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Tuesday, July 11, 2017

July 11, 2017: Thoreau’s Bicentennial: Cape Cod

[July 12th marks Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday! So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five texts and contexts for Thoreau, leading up to a weekend post on three ways we can remember and celebrate this unique and influential American on his 200th.]
On two complementary reasons to read Thoreau’s often-overlooked Cape Cod (1865).
Between 1849 and 1857, Henry David Thoreau traveled four times to Cape Cod (no quick or easy journey for any Concord resident in those days, much less one who preferred walking to the train). He was as taken by the place as have been so many of its visitors, and eventually compiled his observations and reflections on those journeys into a single book manuscript, treating the four trips as one symbolic meta-visit to the Cape. Not yet published upon his untimely death in 1862, the book was released in 1865, but has I would argue been largely forgotten in the century and a half since; when the Thoreau canon is expanded beyond Walden and “Civil Disobedience” to include his travel writing, the choice is often A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849). A Week, like all those works, deserves our attention to be sure (and will get it later this week!), but there’s a case to be made that Cape Cod offers two significant contributions of its own to our collective memories.
For one thing, it gives us a far different Thoreau. As was known even to his contemporary Concordians and has become clearer and clearer ever since, the Thoreau of Walden and the like was a carefully constructed persona, an imagined version of the self created in order to model a perspective and identity for those neighbors he was hoping to wake up. Whereas I very much agree with scholar Henry Beston (in his Introduction to an edition of the book) that in Cape Cod we find “Thoreau as a human being,” and more exactly “what he was at the time, a Concord Yankee gone traveling.” He was also one of our keenest observers of and writers about nature, both scientific (particularly as a botanist) and human—and while he included those observations in all his works, the lack of an overt moral or social purpose to Cape Cod allows them to take center stage in a particularly compelling and successful way. Cape Cod may not be as immediate or authentic as Thoreau in his Journals, but it’s a far more concise work and one written with audience engagement in mind, and thus it complements his other published books with a more intimate glimpse into Thoreau than we otherwise get from them.
Moreover, Cape Cod also offers an important glimpse into both the natural landscapes and human communities of the region prior to its full development as a tourist getaway. In Chapter IV, for example, Thoreau finds himself on a Wellfleet beach that would become part of the Cape Cod National Seashore: “In short, we were traversing a desert, with the view of an autumnal landscape of extraordinary brilliancy, a sort of Promised Land, on the one hand, and the ocean on the other. Yet, though the prospect was so extensive, and the country for the most part destitute of trees, a house was rarely visible--we never saw one from the beach--and the solitude was that of the ocean and the desert combined. A thousand men could not have seriously interrupted it, but would have been lost in the vastness of the scenery, as their footsteps in the sand.” And in the very next chapter, he ventures inland to converse with one of the most finely observed human subjects in all his writing, “The Wellfleet Oysterman.” Taken together, these two chapters give us a striking glimpse into Cape Cod in the mid-19th century, a world quite apart from Concord and the rest of Massachusetts, and one captured with the unique precision and power of which Thoreau was capable.
Next Thoreau post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Thoreau responses you’d share?

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