Our book today is Wyman Richardson’s 1947 collection, The House on Nauset Marsh, and some of you will no doubt recall I’ve praised it here before. But I’ve also many times referred to Stevereads as the autobiography of my reading, and I do quite a bit of re-reading. I try to exercise some nominal control over that re-reading – there are so many new books to examine, after all, and not just hot-off-the-presses new: even after all these years of steady patronage, the Boston Public Library is still full of old books that are wonderfully and enticingly new to me (and that’s just the one library – I’m told there are libraries in many, many American cities, although none so fair as mine). Re-reading isn’t sinful – I don’t quite know what it is, despite how much of it I do, but it isn’t mere sloth except in its most extreme cases – but it does take time away from new reading, so it ought to be controlled.
I don’t do a very good job controlling it, I admit. For instance, there are long trips of any kind; the horror that other people reserve for being trapped in the company of a boring person I feel for being trapped with a boring book. So if I’m facing a twenty-hour train ride to Iowa, or a four-hour bus ride to New York, or even a twenty-minute subway ride, I’m usually tempted to bring along a re-reading book, something whose pleasures I already know, something I know won’t disappoint. The dangers of taking along a new history of the Wilson administration or a new novel by the latest promising young thing are manifest, and they usually forestall me. And sometimes even in my sanctum sanctorum, propped up in bed, nestled snugly with dogs, nightstand piled with a dozen books, I’ll still opt for a re-read – sometimes nothing hits the spot like Boswell, or Vasari, or my dear Livy.
And sometimes nothing hits the spot like Cape Cod books done right. The hunger can be triggered by almost anything: the sight of a big pelagic sea gull wheeling over city rooftops, or the smell of the harbor sneaking up dockside streets, or even the turn of the season, since all my fondest memories of the Cape are inextricably bound up with its natural world.
Whatever triggers that hunger, when it happens, Richardson’s book is the best thing to satisfy it. This is a collection of sometimes whimsical, sometimes whimsically earnest little atmosphere-pieces he wrote (during quiet intervals from an active professional medical life, most of which took place in Boston and Cambridge) about the Farm House, his age-old Cape Cod getaway set on Nauset Marsh just over the land-ridge from the ocean. Richardson published these pieces intermittently in The Atlantic over the course of a few years, and each one would invariably generate sacks of mail – for one key reason: Richardson lightly, deftly mythologizes as he goes. By the time you’re fifty pages into The House on Nauset Marsh, you’re deep in the Hundred Acre Wood, transported to a Cape that’s far more serene and wild than it is today or has been for decades.
I have four different sets of great memories of the Cape, from four different times I came to know it. And the wonder of Richardson’s book is that it feels almost like an auxiliary set of such memories, even though I’ve never been to the Farm House (two of my Cape houses went by different names; the other two had no names at all) and have only explored Nauset Marsh briefly, not with the consummate long-time knowledge of Richardson and his family. It doesn’t matter: he’s so adept at evoking the peculiar magic of the place that you instantly feel it. When he describes a “jumble of waves,” for instance, can he be talking about anyplace in America other than Cape Cod’s Great Beach when an onshore wind is upon it, and sunlight is fracturing through a hundred clotted clouds:
And there before us is the great ocean. Today its color is a deep blue, except alongshore, where the shallow, sandy bottom gives it a greenish cast. The stiff northeast wind has caused a jumble of waves and plenty of white water. The horizon is sharp, except for the lumpiness of the sea, and, off to the southwest, a freighter, hull down, can just be made out. The breeze is cool, almost cold, and feels delightfully refreshing after our almost too warm walk through the woods. It carries with it a distinct aroma; it has body, and a tangy taste that reminds me of the quality of certain wines. Physical fatigue is dissipated, mental strain and stress retreat into the far background, and a sense of proportion and balance returns. Those affairs that you, and only you, could have dealt with do not now seem so important; perhaps, after all, someone else will do them better. It is a joy to be alive and, for the moment, this is all that matters.
And then there’s the getting there – you an either walk the Great Beach straight up along its bare sea-face, or you can trace its length along the marsh-side, with its innumerable pools and sloping dune-faces … an entirely different natural world, it feels like, and yet right over those dunes is the brawling ocean. I’ve done both many times, with friends and alone (and once, weirdly, both with the same person), and I couldn’t tell you which I prefer – unlike Richardson, who has a favorite way:
It is best to go down to the beach on the inside – that is, on the marsh side – just why I do not know. You may see various kinds of fowl on the way down, and surely many black ducks. Horned larks will fly past in loose flocks, uttering their curious thin little note (“Pippy birds,” we used to call them.) If you are lucky, you will see, on the top of a Coast Guard telephone pole, a snowy owl. As you approach fairly close, his neckless head appears to turn around and around, while his baleful brassy eye glares menacingly at you.
When you get to the Inlet Run, a deep pool that comes up to a sandy beach will tempt you, and you may take a swim – or more accurately, a dip – and dry off in the lee of a high dune, where the wind has undercut a “hen bank.”
The recurrent ‘you’ in all these descriptions is one of the keys to the magic of The House on Nauset Marsh: it includes you. This way you become part of its wonder – and also, ironically, part of its melancholy, since the Cape Cod world it so marvelously depicts – a world of uninterrupted woods, plentiful wildlife, ‘working’ cottages with wells and pumps and kerosene lanterns against the threat of storms, and most of all, the possibility of isolation – is as lost to the past as the great days of Coney Island. Houses like the Farm House are now called “unweatherized,” and if they’re allowed to remain in that deplorable condition, they’re kept by the wealthy as boutique curiosities, opened only for a few weeks during the summer, abandoned the rest of the time, and in any case as crowded around by other cottages as any street in Brooklyn.
That’s a sad development, but The House on Nauset Marsh is immune to it, in the spellbinding way that all great books are immune to change. Here, you can always return to the serenity of old Cape Cod, and as Richardson promises right at the start of his book, you’ll always be welcome:
You can go to Eastham, on outer Cape Cod, and live in the little old Farm House at the drop of a hat. The pump, the kerosene lamps, and the open fire are always ready without fear of frost or storm. You can drive up the lane, stop the car by the kitchen door, and unload your gear. You can look out the south windows over the nearby grassy hills, over the bright blue water of Nauset Marsh to the darker blue glimpses of the sea beyond the dunes, and draw a deep breath.