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Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau
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Cape Cod (1865)

by Henry David Thoreau

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This collection of essays on Cape Cod shows the unique stretch of Massachusetts land before it was a tourist attraction. Thoreau, often with a friend, took four trips out to Cape Cod and this collects some history, humor, and tales of the people he met on his journeys.

Cape Cod was published in 1865, a few years after Thoreau died. Its origin as essays is apparent, as its rather roughly cobbled together. The edition I read, from the 1950s with an introduction by Henry Beston of The Outermost House fame, includes notes from Henry Beston and others to explain some of the references, helpfully (?) give updates on census records for the towns mentioned, yet doesn't translate the Greek or Latin passages. I was also rather confused about a couple of times the editors decided to take out some of Thoreau's originally writing and move it to the back in an appendix. I would've liked an introduction that said less about the Cape and more about the way the book was put together, but that's not Thoreau's fault. His observations at times were very funny and memorable, but it's more a collection of vignettes that will be more or less interesting for each reader. Recommended for Thoreau completists and Cape Cod enthusiasts. ( )
  bell7 | Aug 1, 2017 |
In his day as pioneers ventured West to settle America, it’s intriguing that, as a non-conformist, Thoreau ventured East. He views the shore of Cape Cod as a sort of neutral ground and an advantageous point for contemplating the world: “There is naked Nature, inhumanly sincere, wasting no thought on man, nibbling at the cliffy shore where gulls wheel amid the spray.” For Thoreau and transcendentalists like Emerson, the way to experience the core of life was intuitive and accessible through mindful immersion in Nature. “I believe there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright,” Thoreau writes in "Walking." As he walks through Truro, Thoreau points out that here was the limit of the Pilgrims’ journey up the Cape from Provincetown when seeking a place for settlement. “We went to see the Ocean, and that is probably the best place of all our coast to go to.” He takes shelter overnight in Highland Lighthouse shown on the front cover. “Over this bare Highland the wind has full sweep… You must hold on to the lighthouse to prevent being blown into the Atlantic… If you would feel the full force of a tempest, take up your residence on the top of Mount Washington, or at the Highland Light, in Truro,” he writes. In 1794 more ships were wrecked on the eastern shore of Truro than anywhere else on The Cape. "Surely the light-house keeper has a responsible, if an easy, office. When his lamp goes out, he goes out.” Provincetown in Thoreau’s day was located on one of the world’s major shipping lanes. There are the cod and mackerel fleets of 1500 vessels of which 350 could be counted in the harbor at a time. Thoreau paints a pretty picture: “This was the very day one would have chosen to sit upon a hill overlooking sea and land, and muse there. The mackerel fleet was rapidly taking its departure, one schooner after another, and standing round the Cape, like fowls leaving their roosts in the morning to disperse themselves in distant fields.” On the first morning of his arrival at P’town, “they told me that a vessel had lately come in from the Banks with forty-four thousand codfish. Timothy Dwight says that, just before he arrived at Provincetown, ‘a schooner had come in from the Great Bank with fifty-six thousand fish, almost one thousand five hundred quintals, taken in a single voyage; the main deck being, on her return, eight inches under water in calm weather.’" The salt cod were so prolific drying in Provincetown that Thoreau first mistook them for cords of wood stacked all over town. He alludes to lobster fishing from small boats for the markets in New York. In Provincetown he witnessed the growth of farming on “Cranberry Meadows” on an extensive scale. After spending his days sauntering through the length and breadth of Cape Cod, Thoreau leaves Provincetown by ship through Massachusetts Bay for Boston Harbor and 18 miles west to Concord. He seems incapable of rendering a perfect picture of his experiences in his accounting of Cape Cod to do it justice. “We often love to think now of the life of men on beaches,--at least in midsummer, when the weather is serene; their sunny lives on the sand, amid the beach-grass and the bayberries, their companion a cow, their wealth a jag of driftwood or a few beach-plums, and their music the surf and the peep of the beach-bird.” If you're wondering when is the best time of year to visit The Cape, Thoreau advised that it's in October. “A storm in the fall or winter is the time to visit it; a light-house or a fisherman's hut the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him. ( )
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  WordsworthGreen | Dec 8, 2014 |
An extremely enjoyable read, though I felt as if I dipped into it periodcally, rather than a straight through reading. Considering the only other Thoreau I read was the highly confusing to my high school brain essay on Civil Disobdience (it might resonant more now...), this was truly delightful. I had a sense of how little the Cape has changed in some ways, the shore and the ocean remain the same, even as it is full of strip malls and over built houses. It reminded me of how lovely it can be.
  amyem58 | Jul 3, 2014 |
This book collects essays Thoreau wrote on several trips to Cape Cod and was published after his death. Thoreau's great journeys were rarely far from his home in Concord, and yet the descriptions of every day detail are as if he'd traveled around the world. No more so than his writing about Cape Cod which after a century and a half of time passed sounds like it could've been a journey to Mars. The writing is beautiful whether he's describing a shipwreck, beachcombing, or the people who populate the sand-covered villages. ( )
  Othemts | Dec 30, 2013 |
This includes Thoreau's funniest, and his most plangent writing: plangent, early in "The Shipwreck," where he witnessed the fairly common wreck of a square-rigger from Europe, this one from Ireland. I do conflate this shipwreck with the one that took the life--and the great MS on Garibaldi-- of Margaret Fuller. That would, of course, have been later in the century.
Because the storm had shut down the Provincetown ferry from Boston, Thoreau took a train to Cape Cod, and on the way, at Cohasset on the South Shore there was a shipwreck (the St John from Galway, Ireland), with bodies washed ashore, and awaiting relatives trying to identify them. A touching, resonant scene, among Thoreau's finest writing. "I witnessed no signs of grief, but there was a sober dispatch of business which was affecting."
On the other hand, the Wellfleet Oysterman is hilarious. Thoreau and his companion find a cottage willing to put them up for the night. But not knowing their character, the landlord with such chance guests locked them in their room. This common practice was done. When breakfast was prepared, Thoreau observed the landlord spitting on the fire near the eggs; his companion thought it was nearer the oatmeal. Each, of course, chose his preference according to their conflicting observations. ( )
  AlanWPowers | May 16, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (23 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Henry David Thoreauprimary authorall editionscalculated
Beston, HenryIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Cane, Henry BugbeeIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Leighton, ClaireIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lunt, Dudley C.secondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Theroux, PaulIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Wishing to get a better view than I had yet had of the ocean, which, we are told, covers more than two-thirds of the globe, but of which a man who lives a few miles inland may never see any trace, more than of another world, I made a visit to Cape Cod in October, 1849, another the succeeding June, and another to Truro in July, 1855; the first and last time with a single companion, the second time alone.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140170022, Paperback)

Thoreau's classic account of his meditative, beach-combing walking trips to Cape Cod in the early 1850s, reflecting on the elemental forces of the sea

Cape Cod chronicles Henry David Thoreau’s journey of discovery along this evocative stretch of Massachusetts coastline, during which time he came to understand the complex relationship between the sea and the shore. He spent his nights in lighthouses, in fishing huts, and on isolated farms. He passed his days wandering the beaches, where he observed the wide variety of life and death offered up by the ocean. Through these observations, Thoreau discovered that the only way to truly know the sea—its depth, its wildness, and the natural life it contained—was to study it from the shore. Like his most famous work, Walden, Cape Cod is full of Thoreau’s unique perceptions and precise descriptions. But it is also full of his own joy and wonder at having stumbled across a new frontier so close to home, where a man may stand and “put all America behind him.”

Part of the Penguin Nature Library
Series Editor: Edward Hoagland
With an Introduction by Paul Theroux

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:51 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

Arguably some of Thoreau's most beautiful writings on American history and natural scenery, this collection is dedicated to the poet's ruminations on the beaches of Cape Cod. Exploring the variety of natural life and human interests that have intersected on the Cape, Thoreau brings the richness of its history and natural beauty to life with his poetic, and occasionally outlandish, musings.… (more)

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