Our book today is Everett S. Allen’s lovely, sentimental 1982 Martha’s Vineyard: An Elegy, in which the veteran newspaper editor turns from the hurly-burly of the day to chronicle a place which for centuries defied any kind of hurly-burly that wasn’t intimately connected with the sea and the soil. He combined his long personal Vineyard experience with the memories (and gentle editorial advice) of legendary Vineyard Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough, and he produced this wonderful volume, which has winsome black-and-white illustrations by Richard Grosvenor and an author’s disclaimer that really leaves nothing to chance: “It is conceded that, in numerous instances, minor matters have been given more attention than major ones and my priorities are, if not capricious, at least indefensible.” Many people – year-rounders and visitors – were interviewed over the course of Allen’s preparing this book, but it’s ultimately a highly-charged personal account of a vanished world – in fact, a whole palimpsest of vanished worlds, one buried on top of the other:
Beneath this very sand – I cannot remember how many feet down, but not many – there lies the hull of a little schooner that was driven ashore before anyone now living was born. Once, I dug out a part of her forward cabin, exposing the graceful curve of planking, now gone silver with age and weather. I built a driftwood fire and roasted a couple of potatoes; it started to rain so I crawled into the cabin and ate them. Such sand as remained in there was damp, yet there was a sense of security in that forecastle – or what remained of it – such as ancient things tend to provide. I wondered who before me had eaten potatoes there and whom they cursed and whom they loved.
The melancholy tone of all that (and it takes some doing to make potatoes melancholy!) stems from the fact that in Allen’s view, the ‘real’ Martha’s Vineyard has long since yielded to a louder and shabbier simulation, a new and bustling vacation-spot that hardly remembers its much older days as an entirely unpretentious farming-land ringed all around by equally hard-working fishing-ports. Martha’s Vineyard: An Elegy is full of poetically-invoked all-but-vanished traditions, and those traditions are filled with hard-working farmers and tough old seamen of a type you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere on the island in 2012:
I did not then appreciate the ageless and traditional loneliness of men ashore from ships but I have seen them fill the bethel of an evening,with their ruddy faces and pale wrists just below the shirt cuff, heavy in their creaking, wooden chairs, and their voices like careless wind in the winter as Mrs. Tower played “Pull for the Shore, Sailor, Pull for the Shore.” And then, very likely, my father would recite some of his verse, standing there, waggling a forefinger, and beginning, “Oh, the devil he chafes the ratlines through/And he heaves the sea aboard/ But the Lord he strengthens the seaman’s grip/ And he runs the lifelines through the ship/ A-keeping his watch and ward …”
And when it was all over, those men would applaud heavily with their great hands, slowly and heavily, great hands worn hard taming the slat of canvas in a gale, forever coping with roll and pitch, net, cable, and hawser. Finally, they would return to their darkened ships and to the night and to the sea.
This kind of Vineyard melancholy is virtually universal among year-round inhabitants of any standing, and it’s been a staple of the island almost as long as people have lived here. Allen’s book has dozens of accounts from those year-rounders, all of them saying some variation of, “The place has really gone down-hill in the last few years; when I was here as a child, you could pedal your bike from Chilmark to Edgartown without encountering another soul – just farmland, with maybe one house in the distance” – for all the world like the place was western Iowa, instead of a relatively modest little island. Allen indulges in the same kind of good-old-days hindsight, fondly recalling a time before the Vineyard was so crowded and ‘built up’ – a modern reader can’t help but be glad he was spared the knowledge of today’s quick-built new mansions popping up everywhere from Oak Bluffs the once-sleepy Katama.
And it’s not like there isn’t a certain forlorn poetry in this kind of retrospective (it’s a very common phenomenon among long-time Cape Cod people too, and it’s not surprising that Allen also wrote a things-aren’t-what-they-used-to-be book about the Cape), especially when it’s done well, as Allen’s always is. He offers a final justification for his ‘elegy,’ and no generous reader (not even those currently enjoying the Hell out of the present-day, gone-to-the-crapper Vineyard) can begrudge him, since we all get this way about someplace or other:
Still, the Vineyard’s tomorrow, whatever it is, will differ much from its yesterday, and that is why this is an elegy. What is gone, is gone, and some of what was gone was good. I am sorry that those who come after cannot know the Vineyard that I have known, but I look back without anger because much of what one remembers fondly was at best mixed and some of it never even existed. …