Our book today is Henry David Thoreau’s beloved posthumous 1865 book Cape Cod, a collection of pieces he wrote for the Penny Press detailing trips he and a companion made to Cape Cod in 1849, 1850, and 1853. They tramped everywhere, in all weathers, and Thoreau’s razor-sharp observational powers caught every nuance of the local people he encountered and every detail of the wild landscape, most especially the great curved swoop of the outer beach, where the Atlantic batters the hook of the Cape relentlessly. The volume of Cape Cod I recently found (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course, although I’ve probably missed it countless times in bookstores on the Cape itself) was published in 1951 and features a short Introduction by Henry Beston, whose 1928 classic The Outermost House sits with Thoreau’s book on the small shelf of all-time best Cape Cod books. Beston attests to a Cape that’s rapidly changing from Thoreau’s day – with some parts changing more slowly than others:
Since Thoreau’s visit, the peninsula has been largely given over to the summer holiday regime, but that regime ends at the outer beach. Those who go in search of Thoreau’s Cape will find it if they use their eyes. A hundred years of warring with the tides have passed over the rampart wall and made their natural changes, but it still fronts the unappeased, the insatiable sea with an earthly strength of sand itself taken from the waves. The volutes of the breakers approach, rear, tumble, and dissolve, and over the glisten, the foam, and the most, sea-fragrant air still fly by the small shorebirds hastening. A noble world, and one is glad that it once touched the imagination of the obstinate and unique genius from whom stems the great tradition of nature writing in America.
One subtle, charming thing about the Cape is the way the sea manages to penetrate everything. Almost no matter where you happen to be on the Cape, it’s easily possible to spend your whole day out of sight of the water, and this was no less true when Thoreau visited the place – but he catches perfectly the fact that the sea is always with the Cape wanderer just the same:
Every landscape which is dreary enough has a certain beauty to my eyes, and in this instance its permanent qualities were enhanced by the weather. Everything told of the sea, even when we did not see its waste or hear its roar. For birds there were gulls, and for carts in the fields, boats turned bottom upward against the houses, and sometimes the rib of a whale woven into the fence by the roadside.
He and his companion braved the outer beach in winter, a thing even hardy year-rounders don’t take lightly, and again he captures the raucous, chaotic sights that stretch so regularly produces:
The wind blowed so hard from the northeast, that, cold as it was, we resolved to see the breakers on the Atlantic side, whose din we had heard all the morning; so we kept on eastward through the desert, till we struck the short again northeast of Provincetown, and exposed ourselves to the full force of the piercing blast. There are extensive shoals there over which the sea broke with great force. For half a mile from the short it was one mass of white breakers, which, with the wind, made such a din that we could hardly hear ourselves speak.
I’ve walked long sections of that great outer beach many times, both before and after it became the Cape Cod National Seashore; I’ve walked it with two politicians (one lanky, the other very much not), two violinists (one very talented, the other, well, from another world), three poets (one fat and shabby, one thin and beautiful, one built like a longshoreman, all three gone now and all three remembered in anthologies), three novelists (two talented, and one so blazingly gifted I doubt she even noticed the roiling ocean immediately to her right), two critics (one portly, of theater, the other lanky, of books), and even – for all you George Costanza fans out there – an actual marine biologist (in his youth, when he was very nearly as sleek and graceful as the ocean-going animals he yearned to study). And those walks were only a fraction of the epic hikes I took with a long roster of dogs – out in all weathers, tails up like pennants, constantly calling out nerdy chatter only I could hear. I’ve even walked those stretches alone, including once in bitter mid-winter, at night, when I had ultimate things to ponder and only ended up encountering a beach-waddling skunk who seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see him.
All those memories confirm what Beston wrote half a century ago about what Thoreau wrote a century ago: it’s still possible to encounter a Cape Cod untamed by mega-mansions – if you use your eyes. And thanks to Thoreau’s great essays and set-pieces, it’ll always be possible to encounter that Cape, even from the comfort of your own couch on a blustery day far from the shore.
Certainly my own enjoyment this time around was hugely enhanced by the very factor that made me buy this edition: it’s full of wonderful black-and-white illustrations by the great Henry Bugbee Kane, who also did the illustrations for yet another of the books that belongs on that shelf of Cape Cod classics, Wyman Richardson’s The House at Nauset Marsh. This volume of Cape Cod will find a place right there.