You should see me on Cape Cod. I’ve been visiting every summer for about twenty years now and my routine is well-established. No sooner do we drive across the Bourne Bridge than the worry lines disappear and I shed ten years, almost as if the laws of time and gravity had been erased. By this point in the trip I’ve left my job so far behind it’s not so much in another state as on another planet.
This is followed by a week or two of standing on the National Seashore staring out at the sweep and majesty of the Atlantic; floating like a big hairless seal in the bath-warm bay; and meandering through red maple swamps, around salt ponds, and across the tidal flats, where every quahog or razor clam shell must be picked up and examined. The chance sighting of a great blue heron, a cormorant, or even a piping plover is enough to set me rhapsodizing about Nature’s grand design. On Cape Cod, my only real concerns are which restaurant to go to for dinner and where my next ice cream is coming from. Oh, and I also read.
Whenever I travel anywhere, I like to immerse myself in books which are either about that particular location or which use it as a setting and provide lots of local color, as they always add resonance to my trip. Cape Cod literature is especially fertile ground, from native Wampanoag creation myths, through accounts of the Puritans and Pilgrims and the Old Colony, to stories of fishermen and whalers and the hardships they endured, to a vast range of other travel and nature writing. You can find a universe of such material at the New York Public Library, which might not be the same as hunting for the same books in little bookstores on Cape Cod and then reading them on the beach, but at least you’re spared distractions like having to reapply suntan lotion.
The quintessential Cape Cod book is Henry David Thoreau’s 1865 account of his three trips to the “bare and bended arm of Massachusetts.” His observations of the Cape’s shifting landscape, its inhabitants, and its multitude of natural phenomena are as rich and compelling as ever. Thoreau’s prose can surge and soar, exactly like the ocean he is describing:
Before the land rose out of the sea, and became dry land, chaos reigned; and between high and low water-mark, where she is partially disrobed and rising, a sort of chaos reigns still, which only anomalous creatures can inhabit.
I never tired of watching a wave form, the whitecaps mirrored in the curve of translucent greens or blues beneath, before they piled up on the shore in foaming masses, then spread out with a sibilant murmur across the sand.
As we looked off, and saw the water growing darker and darker and deeper and deeper the farther we looked, till it was awful to consider, and it appeared to have no relation to the friendly land, either as shore or bottom,--of what use is a bottom if it is out of sight, if it is two or three miles from the surface, and you are to be drowned so long before you get to it. . .
The vision of a world stripped to its essentials is what makes the book as fascinating today as it was in the middle of the nineteenth century. Although any readily available paperback can provide the same reading experience, a number of worthy editions of Cape Cod in the library’s collection provide an extra dimension. The first edition of any book is usually of interest because it is the one an author has seen into print, but Thoreau died three years before Cape Cod was released, leaving the job of assembling the essays previously published in Putnam’s and the Atlantic Monthly to his sister, Sophia, and his friend, William Ellery Channing, the Transcendentalist poet. There is a copy of the first edition in the Rare Books room, but this title page was reproduced from the collected works, which includes almost two hundred pages of historical and textual notes.
Another edition features photographs taken by Herbert Wendell Gleason less than fifty years after the first publication, visually interpreting the various scenes described by Thoreau, such as this image of the surf rolling over a sand ridge in Wellfleet, and dated October 21, 1903.
A volume published in 1985 employs a wide range of contemporary photographs and historical illustrations to point out how much has changed, and at the same time how little has actually changed. Still, this photograph of a Provincetown boy atop a whale’s head, taken on Provincetown Beach about 1860, is not a scene you are likely to encounter today.
Although there is a dark side to Cape Cod today—tacky tourist shops, miniature golf courses, waterfront homes owned by horrible people who are not me—I’m still anxious to get back. Every year around this time I begin to feel the urge again, like Ishmael’s need to go to sea at the beginning of Moby Dick. I’ll be leaving for Cape Cod on July 21st, and don’t even think of trying to find me--at least not until August 4th. Although I still haven’t been able to retire to Cape Cod, it’s certainly on my mind. Give me a few more years and my business card, instead of “Humanities Bibliographer,” might read “Old Salt.” And you’ll probably find me on the pier, chomping my pipe, and looking something like this: