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10/20/2016 2:28:41 PM

Introduction | Acknowledgements
Chapter Selection:
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Introduction to Cape Cod by Henry Beston

A first glimpse of the great outer beach of Cape Cod is one of the most memorable experiences in all America. As one looks from the height of the earth-cliff which there confronts and halts the North Atlantic, it is the immense and empty plain of ocean which first seizes on the imagination, the ocean seen as one of the splendors of earth, and ever reflecting the mood of the season and the day. One may gaze at a mirror of summer blue ending at an horizon taut as a gleaming line; one may stare down into a vast and leaden turbulence of storm roaring ashore under another violence of the sky. To know the earth-cliff itself, one must do as Thoreau did and walk the long miles at its base between the ridged erosions of clay and sand and the outcry of the waves which follows one along, never dying from the air. From below, one can see the grass rim above trembling in the eternal wind of the lower Cape, and watch the cumuli of August trying to leave the land and float eastward and out above the alien meadows of the sea.

Thoreau came to the Cape with the eye and mind of one who has lived an inland life and is more accustomed to fresh water than to salt. He had noted the unbroken miles of the outer sands on a map, and thought them a feature of geographical interest which it would be rewarding to explore. Once upon the Cape, however, he did not limit his attention to the outer beach but took note of everything on the entire peninsula which touched his curiosity and his imagination, especially the plants. By temperament, Thoreau was probably more of a botanist than an ornithologist; plants did not move and gave him time both to observe and to consider.

When he descended the earth-cliff at some point a little to the north of Eastham village and its "salt-pond," Thoreau found what he had come to see. There lay the unbroken miles which had stirred his interest when he had seen them on the map, there stood the outer beach--the "back" beach to native Cape Codders--with the greenish breakers tumbling ashore through what must have been a not-too-heavy October rain. The gentle curving westward of the earthen rampart would even then have made impossible any complete vista northerly along the beach; it is a place where one must be content to see only a few miles ahead. Moreover, the day being wet but fit for walking, there surely stood at the distant end of the view that thickening and shapeless bound of rain and ocean mist, that seemingly fixed rounding of vapor towards which one walks but at which one never arrives, a feature which often gives so beautiful a quality of the mysterious to these oceanic sands. It is no wonder that the pilgrimage along the beach serves as the literary foundation of the earlier writings which were assembled to make Cape Cod, and I rejoice that my friend and colleague Mr. Dudley C. Lunt has so edited the text gathered together by Thoreau's executors that the beach has regained its importance in the narrative. And in welcome addition to the traditional text there appears here the journal of the excursion in the month of June, 1857, when Thoreau walked the great beach alone and for the last time.

How singular it is that those who concern themselves with the history of literature in America do not see that Thoreau was the first American to write a completely modern prose. Nowhere in the books does one encounter the slightest trace of the literary manner bequeathed to New England by New England's own and regional eighteenth century; nowhere does one meet with the unctuous and moralistic fustian which was New England's unwholesome echo of British evangelicalism in its early Victorian stage. Thoreau's prose has the modern ease with the reader, and even the modern touch of structural austerity. There is nothing antiquarian about Cape Cod. Of particular interest is its glimpse of Thoreau as a human being. He is present in these pages as something more than the naturalist on his way to see and observe a new province of that green America to which--unlike those of his contemporaries who looked overseas--he felt a first spiritual and intellectual allegiance. It is the figure standing by Walden Pond that one finds, the individualist whose eccentricities, old Concordians used to say, had been so exaggerated by rumor "painted full of tongues." In Cape Cod, Thoreau is what he was at the time, a Concord Yankee gone traveling, and it is little wonder that Cape Codders took him for a Yankee peddler! With what human relish he leaves the beach awhile to chat with the Wellfleet oysterman by the kitchen fire, and is not the oysterman perhaps the most living of all the Thoreau gallery of characters? There are times when a literary figure from a community of philosophers is all the better for not being taken too seriously. "Damn book peddlers!" said the poor madman by the oysterman's hearth. The Cape has always been a bit wary of unknowns from the westward beyond Cape Cod Bay.

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 gales and the breakers, a hundred years of struggle with the tides have passed over the rampart wall and made their natural changes, but it still fronts the unappeased, insatiable sea with an earthly strength of sand itself taken from the waves. The volutes of the breakers approach, tumble, and dissolve, and over the glisten, the foam, and moist, sea-fragrant air still fly 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.

Introduction | Acknowledgements
Chapter Selection:
1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

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