People should read, or re-read, Henry Beston’s 1928 classic, The Outermost House. Set among the dunes of outer Cape Cod, Beston’s essay traces a year of changing seasons, visiting coastal species, and mild reflections on modern life. Since its publication, the book has emerged as a principle contribution to the canon of American nature writing.
With Americans at each others throats, and vandals disassembling the pillars of American civilization for their own private gains, why should anyone read this ninety-year-old book?
Well, I see a few reasons. First and foremost, its beautifully written, and we need beauty now more than ever. Beston was born to a French Canadian mother and Irish father who met, married, and settled down in the US. He grew up fluent in both French and English, and after volunteering to fight in World War I, spent a few years kicking around France and teaching at the Sorbonne. During that time, Beston began developing a writing style that wove into his prose the cadences and tonalities of verse. When applied to the rhythms of surf, sand, sea, and sky, his style musically brings out the cyclicality and beauty of non-human life.
Which raises the second reason people should read it. If ever there was a time when we need to step out of the chaos of human concerns, this is it. Contemporary nature writing has a reputation—earned or not—for self-indulgence. In the worst instances, the non-human world provides merely a foil for authors’ lyrical flourishes and introspections that, frankly, I can’t stand. Beston has none of that. His focus is the world around him, not thoughts within him. His relationship to his coastal environs emerges clearly in his writing, to be sure. But he is most concerned with the natural cycles that humans don’t follow, the environmental changes we rarely see, and the calmness that living according to those clocks brings.
Indeed, in re-reading this book this term, I found that Beston removed the noise of modern life. In it’s place, he highlighted the sounds that keep us connected to the real world. He reminded me that American-ness is more defined through our relationship to our non-human world, than through the inanities of day to day distractions, diversions, and diatribes. From the cacophony he brought out the symphony—and it’s a sound we all could use more of.
Associate Professor, History, American Studies, and Maritime Studies