An Introduction to the Nantucket Reader


First and foremost, The Nantucket Reader is intended to supply a rollicking good read. Here you will find a sampler of all the sorts of adventures we’ve come to expect from an island with Nantucket’s illustrious whaling history—men hunting dinosaur-sized beasts from small boats, whales sinking ships, mutineers hacking up officers, and even an old-fashioned spot of drawing lots and cannibalism. You’ll find samples too of all the pleasures a grand old summer resort can supply—swimming, sailing, sunbathing—and some vacation adventures as well—escaped pet canaries on the ferry, a creepy rented cottage, meltdown in a hotel lobby on a rainy day. And there are some less-expected adventures—a ghost in the attic, a great white shark terrorizing beach-goers, a kayak trip across Nantucket Sound—and wait until you learn what Tom Congdon found on a chimney ledge in his old house . . . .

But if, like Captain Ahab’s first mate, Starbuck, “thou requirest a little lower layer,” this anthology can supply that too. More than a quaint backwater of charming regional writing, Nantucket has made major contributions to American literature, inspiring novels by Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe, journal entries by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, a poem by Robert Lowell, a short story by John Cheever, essays by Paul Theroux and David Halberstam. Strong writers touched by the Nantucket experience have taken up their pens to change the life of the nation. The rhetoric of Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Stephen Symonds Foster, Lucretia Mott, and Edward Pompey helped craft a vision of America as a global superpower commanding the commerce of two oceans, a nation with women’s suffrage and without slavery, a nation with integrated schools, where literacy is the right of all and not a privilege of the few.

With choices ranging from certified masterpieces to light entertainment, The Nantucket Reader includes fifty selections loosely grouped according to broad themes. It’s up to you to decide whether you’d rather explore the island or go whaling in the far Pacific, whether you’re in the mood for comedy or calamity, whether you’d prefer the incendiary rhetoric of abolitionist days or cooler contemporary voices, whether you’re interested in the words and deeds of the island’s famously strong women or in one of the shipwrecks that have made Nantucket Shoals notorious. There’s more than enough reading material here for the longest crossing by ferry, and plenty of selections short enough for a twenty-minute hop by airplane across Nantucket Sound. The book can be read from cover to cover if you’re the ambitious sort, or by the section if a particular theme interests you—but it’s primarily designed to allow readers to dip in and out as time and whimsy dictate. To facilitate “dipping,” you’ll find that each selection has a very brief introduction explaining the author’s relationship to Nantucket.

This longer general introduction has a different purpose—to offer an overview of Nantucket’s literary history, to shake the kaleidoscope of selections included here and drop them into the patterns of the past, surrounded by the colorful events that give them context. Now if your favorite armchair or porch hammock is calling, and you are in a hurry to rush off and begin reading what John Greenleaf Whittier or Sena Jeter Naslund or Russell Baker or Nancy Thayer or J. Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur or Nathaniel Philbrick has had to say about Nantucket—go in peace. This is a Nantucket anthology after all, and what is Nantucket about if not the leisure to wander in and out as you please, whether in a dripping bathing suit or dripping oilskins. But if you find yourself curious about what these writers have in common, or about how the selections in The Nantucket Reader fit together from a historical perspective—linger now, or come back later. From a harpooneer who wrote the Great American Novel, to skinny-dipping, hard-drinking Nobel Prize winners, Nantucket’s literary history is rich, illustrious, and a story in itself.

The first island author to make a lasting contribution to American literary history—Peter Folger—arrived in 1663, just four years after Nantucket’s first English settler, Thomas Macy. Folger, in the words of Cotton Mather, was “a godly learned Englishman.” Believing in education and literacy for others, Folger learned to read, write, and speak the Massachusetts language in order to serve as an interpreter, schoolmaster, and evangelist to the Indians on both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. A Baptist who had removed to Nantucket to escape persecution by the Puritans on Martha’s Vineyard, Folger was also something of a political firebrand, leading Nantucket’s half-share men in a revolt against the island’s proprietors when he was in his sixties.

Folger’s best-known contribution to American literature was a lengthy poem, A Looking Glass for the Times; or, The Former Spirit of New England Revived in this Generation, published in 1676. Folger’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin, described the poem—written during King Phillip’s War—as “in favour of Liberty of Conscience, and in behalf of the Baptists, Quakers, and other Sectaries, that had been under Persecution; ascribing the Indian Wars and other Distresses, that had befallen the Country to that Persecution, as so many Judgments of God, to punish so heinous an Offence; and exhorting a Repeal of those uncharitable laws.”

A Looking Glass for the Times sounds an important theme that will echo in much of the Nantucket literature to come—a tradition of dissent, of intellectual freedom, of standing apart from the mainland’s most oppressive ideas. And it’s significant because in the poem, the man who helped set off Nantucket’s half-share revolt would unwittingly model some of the principles of the American Revolution for his more famous grandson. But Folger’s writing, in the words of one critic, is “without one sparkle of poetry.” The Cambridge History of English and American Literature opines that “its four hundred lines in ballad quatrains are very bad verse.” Even Benjamin Franklin, while admiring the poem’s “Decent Plainness and manly Freedom,” had to admit that his grandfather’s style was at best “homespun.” The conclusion of A Looking Glass is an example:

I am for Peace, and not for War,
And that’s the reason why,
I write more plain than some Men do,
That use to daub and lie;
But I shall cease and set my Name
To what I here insert,
Because to be a Libeller,
I hate it with my Heart.
From Sherburne Town where now I dwell,
My name I do put here,
Without Offence, your real Friend,
It is Peter Folgier.

Four hundred lines of this sort of thing might be a bit much for today’s reader, so you won’t find A Looking Glass in this collection. But those interested in Folger’s influence—which extends beyond Franklin—should turn to Henry David Thoreau’s journal entries about his Nantucket visit. There Thoreau quotes some of Folger’s most powerful remarks on intolerance and the war with the Indians.

It would take more than a century for the next author of note to arrive on Nantucket. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, whose classic Letters from an American Farmer (1782) is well-represented in this volume, visited the island in 1773. There he found the inhabitants far too busy with the demanding occupations of farming, fishing, and whaling to have much time for literary endeavor. “I found very few books among these people, who have very little time for reading;” Crèvecoeur observed, “the Bible and a few school tracts, both in the Nattic and English languages, constituted their most numerous libraries.”

But Crèvecoeur did note two curious exceptions: “I saw indeed several copies of Hudibras and Josephus, but no one knows who first imported them.” Crèvecoeur, who was French, was positively baffled by Nantucket’s affection for Hudibras, a long satiric epic by English poet Samuel Butler. “It is something extraordinary to see this people, professedly so grave and strangers to every branch of literature, reading [Hudibras] with pleasure. . . . They all read it much and can by memory repeat many passages.” Full of bawdy, Rabelaisian humor and modeled on Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 comic adventure Don Quixote, Hudibras mocks the hypocrisy and self-seeking of the English Puritans. Crèvecoeur didn’t get it, but it’s not hard to guess why Nantucketers, whose Baptist ancestors came to the island to escape Puritanism’s iron grip on the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and who were predominantly Quaker by 1773, may have found Hudibras hilarious. Nantucket’s interest in the works of first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Yosef Ben Matityahu), providing an eyewitness account of early Christianity, was more understandable to Crèvecoeur, “as it describes the history of a people from whom we receive the prophecies which we believe and the religious laws which we follow.” Still, he wondered, “Is it not a little singular to see these books in the hands of fishermen, who are perfect strangers almost to any other?”

During the years surrounding the American Revolution, Nantucket’s principal contribution to our soon-to-be national literature was to become a kind of metaphor for the American experience, or, in Nathaniel Philbrick’s words, “an American icon.” “What then is the American, this new man?” Crèvecoeur asked in Letters from an American Farmer, and believed he had found the answer on Nantucket—“[T]hough it is barren in its soil, insignificant in its extent, inconvenient in its situation, deprived of materials for building, it seems to have been inhabited merely to prove what mankind can do when happily governed!” Indeed, between 1762 and 1770, Nantucket’s whaling fleet grew from 75 to 125 vessels as this little island—Melville’s “mere hillock and elbow of sand”-- launched “a navy of great ships on the sea.”

Nantucket understandably became a metaphor for America’s aggressive entrepreneurship and pioneering spirit. By 1775, according to Edouard Stackpole, she would have 150 sloops, schooners, and brigs hunting whales in the north and south Atlantic. That same year, when Edmund Burke stood up in Parliament to try and persuade Great Britain not to go to war with the rebellious American colonies, Nantucket was his example of how much the mother country had to lose:
No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries; no climate that is not witness to their toils. Neither the perseverance of Holland, nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of English enterprise ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this recent people; a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood. When I contemplate these things; . . . . when I see how profitable they have been to us, I feel all the pride of power sink. . . .
Parliament failed to heed Burke’s warning, and the years of the American Revolution would be years of blockade, famine, and capture for Nantucket whalemen. But there is no finer testimony to their persistence and vitality than the fact that in 1783, with the Revolution just ended, the Nantucket whaleship Bedford became the first American vessel to fly the Stars and Stripes in British waters.

By 1788, the year the U.S. Constitution was ratified, Nantucket had become Thomas Jefferson’s example of how much the new nation had to lose if the island’s prime seamen, with their expertise in whaling, succumbed to British and French blandishments to leave the island for foreign shores. In “Observations on the Whale Fishery,” Nantucket became for Jefferson what it had been for Burke—an icon of America’s potential maritime and economic power. Seven years before George Washington signed the Armament Act, creating the U.S. Navy, Jefferson “saw the danger of permitting five or six thousand of the best seamen existing to be transferred by a single stroke to the marine strength of their enemy, and to carry over with them an art which they possessed almost exclusively.”

No less a writer than James Fenimore Cooper took this view of Nantucket to heart when, in 1823, he published the book widely proclaimed to be the first sea novel—a fiction in which the sea and a ship are the principal settings—The Pilot. The novel follows the cruise of two Continental during the American Revolution and is largely set in the English Channel, so we’ve reluctantly chosen not to represent it in this collection. But The Pilot does feature perhaps the first Nantucket character in American fiction, Long Tom Coffin, who in a pitched battle with a British cutter uses his harpoon to pin the British commander to the mast of his own ship. “In such a business as this,” says the novel’s American Captain Barnstable, “I would sooner trust Tom Coffin and his harpoon to back me, than the best broadside that ever rattled out of the three decks of a ninety-gun ship.” Coffin is the embodiment of that dangerously vigorous Nantucket species of Homo americanus hinted at by Crèvecoeur, Burke, and Jefferson.

As stocks of whales in the Atlantic became exhausted, Nantucket seamen like Long Tom would play a crucial role in opening the vast and largely unexplored wilderness of the Pacific Ocean to exploitation. For a time, as Jefferson feared, it remained uncertain whether the young American nation or older European powers would benefit most from Nantucket expertise. In 1789, as mobs in France stormed the Bastille, Nantucketer Archaelus Hammond became the first white man to strike and kill a sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean—an act performed for the British whaleship Emelia. By 1792, there would be nine whaleships in the Pacific—four from France, two from Nantucket, two from England, and one from New Bedford—all but one of them commanded by a Nantucketer. Years of global warfare—the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, the Tripolitan Wars—took their toll on maritime enterprise worldwide, including Nantucket whaling. But by 1815, with these wars fading in their wake, Nantucketers were poised to turn the Pacific into an American ocean, and by 1820, the Golden Age of Nantucket whaling had begun—with around twenty-five ships a year setting sail from the island for the Pacific grounds.

The result was a sea change in Nantucket literature, as the island became synonymous not only with American enterprise, but with high adventure. It’s difficult to recapture how distant and exotic, dangerous and enticing, the Pacific seemed to readers in the early nineteenth century. Suffice it to say that in 1969 it took Apollo 11 astronauts just three days to reach the moon, while in 1819, it took the men of the whaleship Essex three and half months to sail from Nantucket to Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, and, once at the Cape, another month to battle their way around into the Pacific through contrary winds and mountainous seas. The Pacific, then, was forty-five times more distant than the moon. And while there is no life on the moon, the Pacific’s tens of thousands of islands teemed with flora and fauna and aboriginal peoples unknown to nineteenth century science.
Small wonder that contemporary readers craved true stories from the brave Nantucket whalemen who had penetrated and explored this extreme environment. Especially, nineteenth century readers thrilled to disaster narratives—a ship stove by a whale, cannibalism in open boats, mutiny, massacre, and marooning. Two Nantucket narratives from the 1820s—Owen Chase’s Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whaleship Essex of Nantucket (1821) and William Lay and Cyrus Hussey’s Mutiny on Board the Whaleship Globe (1828) made a lasting impact on American literature, and are still in print today.

A relatively new genre when the century began, the novel would become the dominant literary form of the nineteenth century. By the 1830s, there was widespread recognition that the Nantucket experience might be the stuff of bestselling fiction. Edgar Allan Poe, capitalizing on the rage for disaster narratives, produced a satire of the genre, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), a wild romp through every conceivable sort of maritime mishap. The magazine grew in popularity alongside of the novel (Poe’s Pym was originally serialized in the Southern Literary Messenger), creating a market for short fiction. In an 1839 issue of the New York Knickerbocker, explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds—who had circumnavigated the globe earlier in the decade—published a salty yarn ostensibly collected from a Nantucket whaleman: “Mocha-Dick: Or, the White Whale of the Pacific.”

As the Golden Age of Nantucket whaling approached its zenith, the island’s more than 10,000 residents began to look with pride on their illustrious history, and Nantucket literature changed accordingly. In 1834, the same year that Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s historical novel The Last Days of Pompeii was a smash hit, Joseph Coleman Hart won equivalent success in America with Miriam Coffin or The Whale Fishermen, set both on Nantucket and on the Pacific whaling grounds during the Revolution. Perhaps inspired by Hart’s success, Obed Macy produced his nonfiction History of Nantucket in 1835, understanding that on the island, many a truth is stranger than fiction. Macy would begin the insatiable demand for Nantucket history that continues to this day.

Literacy on Nantucket was no longer the perquisite of a privileged few. In 1825, the island opened the doors of its first public elementary schools. These schools were segregated, however, and because whaling provided jobs for free black men, with opportunities for responsibility and promotion, the island possessed a large and relatively prosperous black community interested in securing the blessings of education for their children. Black sea captain and businessman Absalom Boston, whose cruise in the schooner Industry with an all-black crew is memorialized in this volume, took action, funding construction of the island’s African school. By 1838, Nantucket was ready to open its first public high school. But again, black students were excluded, and when political agitation on the island failed to resolve the problem, another black mariner took the helm. Captain Edward J. Pompey, together with 104 other black citizens of Nantucket, petitioned the state legislature for redress in 1845, and the result was Massachusetts House Bill Number 45, An Act Concerning Public Schools, thought to be the first civil rights bill in the United States guaranteeing equal access to education.

Many island shipowners began to recognize the benefits of an educated work force, and provided lending libraries on board their vessels so that crew members could enjoy reading during long and tedious hours at sea. The Nantucket Historical Association possesses the book list for the 1840-1845 voyage of the whaleship Charles and Henry. That list tells us something about what Nantucket’s whaling barons expected a shipboard library to accomplish. Whaleship literature was above all morally uplifting (Young Christian, Moral Tales, Fireside Piety, Are You A Christian?). It encouraged young men to work hard and save their money (Strive and Thrive, Victims of Gaming, A History of Banking), and to follow a lifestyle including temperance, chastity, cold showers, fresh air, loose clothing, exercise, and whole-wheat bread (Graham’s Lectures on the Science of Human Life). Whalemen were expected to take a serious interest in history (Washington, The American Revolution, Readings in History) and contemporary politics (Harrison versus Van Buren), and to savor just a smattering of adventure (Shipwrecked on a Desert Island, Jack Halyard). They were not all expected to be able to read very well, as evidenced by A Child’s Robinson Crusoe.

One foremast hand on that voyage of the Charles and Henry, a ragged harpooneer picked up off the beach in Tahiti, was doubtless grateful to discover anything at all to read on board, although he would have preferred Dante or Shakespeare. Herman Melville, who found the Charles and Henry a “comfortable craft” with a “free-hearted captain,” nevertheless poked fun at its library in Moby-Dick, gently mocking Quaker shipowners for plying their crews with religious tracts and for placing hymnals in the seamen’s bunks to curb “profane singing.”

Melville’s misgiving notwithstanding, nineteenth century Nantucket readers had come a long way from the rude fishermen Crèvecoeur had observed handing around a few threadbare books. A seafaring people whose business now girdled the globe, islanders were among the most cosmopolitan of Americans. Sarah Orne Jewett’s nostalgic character Captain Littlepage, looking back on the Age of Sail in her lovely novel The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896), might have been describing the island during this period when he says:“In the old days, a good part o’ the best men here knew a hundred ports and something of the way folks lived in them. They saw the world for themselves. . . . They may not have had the best of knowledge to carry with ‘em sight-seein’, but they were some acquainted with foreign lands an’ their laws, an’ could see outside the battle for town clerk here in Dunnet; they got some sense o’ proportion. Yes, they lived more dignified, and their houses were better within an’ without. “The “best men” on Nantucket were understandably ambitious to be among the most literate of Americans as well. As Captain Littlepage puts it, “A shipmaster was apt to get the habit of reading. . . . for company’s sake in the dull days and nights he turns to his book. Most of us old shipmasters came to know ‘most everything about something. . . .” “Literature thrives well in Nantucket,” wrote Theodore Parker. “There is a deal of reading.”

As the magnificent Federal and Greek Revival mansions of Main Street—built in the 1830s and 1840s—so eloquently demonstrate, whaling brought immense wealth to the island. Wealth, in its turn, brought education, culture, and leisure for pursuing the arts and sciences. And so the year 1834 saw a momentous occasion for island readers, the incorporation of the Nantucket Atheneum. The library was the brainchild of two men—David Joy, a self-educated “mechanic” and amateur chemist who grew rich when he invented a process for manufacturing spermaceti candles, and Charles G. Coffin, wealthy shipowner and eldest son of whaling baron Zenas Coffin. Together, Joy and Coffin combined the collections of the Nantucket Mechanics Social Library Association and the Columbian Library Society, and purchased a disused Universalist church at the corner of Federal and Pearl (now India) streets to house the books. They sold ten-dollar shares to civic-minded men and women who would become their fellow proprietors, and used the funds to endow and operate the library. “This humble beginning,” quoth the Reverend Adin Ballou, speaking at Joy’s memorial service in 1875, “culminated at length in the Nantucket Atheneum, the literary glory of your town—now replete with the treasures of art and knowledge to bless thousands yet unborn.” Astronomer Maria Mitchell, who would be catapulted to international fame by her discovery of a comet in 1847, served as the Atheneum’s librarian from 1836 until 1856. Mitchell, with a fervent belief in the value of higher education (she would eventually become the first Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College and President of the Association for the Advancement of Women), selected books for the community throughout her tenure at the Atheneum, and did a great deal to shape the values of Nantucket readers. “[T]here are persons,” she wrote, “hungry for the food of the mind, the wants of which are as imperious as those of the body. . . .So I steadily advocate in purchasing books for the Atheneum, the lifting of the people. ‘Let us buy, not such books as the people want, but books just above their wants, and they will reach up to take what is put out for them.’ We may in this way, form on Nantucket, a taste for the refined and elevated. . . . ” Mitchell crammed the Atheneum’s shelves with volumes that could, in themselves, comprise a fine college education—the latest scientific books and journals, a carefully developed history collection, the classic works of Milton and Shakespeare, and the finest contemporary literature, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic feminist poem, Aurora Leigh (1856).

More than a library, the Nantucket Atheneum in the mid-nineteenth century was also the scene of an ongoing series of lectures that brought some of the most distinguished minds of the age to the island. This phenomenon was part of the era’s nationwide Lyceum Movement. Named for the Greek Lyceum, a school near Athens where the philosopher Aristotle lectured to students, the movement was intended to promote adult education by bringing inspiring speakers and college-style lecture courses directly to communities. During this period, a few of the luminaries gracing the Atheneum’s stage included artist and ornithologist John James Audubon, Harvard biology professor Louis Agassiz, educational reformer Horace Mann, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, editor of the New York Tribune Horace Greeley, and journalist Sarah Josepha Hale. But Nantucket readers must especially rejoice in visits by two towering figures of the American literary renaissance—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—and the impressions of the island they left in their journals.

During the 1840s, Nantucket was swept up in the anti-slavery agitation gripping the nation. Abolitionist sentiment burned fiercely in Massachusetts, and in a poem titled “The Exiles” (1840), the immensely popular John Greenleaf Whittier used an episode from island history—Thomas Macy’s harboring of a Quaker fleeing Puritan persecution—to suggest how citizens of a free state ought to receive fugitive slaves. Whittier called Nantucket a “refuge of the free”—and in the 1840s that title was hard-fought and hard-won, with consequent gains for American literature. In 1841, a shareholder revolt forced the Atheneum to open its doors to political debate and to “persons of color” just in time for a fugitive slave named Frederick Douglass to make his first-ever speech to an anti-slavery meeting. Douglass electrified Nantucket, and his success at the Atheneum began his career as the pre-eminent African-American author, editor, orator, and diplomat of the nineteenth century. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, editor of The Liberator, also thundered from the Nantucket stage, and wrote about the advent of Douglass. Yet another anti-slavery convention sparked a riot that saw library windows smashed and audiences driven from the Atheneum by angry mobs. This too was a literary event, as Stephen Symonds Foster, the speaker who had roused such wrath, chose to explain himself in another important publication of the abolitionist movement, The Brotherhood of Thieves, or A True Picture of the American Church and Clergy; A Letter to Nathaniel Barney of Nantucket (1843).

Nantucket women of the whaling era were made literate by a Quaker belief in equality of education and made self-reliant by their husbands’ long absences at sea. Island-born Lucretia Coffin Mott would use her Nantucket heritage and her skill at writing and oratory to create the American movement for women’s suffrage. Mott was an architect of the nation’s first Women’s Rights Convention, held in 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York. In 1854, Mott would return to the island in triumph to speak from the stage of the Atheneum, an institution whose fine collections and lyceum lectures, in an era when women could not attend college, had special significance for her Nantucket sisters. Mott’s efforts would have some unintended consequences for island women. While prior to 1848, it was considered unthinkable for women to accompany their whaling husbands to sea, after Seneca Falls a new consciousness of women’s capacities made such voyages not only permissible but commonplace—giving to the Nantucket reader treasures such as Eliza Spencer Brock’s journal of her cruise on the whaleship Lexington (1853-1856) and Martha Ford’s “Nantucket Girls’ Song” (1855).

Like a billow that’s all one crested comb, the glory days of Nantucket literature would peak with the 1851 publication of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. “It is surely Melville’s greatest book,” wrote critic Carl Van Vechten, and, echoing the sentiments of many readers, “surely the greatest book that has yet been written in America, surely one of the great books of the world.” “Who is this rough ‘sailor before the mast,’ in jacket and tarpaulin, with rolling gait and tarry aspect, who intrudes so unceremoniously upon the grave and black-coated fraternity of American Authors, and boldly elbows his way to a front seat among the best of them?” asked an anonymous contemporary reviewer about Herman Melville. The question seems to echo Crèvecoeur’s “What, then, is the American, this new man?” We might answer that Herman Melville was a kind of literary Long Tom Coffin, ready to pin the best authors in the English language to the mast with his harpoon.

Moby-Dick owes its very existence to the Nantucket experience, to Melville’s four years at sea (1841-1845) as a whaleman. As Melville’s authorial character Ishmael acknowledges, “A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.” The curriculum of that college included an extensive course in Nantucket literature—Moby-Dick is openly indebted not only to Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare, but to almost all of the Nantucket authors who preceded Melville—Edmund Burke, Thomas Jefferson, James Fenimore Cooper, Owen Chase, William Lay and Cyrus Hussey, Joseph C. Hart, and Obed Macy, as well as to the island’s Indian legends, shipboard folklore, and sea shanties. Many scholars believe the novel is also indebted to Jeremiah N. Reynolds and to Edgar Allan Poe.

Moby-Dick is, however, a romantic and nostalgic book. Nantucket’s supremacy as a whaling port had ended well before the novel’s 1851 appearance. The island’s drifting harbor bar, its lack of access to mainland railroad facilities, the Great Fire of 1846 that destroyed the warehouses and factories that were an essential part of Nantucket’s whaling infrastructure, and the 1849 departure of her whaling fleet to carry passengers to the California Gold Rush were in part responsible. Whaling itself was a dying industry. Nantucketers knew that whales, hunted to the brink of extinction, could not continue to supply oil for a burgeoning Industrial Revolution, and the quest was on for alternative sources of energy. The first commercial uses of petroleum had begun a decade before Moby-Dick’s appearance, and 1852, the year after the novel’s publication, saw the patenting of kerosene, the fuel that would make whale oil obsolete. Then, too, the Age of Sail was drawing to a close. While Ishmael in Moby-Dick travels to Nantucket on a sailing packet, Melville in 1852 arrived on the steamship Massachusetts—then a ten-year-old vessel in the island’s twenty-year-old steamship service.

To those with a literary turn of mind, nothing is more tragic than the destruction of an historic library. The Great Fire of 1846 also claimed the original Nantucket Atheneum. Gone was a collection of 3,200 books, including such cherished volumes as a first edition of Melville’s first novel, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, and an invaluable copy of John James Audubon’s elephant folio, a collection of ornithological prints carried to Nantucket by Audubon himself. Gone, too, was an unequalled collection of Polynesian artifacts brought home from the South Seas by the island’s whalemen. Yet despite the fact that seven-eighth’s of the island’s working people had lost their shops, stock, and tools in the fire, and although hundreds of Nantucketers were homeless, the community rallied to rebuild the focal point of its intellectual life. Within six months, the magnificent Greek Revival building that houses the Atheneum today rose from the blackened wasteland of Nantucket’s burnt-out business district.

Up until Maria Mitchell’s departure as librarian in 1856, the Atheneum continued to supply islanders with well-chosen literature and lively lyceum lectures by famous figures. But the Nantucket community was withering away. In the words of Richard Miller and Robert Mooney, “The island of Nantucket in 1860 was in a condition of economic and social depression. The population had fallen to 6,094, representing a forty percent decline during the previous decade. . . . As the new decade opened, Nantucket’s once proud fleet had dwindled to six ships and was at the point of extinction.” The coming of the Civil War in 1861 continued the exodus from the island, and would end Nantucket whaling—and Nantucket’s nineteenth century prosperity—permanently. So worthless had the island’s aging whaleships become that a number of them were taken south, filled with stones, and sunk in the entrance of Charleston Harbor to assist with the blockade of this important Confederate port. Even this endeavor proved fruitless, as shifting currents reopened the channel. Yet these vessels would serve the cause of literature. Herman Melville wrote their epitaph in a poem, “The Stone Fleet: An Old Sailor’s Lament” (1861), which opens:I have a feeling for these ships, Each worn and ancient one,With great bluff bows, and broad in the beam: Ay, it was unkindly done.

But so they serve the Obsolete— Even so, Stone Fleet!

By the end of the Civil War in 1865, Nantucket’s year-round population had dropped to 4,830, and in 1870 it hit a temporary bottom of 4,123—a sixty percent decline from the heyday of whaling. Not only was whaling over, but the war had destroyed the possibility of other maritime business as well. Before the war began, the American merchant fleet, much of it centered in New England, had carried two-thirds of the nation’s foreign commerce. But during the war, fear of Confederate raiders sent insurance rates so high that there was a “flight from the flag,” as Northern merchants shifted to British ships and British ports to save money and protect their cargoes and Northern ship-owners sold their vessels abroad. At war’s end, American vessels carried less than one-third of foreign commerce, and by the end of the century, less than ten percent. Nantucket’s era as a maritime community was firmly and irrevocably over, and with this sea change, the literary tide went out as well.

It didn’t take the remaining islanders long, however, to decide that the tourist trade might make Nantucket rich again. They swiftly took stock of their assets—the handsome historic architecture of Nantucket town, the quaint village of ‘Sconset, the fifty miles of pristine beaches, the cool sea breezes, the rolling moors, the fascinating history. The Massachusetts Old Colony Railroad entered into the scheme, deciding in the 1870s that they too might thrive by promoting the vacation trade on Cape Cod and the Islands. The railroad began service from Boston to Hyannis and Woods Hole, where tourists could connect with steamboats to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. As American cities became ever more crowded and unwholesome in an era before air conditioning, refrigeration, concern about air pollution, or widespread vaccination against epidemic disease, more and more urbanites found the wisdom of summering on then-uncrowded Nantucket, with its clean air, clean water, fresh seafood, and farm produce. Slowly, the island began to work its way back towards prosperity. And slowly the literary tide—a very different kind of literary tide—began to creep back in. During the month of September, 1910, a matron from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park decided to take her eleven-year-old son to Nantucket to enjoy the sort of vacation she herself had enjoyed when her parents had taken her to the island as a child during the 1870s and early 1880s. They stayed at Miss Annie Ayers’s boarding house on Pearl Street, a traditional Nantucket home over 100 years old, and enjoyed such amusements as visiting a whaling exhibit at the Fair Street Museum, created by the Nantucket Historical Association, recently founded in 1894. They toured the still-active Surfside Lifesaving Station, hiked across the moors, and best of all, chartered a catboat to take them fishing and sailing to Great Point. They picnicked and collected seashells. The boy caught a mackerel and the boarding house cook prepared it for dinner. He went for his first swim in the ocean—a bit unnerved by the kelp and the horseshoe crabs—while his mother, attired in a floppy, broad-brimmed hat, a long-sleeved bathing dress featuring a skirt over bloomers, black stockings, and canvas bathing shoes, decorously dunked herself in heated salt water at Hayden’s Salt Water Baths.

The eleven-year-old boy was Ernest Hemingway, and perhaps the highlight of the trip for him was meeting an old fisherman on the docks who sold him the bill of an immense swordfish. Young Ernest thought the old man’s name was “Judas,” but the late Edouard Stackpole and J. Clinton Andrews have both identified the fisherman as Judah Nickerson. Interestingly enough, the Inquirer and Mirror reported in July 1887 that Judah had caught a “noble swordfish,” an exceptionally large specimen that might have weighed over 1,000 pounds to earn such mention. It may have been the bill of this swordfish, almost certainly captured by harpooning, that Judah gave to the boy. Hemingway never wrote about Nantucket directly, except to mention it affectionately in letters to his mother, but something of his island experience seems to have crept into The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which climaxes with the harpooning of a giant marlin:The old man dropped the line and put his foot on it and lifted the harpoon as high as he could and drove it down with all his strength, and more strength he had just summoned, into the fish’s side just behind the great chest fin that rose high in the air to the altitude of the man’s chest. He felt the iron go in and he leaned on it and drove it further and then pushed all his weight after it. . . . Then the fish came alive, with his death in him, and rose high out of the water showing all his great length and width and all his power and his beauty.Hemingway’s boyhood visit to Nantucket echoes most strongly of all, however, in the novel’s tender final moments when the boy, Manolin, asks for and receives the spear of the old Cuban fisherman Santiago’s great catch. The triumphant success of The Old Man and the Sea would be instrumental in Hemingway’s receipt of the 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature.

When the Hemingways vacationed on Nantucket in 1910, they found an island with fewer than 3,000 year-round residents that nevertheless possessed a vibrant cultural life. Ernest’s mother, Grace Hall Hemingway, a music professional with an opera-quality contralto voice, gave two recitals while on-island, attended women’s suffrage meetings in the Atheneum’s Great Hall, and was inspired, in time, to write a collection of short stories about strong island women, “Tales of Old Nantucket.” In part because of the strong ties between the village of ‘Sconset and New York’s theater community, Nantucket at the turn of the twentieth century was a place where visitors could meet artists, musicians, and writers. Between 1895 and the outbreak of World War I, ‘Sconset was home to a flourishing summer colony for actors affiliated with The Lambs’ Club of New York—the first professional theatrical guild in America. William O. Stevens notes that at its peak there could be as many as fifty Lambs’ Club actors on Nantucket at one time, and that virtually “all the headliners of the stage” summered on the island during this period. Naturally, the actors’ colony attracted producers and playwrights, too. The Hemingways, for instance, were excited to meet playwright Austin Strong, soon-to-be author of New York theater hits Three Wise Fools (1918) and Seventh Heaven (1922). An in-law of Robert Louis Stevenson. Strong told his thrilled guests stories of life with Stevenson on Samoa.

After an especially grim hiatus for World War I, when German submarines stalked the channels through Nantucket Shoals, torpedoed passing ships, and even shelled fishing boats on Georges Bank—Americans were ready once again for carefree summer days on the island. Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbert Carey’s exuberant memoir, Cheaper by the Dozen (1945), captures the sheer joy of summering on Nantucket during the Roaring Twenties. The Gilbreth family—which included twelve children—began vacationing on the island in 1921, in the era when automobiles were still banned. Today’s summer residents might be surprised to know how much fun a large family can have living in a ramshackle cottage and two small “bug-lights” (once range-finding lighthouses for the harbor channel), with one lavatory, no hot water, and no shower or bath. For the Gilbreth children, summer was about sailing, swimming, and “quality time” with their otherwise busy professional parents.
The year 1922 saw a momentous occasion for Nantucket readers—the creation of the ‘Sconset School of Opinion. Economist and liberal political reformer Frederic C. Howe purchased an old barn near the ‘Sconset firehouse, and transformed it into an auditorium called The Tavern on the Moors, with housing for participants in primitive cottages and even tents nearby. Harking back, in a way, to the nineteenth century Lyceum Movement, the School of Opinion was to be an adult summer school for discussion among intellectuals modeled on Emerson’s School of Philosophy at Concord, and hosting as many as one hundred attendees at a time. “Great days are dawning for that village which the gods call Sciasconset and men call ‘Sconset,” trumpeted The New York Times. “Many liberal thinkers of high eminence will lecture or conduct round-table conferences. . . . there are to be discussions as well as lectures; two or more of these in the morning, followed by an hour on the beach, with the afternoon free for tennis, golf, tramping parties and conferences; and the evenings will be filled with lectures and discussions.”
The ‘Sconset School lasted for just nine seasons, but would do much to convince the literary world of Nantucket’s desirability as a place to escape from the pressures of urban civilization and find the peace for writing undisturbed. Sinclair Lewis, who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, is a case in point. Lewis took part in a literary roundtable at the ‘Sconset School in 1924, spending his hours away from the seminars working on his novel Arrowsmith (1925) and driving across the moors to go skinny-dipping off the south shore. Arrowsmith is not about Nantucket, but rather the career of a physician who finds his ideals tested by the greed and opportunism he encounters in the practice of medicine and research. Nevertheless, Dr. Arrowsmith faces his greatest challenges during an outbreak of plague on a Caribbean island—and Lewis’s time on Nantucket may have helped him to imagine what an island would be like during an epidemic.
The Roaring Twenties was also the era of Prohibition—and Nantucket was an ideal spot for bootlegging. European vessels loaded with Scotch whiskey and French champagne moored in the Sound, and small boats went out under cover of darkness to bring their illicit cargo ashore. Crime syndicates from both Boston and New York operated around the island—one Brooklyn gang alone had a fleet of twenty boats stationed at Nantucket—and alcohol flowed freely on the island. What has this got to do with literature? Well, to quote Sinclair Lewis, himself an alcoholic—“Can you name five American writers since Poe who did not die of alcoholism?” The question is not entirely facetious—five out of eight American writers who have won the Nobel Prize for literature have been alcoholic. During Prohibition, easy access to good liquor, as well as to good times, was definitely one attraction Nantucket possessed for writers such as Eugene O’Neill, another ‘Sconset School participant and future Nobelist. O’Neill spent the summer of 1925 writing in a rented cottage at 5 Mill Street and also got roaring drunk aboard a friend’s yacht and fell into the harbor fully clothed. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t an especially productive visit.

The ‘Sconset School of Opinion and the village actors’ colony were also responsible for bringing theater critic, screenwriter, actor, raconteur, and bon vivant Robert Benchley to Nantucket in 1922. Benchley was an especially valuable addition to Nantucket literature because he would become part of the life of the island, returning again and again to stay at the Underhill Cottages, performing at the ‘Sconset Casino, founding a literary dynasty of Nantucket writers including his son Nathaniel Benchley and grandson Peter, and finally purchasing the first family property on the island—a burial plot in Prospect Hill Cemetery. And Robert Benchley was loyal to Nantucket, writing humorous essays about la dolce vita and the summer scene even during the dark years of the Great Depression.

In the 1930s, Nantucket, like the rest of the nation, fell on hard times. The tourist trade dried up, and the Nantucket Savings Bank foreclosed on three of the island’s largest hotels, the Sea Cliff, the Point Breeze, and the Ocean House (today the Jared Coffin House). By the middle of the decade, there was almost universal unemployment on Nantucket. Hundreds of men lined up for jobs with a public works project improving the island’s dirt roads. In the summers of 1935 and 1936, prices were so depressed that a boy just starting college, Robert Lowell, could afford to rent a cottage at Madaket and try his hand at writing poetry. Some old-time natives remember not having enough money for food, and eating seagulls to make ends meet. Some summer people who had lost everything in the Crash of 1929 gave up their mainland homes and retreated to their island cottages year-round, adding a new dimension to Nantucket society. And yet islanders—year-round and summer residents alike—conducted themselves with determined cheer—perhaps best exemplified by the giant inflatable sea monster launched in the harbor by Tony Sarg. Robert Benchley’s comedy, which takes its satirical thrust from finding extreme hardship in the midst of luxury (the terrible difficulty of finding a comfortable position for sunbathing, for instance), brought smiles to people experiencing the real thing.

And then came World War II. The island advertised itself as “An Oasis of Peace in a World at War,” but even so, restrictions on travel, gasoline rationing, and the coastal “dim-out” took their toll on the tourist trade. The Army took over the Crest Hall Hotel; the Navy took over the airport. Ferries were painted battleship gray, and passengers forbidden to use cameras. The Naushon was taken by the government to become a hospital ship, and the New Bedford became a freight carrier. The beaches were closed at sunset. The shoreline was littered with wreckage and slicked with oil from the many ships sunk by German U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. Nantucket men and women signed up to do their part. The war was not a time for literary endeavor, yet it made two important contributions. Robert Mooney notes that “Mysterious sightings of submarines, flashing lights off-shore, and actual landings of U-boats to pick up supplies were part of the rumor mill.” Nathaniel Benchley, who served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during the war, took note, and would later translate this material into his novel of Cold War comedy, The Off-Islanders (1961). World War II would also give American literature its first Nantucket masterpiece since Moby-Dick, Robert Lowell’s great poem about the tragedy and brutality of war, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” (1945).
When World War II ended, the summer people came flooding back, and with them came the writers. Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers spent the summer of 1946 in a cottage at 31 Pine Street. He worked on his play Summer and Smoke (1948); McCullers on revising her newly published novel, A Member of the Wedding (1946), for the stage. They found time for some summer hijinks, too, visiting the farm of an annoying neighbor, filling her pigs’ trough with whiskey, and watching the animals get drunk. The summer of 1947 brought Truman Capote and Christopher Isherwood. When he wasn’t bicycling to ‘Sconset or tanning on the deck, the twenty-two year old Capote worked on Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), his breakout bestseller.

Alerted to the special virtues of the island by New York neighbors Nathaniel and Marge Benchley, John Steinbeck took his new bride and two young sons from a previous marriage to ‘Sconset in the summer of 1951, and wrote much of East of Eden (1952) in a cottage called “Footlight,” next to the Sankaty Lighthouse. “This is a beautiful place,” he wrote to his editor, Pascal Covici, “and the most peaceful I have ever seen. . . . I have a little room to work in and it is mine exclusively and I can look at the ocean out of my window. It has a desk to work on. . . . The work day will be like this. . . . To work at 8:30. Elaine and the boys will go to the beach mostly taking their lunch. I will work until I have finished. Then we will go to other beaches, go fishing, swimming, sailing or what have you. To bed very early after dining. . . . “ ‘Sconset posed just one problem for a writer. “As this mss. will tell you, it is very damp here,” Steinbeck complained. “Stamps stick together. I am glad I am spraying the paper now. Even the pencils seem softer in the dampness. But the air is cool and lovely and the sun is warm.”

The 1960s and 1970s would be the last decades when young writers like Russell Baker, David Halberstam, and Frank Conroy could purchase summer homes on the island and still find Nantucket a peaceful place for writing in the summer months, as Steinbeck had done. Slowly and inexorably the tourist trade was growing and island real estate was being devoured by off-islanders hungry for a slice of paradise. Wisely, Nantucketers sought protection against the changes in the wind. In 1963, the Nantucket Conservation Foundation was created to acquire and protect as many of the island’s unique and beautiful natural areas as possible. And in 1966, the entire island of Nantucket was designated a National Historic Landmark, the largest conventional historic district in the United States. In 1972, Senator Edward Kennedy introduced the “Nantucket Sound and Islands Trust Bill” in an attempt to limit building and place federal protections on Nantucket’s remaining undeveloped land. But fiercely independent islanders, with a new sense of their home’s national significance, voted against participation. “Nation of Nantucket makes its own war & peace,” Emerson had observed in 1847. It was true again in 1977, when the island lost its representative in the state legislature and Nantucket made a serious attempt to secede from Massachusetts, even going so far as to devise its own flag, with a seagull rampant. The secession movement would give Nantucket readers a splendid comic novel about this period, Nathaniel Benchley’s Sweet Anarchy (1979).

In the final decades of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first, the development of Nantucket accelerated like a rocket leaving earth’s atmosphere. In the forty years between 1930 and 1970, the island’s year-round population had remained steady at around 3,500. But in the same period of time between 1980 and 2006, the island grew from 5,000 to more than 10,000 year-round residents. For the first time, off-islanders including young professionals and wealthy retirees outnumbered Nantucket natives in the year-round population. The island also grew a community of between 50,000 and 60,000 summer residents. With real estate prices and summer rentals grown astronomically expensive, the island was no longer a place for writers—always somewhat impecunious—on vacation. Instead, artists seeking solitude for their work began to come in winter. Alice Koller’s An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery (1982), the product of an off-season sojourn and existential crisis in ‘Sconset, is perhaps the best-known product of this phenomenon. More and more, literary endeavor on Nantucket became the province of the year-round community, now back to the strength of the whaling era, as writers including Elin Hildebrand and Tom Congdon, Nat Philbrick and Nancy Thayer cast eyes of affectionate objectivity on island life.

Preservation of Nantucket’s natural and historic beauty had, ironically, made the island ever more desirable—placing ever more pressure on the very things that made it desirable in the first place. For Philip Caputo, writing for the Nature Conservancy in “No Space to Waste” (1994), the fate of Nantucket and her sister island, Martha’s Vineyard, with their finite spaces and conservation lands hemmed in by the homes of the privileged, would serve as a cautionary tale for those seeking to preserve far larger continental spaces, a sneak peek at what the nation as a whole could look like in the not too distant future.

Nantucket’s late twentieth century literature is, pre-eminently, haunted. Because the entire island has more than 800 houses built before the Civil War, many present-day Nantucketers reside in homes where the lives of previous residents are still mysteriously palpable. In Spirit Lost (1988), novelist Nancy Thayer translates this phenomenon into Gothic romance, when a modern wife must fight to save her husband from the lonely, sex-starved ghost of a captain’s widow who haunts the attic of their old house. Tom Congdon’s comic essay, “Mrs. Coffin’s Consolation” (1997), offers a literal encounter with unseemly relics of an earlier occupant of his own historic home. “‘My God,’ I thought. ‘They were people, too,’” writes Congdon in a lovely expression of a Nantucketer’s intimacy with the past. Nor are Nantucket hauntings restricted to historic houses.

Summer renters also share the sometimes disturbing experience of living in cottages haunted by those who have gone before. John Cheever’s masterful short story, “The Seaside Houses” (1961), explores this premise: “You unfasten the lock and step into a dark or light hallway, about to begin a vacation—a month that promises to have no worries of any kind. But as strong as or stronger than this pleasant sense of beginnings is the sense of having stepped into the midst of someone else’s life. All my dealings are with agents, and I have never known the people from whom we have rented, but their ability to leave behind them a sense of physical and emotional presences is amazing.” In the course of Cheever’s tale, the narrator will find himself possessed.

Recent Nantucket literature is haunted as well by the island’s rich history. And no incident from Nantucket history has so intrigued writers as the catastrophic 1819 wreck of the whaleship Essex, stove by a whale in mid-Pacific, and the subsequent suffering of her crew in open boats, their drawing lots, and their cannibalism. In the nineteenth century, the story of the Essex inspired portions of Edgar Allan Poe’s Pym and gave Melville’s Moby-Dick its climactic final chapter. In the twentieth century, the Essex disaster has given us Henry Carlisle’s novel, The Jonah Man (1984), the fictionalized narrative of Captain George Pollard, and Nathaniel Philbrick’s bestselling nonfiction account, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000). Dustjacket copy for The Jonah Man sums up our fascination: “[T]he true story of the Essex . . . has never ceased to provoke the imagination wherever men speak of ships. . . . [A] lottery of death that will haunt. . . the reader forever.”

Twentieth-century Nantucket literature is also haunted—and magnificently so—by “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air”—Moby-Dick. Critic Harold Bloom has written compellingly of the “anxiety of influence,” an impulse that compels strong writers, major figures, “to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death.” Literature thus becomes, in Bloom’s view, a “battle between strong equals, father and son as mighty opposites, Laius and Oedipus at the cross-roads.” It is impossible for a strong writer to visit Nantucket without feeling anxious about Melville—or inspired by him. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell is a case in point. “Sailor, can you hear/ The Pequod’s sea wings, beating landward, fall/ Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall/ Off ‘Sconset [?]” he writes in his beautiful poem “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” (1945).

Writing The Old Man and the Sea in 1951, as the nation celebrated the centennial of Moby-Dick’s publication, Ernest Hemingway certainly heard those sea wings. Shortly before his suicide in 1961, Hemingway wrote to a Mrs. Jenson who had asked him whether Melville had influenced The Old Man and the Sea that his childhood visit to Nantucket had left him “specially equipped to appreciate Moby-Dick at an early age.” Peter Benchley, in his1974 thriller Jaws, transformed Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal hunt for a great white whale into Captain Quint’s monomaniacal hunt for a great white shark terrorizing a summer community—a concept that in the hands of movie director Steven Speilberg would shatter all previous box office records. And sometimes, in the struggle with Melville, Bloom’s “battle between strong equals, father and son,” is a battle between father and daughter. Sena Jena Naslund’s 1999 novel, Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star-Gazer, is a chapter-by-chapter feminist revision of Moby-Dick, with many excursions into Nantucket history.

Nantucket in the twentieth century has inspired not only high literature, but genre fiction as well—especially murder mysteries. Ever since Agatha Christie’s 1939 classic, And Then There Were None (also titled Ten Little Indians), mystery fans have understood the special possibilities of islands. Hard to reach and difficult to leave in a fog or a storm, an island offers to the mystery writer a larger, geographic equivalent of the locked room. And an unknown killer stalking a small, isolated community of people who think they know one another well and seldom lock their doors inspires the special terror suggested by another Christie title, Cat Among the Pigeons. So while Christie herself never visited Nantucket, the island has, over the years, excited many descendants of this grande dame of crime. Nantucket mysteries include Martha Reed’s The Nature of the Grave (2005), Peter Clayton’s Near Death on Nantucket (2005), Elin Hildebrand’s Nantucket Nights (2002), Jeannine Kadow’s Dead Tide (2002), Larry Maness’s Nantucket Revenge (1995), Francine Matthews’s Death in the Off-Season (1994), and Virginia Rich’s The Nantucket Diet Murders (1986). To represent the genre, we’ve chosen an excerpt from one of the earliest and best, Jane Langton’s Dark Nantucket Noon (1975).

In June 2005, a front-page article for a New York Times special section titled “Class Matters,” notoriously announced what Nantucketers already knew: “that over the past decade or so this 50-square-mile, fishhook-shaped island off the Cape Cod coast has come to be dominated by a new class: the hyper-rich. They emerged in the 1980's and 1990's, when tectonic shifts in the economy created mountains of wealth. They resemble the arrivistes of the Gilded Age, which began in the 1880's when industrial capitalists amassed staggering fortunes . . . .” Nantucket has become an island of $16 million dollar waterfront homes, personal transcontinental jets, $250,000 golf club memberships, 200 foot yachts, and $300,000 yacht club memberships. And its literature has become correspondingly class-conscious.

Sometimes, that class-consciousness takes the form of comedy, as in Russell Baker’s essays “Quaintness” and “The Taint of Quaint” (1982-1984) which lampoon year-round Nantucket’s unseemly haste to market its history to the wealthy newcomers. Baker’s island character, Crowley, goes shopping for a Pilgrim suit and enrolls in the Moby Dick Academy of Antique Auctioneering and Public Candle Dipping in order to earn $500 tips from “Texans, who see nothing remarkable about buying the Taj Mahal if Italy is not for sale.” In The Beach Club (2000), island novelist Elin Hildebrand finds edgy humor in the plight of a hotel clerk at a posh resort, overwhelmed by wealthy, whiny guests who cannot cope with a rainy day. And sometimes that class-consciousness takes the form of a serious concern for the loss of civility and of a quieter, more modest way of life on Nantucket, as in David Halberstam’s essay, “Nantucket On My Mind” (1999) or Frank Conroy’s memoir, Time and Tide: A Walk Through Nantucket (2004).

In the three hundred and fifty years since its first settlement, Nantucket has undergone tremendous change. But one thing about the island has remained constant—the sea. “An old, old sight,” cries Melville’s Ahab, “and yet somehow so young; aye, and not changed a wink since I first saw it, a boy, from the sand-hills of Nantucket! The same — the same! — the same to Noah as to me.” Melville’s grizzled whale-hunter clearly hadn’t imagined the possibility of 130 wind turbines covering 24 square miles of Nantucket Sound in a world whose quest for energy has not diminished in manic intensity—or violence—since his time. But until that comes to pass, his point remains well-taken. To locate something more timeless and essential about the island than fine dining and boutique shopping, the Nantucket reader—or writer—has only to turn to the sea. Paul Theroux’s “Dead Reckoning to Nantucket” (1989) provides an example. How radically Theroux transforms today’s Nantucket experience into a rare, solitary adventure simply by picking up a paddle and traveling to the island by kayak rather than joining the throngs crowding the steamship terminals and airports.

The sea around Nantucket remains a vast narrative engine, rolling and booming out stories. The shifting sands, extreme weather, and dense fogs of Nantucket Shoals have made the waters around the island a true graveyard of the Atlantic, with more than seven hundred wrecks since Nantucket’s settlement, and thousands of lives lost. Whether shipwrecks are caused by bad luck or carelessness, whether they end in tragedy or triumph, each is a compelling story of human courage and ingenuity tested by sudden disaster and the occasional Old Testament wrath of the sea. Dozens, if not hundreds, of Nantucket shipwreck stories have take form on the printed page. We’ve provided two fine examples by two fine twentieth century island writers—Edouard Stackpole on the 1886 wreck of the T.B. Witherspoon (1972) and Robert F. Mooney on the 1851 wreck of The British Queen (1988). Modern navigation technologies and search-and-rescue methods may have diminished the number of wrecks and, thankfully, the loss of life seen in earlier days—but writing like Ron Winslow’s Hard Aground: The Story of the Argo Merchant Oil Spill (1978) reminds us that the risks have never gone away, and the stakes are higher than ever. Melville predicted it: “[A] moment’s consideration will teach, that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him. . . . “

What does the future hold for Nantucket literature? The sea will almost certainly write the island’s closing chapter, as rapidly rising sea level, more powerful storms, and coastal erosion caused by global warming eat away at Melville’s “ant hill in the sea.” Scientists give Nantucket anywhere between 400 and 8,000 years before it slips beneath the waves. The island’s last literature will surely record Nantucket’s struggle with the sea and her final gift to future readers may be the mythology of a New England Lost Atlantis.

In the meantime, Nantucket readers—this book is for you. For lazy summer days, for long winter nights, for warding off mental scurvy on the ferry, for perusing in a Windsor chair at the library.


Susan F. Beegel
November 2008

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