, Channing.

Like so much of Thoreau’s work, Cape Cod doesn’t fit into any one generic category. It skirts the lines of travel narrative and satire, of nature writing and natural history, of disaster reporting and of philosophy. The more embroiled you let yourself get into his sentences and paragraphs the more you realize you’re witnessing an iridescent game of genre-bending. When I read it, it’s not just the writing that feels like it’s curving out from under me. Thoreau’s descriptions of the landscape are weighted with multiple historical records, contemporary moments, his own experience of it and of others’, none of which harmoniously co-exist; it is a stratigraphic layering of perspectives that leaves the landscape at odds with itself. It unsettled the way I walked across the sand dunes that summer, my own encounters with the ocean, my sense of place against the extortionately priced parking sites next to bayside beaches, against the wide roads and chain shopping centers, against the festive madness of Provincetown.

The same summer I visited the Cape, Norman Mailer’s five-bedroom water-front 1930s-built Provincetown house went on sale for $3.9 million. I joked with my friends that it was a steal and we came up with outlandish scenarios on how to raise the funds to buy it. In Cape Cod, meanwhile, Thoreau is horrified at the houses he sees in 1850s Provincetown as they are “surrounded by fish-flakes close up to the sills on all sides, with only a narrow passage two or three feet wide, to the front door” and mentions that “the outward aspects of the houses and shops frequently suggested a poverty” albeit “which their interior…disproved.” From where Thoreau was standing, flooded with salted fish, the cool, artsy vibe of P-town was still about 40 years away from its inception, let alone its eventual gentrification. In 1873 the railroad would finally stretch itself all the way to Provincetown and by 1899 Charles Hawthorne, the impressionist painter, would open up his art school, thus forging the town’s reputation as an art colony. By the 1910s, Provincetown would be awash with writers, artists, and actors, mostly from Greenwich Village, and through the decades that followed they just kept coming. Today the names are all too familiar to us: Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, John Dos Passos, Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Max Ernst, Jackson Pollock…the list goes on. There would be few places in America that would become so influential on its art scene. There would, in fact, be no place quite as fashionable as Provincetown. The incongruity between Thoreau’s pre-industrial moments on the Cape and the explosion of development that fundamentally shapes the town people visit today is hard to fathom.

Thoreau had a similar crisis of incongruity, viewing the landscape in front of him in comparison to the records provided by visitors from the 1600s.
It is remarkable that the Pilgrims (or their reporter) describe this part of the Cape, not only as well wooded, but as having a deep and excellent soil, and hardly mention the word sand.
Here I find myself converging with Thoreau on his Cape Cod. The sand is undeniably everywhere, the roads are filmed with it, the house we stay in seems to rise up from it. And Thoreau mentions it constantly, as though unable to grasp it ubiquitousness. When I see the pedestrians walk barefoot on the sand-dusted streets I am willing to believe Thoreau’s comedic claim that “in some pictures of Provincetown the persons of the inhabitants are not drawn below the ankles, so much being supposed to be buried in the sand.” Thoreau and I meet in our incredulity that a floral fecundity ever existed here, witness to the drastic deforestation wielded in a distant past.

But the sand is also where Thoreau unsettles me the most. The first essay in Cape Cod opens upon a violently impacted vista: the scene of a recent shipwreck on Cohassett, a beach strewn with dead bodies, the tremendously sad end to the Irish St John not making it to the promised land. By the first few pages we are introduced to “the coiled-up wreck of a human hulk, gashed by the rocks or fishes, so that the bone and muscle were exposed, but quite bloodless, — merely red and white, — with wide-open and staring eyes, yet lustreless, dead-lights;” Thoreau relentlessly unveils the horrors of the wreck in the subsequent pages. By the end of this, the first essay, he gazes upon calm waters in Pleasant Cove, a small seasonal pool made by the ocean waves just opposite where the shipwreck had taken place. “The ocean did not look, now, as if any were ever shipwrecked in it; it was not grand and sublime, but beautiful as a lake. Not a vestige of a wreck was visible, nor could I believe that the bones of many a shipwrecked man were buried in that pure sand.” Thoreau may say he doesn’t believe it, but the image of the dead men in the sand that his remark re-evokes belies his rhetoric, an indelible image that runs through the rest of the book even at its most light-hearted moments, re-emerging long after the travelers have left the wreck behind. I wonder about the dead, the fragments of their bodies scattered through the broad expanses of the beaches I walk across that summer.

Fluctuating between then and now, reading Cape Cod on Cape Cod is a trip, if you’ll excuse the pun. It’s not so much that I’m catapulted to the long Massachusetts shoreline circa 1850, but that Thoreau’s own awareness of what came before him demands that I am similarly aware of Cape Cod’s long tumultuous history. Even when I line up at Provincetown’s popular Portuguese Bakery for one final pastry before boarding the morning ferry to Boston, I find myself wondering how long this place has been here. I discover that it’s probably been around for a hundred years — opened by a Portuguese family to provide alternative nourishment to the fishermen who must have been as sick of the sight of fish as Thoreau was. The sweet fried bread is melt-in-the-mouth amazing and I think back to Thoreau’s last breakfast on the Cape where he’s given a choice between hashed fish or beans. “I took beans,” he writes, “though they were never a favorite dish of mine.” Grateful for the more appealing breakfast options that have appeared since then, I tip some sand out of my shoes, and head to the pier.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema.

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