CAPE COD. Extending farther east into the Atlantic Ocean than any other
portion of the United States, Cape Cod is the peninsula that forms the socalled arm of southeastern Massachusetts. It begins at the Bourne and Sagamore bridges that span the Cape Cod Canal, continues thirty-five miles
east to Chatham, then curves north and northwest to Truro and finally to
Provincetown at its tip.
With Nantucket* Sound to the south, the Atlantic to the east, and the
Cape Cod Bay to the north and west, Cape Cod has inspired many writers
to document their sea-related experiences on its shores. The most famous
literature concerning the area consists of personal narrative and nature writing. Henry David Thoreau’s* Cape Cod (1865) chronicles his three weeklong excursions on the cape. Thoreau describes the area’s towns, residents,
landscape, and folk culture, investigating the local phenomenon of “wrecking,” which refers to both the searching for treasure along cape beaches and
the deliberate wrecking of ships by luring them with false lights to rocky
shores. To that end, he opens his text with a passage on the St. John, a brig that wrecked at Cohasset just over a mile from shore one day before his first
visit to the cape.
Joel Porte examines Thoreau’s fascination with water in his critical essay
“Henry Thoreau and the Reverend Poluphloisboios Thalassa,” included in
The Chief Glory of Every People (1973), and Thoreau’s renowned journal
inspired other nature writers to share their own experiences on Cape Cod.
Henry Beston’s* The Outermost House (1928) describes his solitary year on
the dunes of the Eastham bar, thirty miles from mainland Massachusetts,
offering extended descriptions of the sea, its wrecks, and its wildlife, especially seabirds. More recently, Robert Finch shared his view of the modern
transformation of Cape Cod’s landscape in The Primal Place (1983). Much
of Finch’s text revolves around the cape’s seas, as he describes the acts of
“clamming” and “scratching” (digging for shellfish and quahogs, respectively), the stranding of ducks, seals, dolphins, and whales along the bay’s
beaches, and the effects of winter and tidal movements on beach erosion
and marine wildlife.
Daily life on Cape Cod also has led to the publication of cape-related
memoirs. In I Retire to Cape Cod (1944), Arthur W. Tarbell presents a
history of the ships that have traveled the cape and its canal, focusing in
particular on clipper ships. He notes the continued influence of wrecking
(also called, according to Tarbell, “scow-banging”), citing the value and
prevalence of quarterboards (boards bearing the names of wrecked ships)
proudly displayed by cape residents on homes, woodsheds, and garage
One of the cape’s most prolific writers of fiction, poetry, and memoir was
Joseph Crosby Lincoln.* Much of Lincoln’s work centers on the sea, ships
and crew, weather, and wrecking. Fair Harbor (1922) details the escapades
of a sea captain and a ship’s cook at a home for mariners’ women, and Storm
Signals (1935) finds a disabled captain returning home to the cape after a
shipwreck.* His earlier novel, Partners of the Tide (1905), which concerns
two successful wreckers on the cape, was released as a Hollywood movie in
1916 and 1921.
Cape Codder Henry C. Kittredge also documented his perspective of the
area. Cape Cod: Its People and Their History (1930) examines the history of
the cape from the era of exploration and settlement to the twentieth-century
construction of the canal, while Shipmasters of Cape Cod (1935) tracks neglected voyages of cape sea captains along the East Coast, to the Northwest*
Territories, and to Liverpool, China, and the Mediterranean. Mooncussers of
Cape Cod (1937) examines the cape’s wreckers, who “cuss the moon” for
shedding light that prevents the scavenging of potential nighttime wrecks.
In the same year, Cape Cod Pilot was published as part of the Federal
Writer’s Project; this compilation includes “The Sea Witch of Billingsgate”
by Jeremiah Digges, pseudonym of Joseph Berger, who moved to Provincetown from New York following the crash of 1929. Other novels concerning or set on Cape Cod include William Martin’s*
Cape Cod (1991) and William Carpenter’s A Keeper of Sheep (1994). Poetry
by cape writers includes Charles H. Philbrick’s Wonderstrand Revisited: A
Cape Cod Sequence (1960), John V. Hinshaw’s anthology, East of America:
A Selection of Cape Cod Poems (1969), and Conrad Aiken’s* Collected Poems
(1970). Marge Piercy, who lives in Wellfleet, uses cape imagery notably in
her novel Summer People (1990) and in her poetry collections Living in the
Open (1976) and Mars and Her Children (1992). Truro writer Maria Flook
published Open Water (1994), about a wayward sailor discharged from the
navy for petty thievery. Norman Mailer’s murder mystery Tough Guys Don’t
Dance (1984) is set on the cape.
Shorter fiction, essays, and poetry are compiled in A Place Apart: A Cape
Cod Reader (1993), edited by Robert Finch. Cape Cod Stories (1996), edited by John Miller and Tim Smith, offers reminiscences of the cape, of
Nantucket, and of Martha’s Vineyard by an array of famous authors such as
Edna St. Vincent Millay, Sylvia Plath, John Updike,* and John Cheever.*
Richard Adams Carey’s Against the Tide: The Fate of the New England Fisherman (1999), a work containing natural and local history and literature,
chronicles one season with four cape fishermen struggling to succeed in a
threatened way of life.