About Henry Beston ...
The Cape Cod National Seashore has drawn millions of visitors since it was first established by a decree from President John F. Kennedy in 1961. One of the great influences on the park’s establishment was the Cape Cod nature classic, The Outermost House, by Henry Beston.
Today, 80 years after the book was first published, Beston is widely acknowledged as the spiritual father of the park. When the outer beaches of Cape Cod were under consideration for National Park status in the 1950s, the Department of the Interior sent representatives to evaluate the area. Quotations from The Outermost House were cited in their reports.
Influenced by the text of the King James Bible, the poetry of Longfellow, and the nature writing style of Richard Jefferies, Beston, as Vanity Fair’s John Riddell wrote, “captured in prose the very sound of the sea” in the pages of The Outermost House.
A native of Quincy, Massachusetts, the author was born Henry Beston Sheahan on June 1, 1888. A graduate of Harvard, his experiences in World War I left him scarred, and upon returning to the U.S., began writing books of fairy tales to cleanse the horrors of war from his soul.
A writing assignment for The World’s Work magazine about the Coast Guard brought him to the Cape, where he walked the beach with the surf men on their rounds. These outer beach experiences, combined with extended visits with Navajo Indians in New Mexico, sharpened his senses for the natural world. Eventually, he had a 20-foot by 16-foot house, called “the Fo’castle,” built on the dunes of Eastham in 1925, came to visit his shanty for a two-week vacation, and decided to stay.
Beston meditated on the rhythms of waves, observed the migrations of birds, and braved the brutal elements in severe winter weather, all while using his dune top cottage as a base in his quest for spiritual peace of mind. At the end of his “year on the beach,” he decided that “it was time to close my door,” and returned to his native Quincy, and less than a year later, married the writer Elizabeth Coatsworth.
Since The Outermost House was published in 1928, it has never been out of print, and the Fo’castle became an icon of Cape Cod. With an ailing Beston present, the house was dedicated as National Literary Landmark on October 11, 1964.
Beston died on April 15, 1968 in his Nobleboro, Maine farmhouse (which was also dedicated as a National Literary Landmark on June 21, 2009). His beloved Fo’castle, donated to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1959, was swept away by high tides during the storm known as “the Blizzard of ’78” on February 6-7, 1978.
Inspiration for the Cape Cod National Seashore
The Cape Cod National Seashore celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011. While it’s clear that the efforts of President Kennedy, Senator Saltonstall and Congressman Keith, among many others, in political circles led to the establishment of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, Henry Beston’s 1928 book, The Outermost House, was an inspiration behind the effort.
Here’s a few quotes:
Endicott Peabody, Governor of Massachusetts
“You’ve described our great beach here, and the ocean that comes in upon it, as no one else ever could or ever will. The Outermost House, as a testament, has had immeasurable influence. Your book is one of the reasons that the Cape Cod National Seashore exists today, to be protect the beach and many acres around it, for future generations.” — Addressing Henry Beston on Oct. 11, 1964, Outermost House National Literary Landmark ceremony at Coast Guard Beach.
George Palmer, U.S. Department of the Interior
“During the three- to four-year period that the Cape Cod National Seashore was established, when we were studying the area, when we were trying to determine whether the area should be established as a National Park … during one of these early reports that came in on Cape Cod, our man who had been up here for the first time had selected a quotation from The Outermost House, and in such a few words, it summarized this rather thick report that had first come in. These words, I think, are very apt: ‘Outermost cliff and solitary dune, the plain of ocean and the far, bright rims of the world, meadowland and marsh and ancient moor, this is the Outer Cape.’ And it took us several chapters of a report just to say this. As we went along, we found that much of our work was picked up again in Mr. Beston’s book.
“As we go into any park area to study the desirability of establishing or at least recommending that Congress establish it, we look at several things. First of all, we look at the geography and the geology of it, we look at the natural history, the plant life, the animal life, we look at its human history, the people who live there and what use they’ve made of the lands, and then we look to what use people are coming in now may make of the area, what it may mean to them, why it would be a unique experience, and why it’s worth saving for our children and our grandchildren. And as we went through studying these things, we found so much in The Outermost House that illustrated it.
“To show widely the book is distributed, I would like to take a few minutes to illustrate what we used from the book to use in our reports during those earlier periods:
“Of the geography and geology of the area, this one or two sentences were so apt: ‘ It is the outermost of shores. Thundering in against the cliff, the ocean here encounters the last defiant bulwark of two worlds.’
“And of the natural life here, Mr. Beston said this: ‘Living here, one may see more birds and varieties of birds than it would seem possible to discover in any one small region. At Eastham, for instance, among visitors and migrants, residents and casuals, I had land birds and moor birds, marsh birds and beach birds, sea birds and coastal birds, even birds of the outer ocean.’
“This explains the pine forests and woodlands: ‘The tree that has rooted itself into the windswept bar is the pitch pine. The familiar tree of the outer Long Island wastes and the Jersey barrens, it provides firewood, holds down the earth and sand, and shelters the ploughed fields.’
“And of the ocean that rolls into here, he has this to say: ‘The seas are the heart’s blood of the earth. Plucked and kneaded by the sun and the moon, the tides are systole and diastole of earth’s veins.’
“I think, however, the most important thing in determining in whether a park or seashore should be established and set aside is, what does it mean to those who may be coming to see it today? And as one complete outsider who has had the experience of coming to Cape Cod as a new and refreshing experience, I think that to stand below the dunes on the beach looking out across the Atlantic, we are able to get an experience here that, if there was no other reason at all, would make Cape Cod National Seashore a desirable institution to go down through the generations. Here Mr. Beston says as ‘one stands on the shore looking out, he is able to realize that creation is still going on — the creative forces are as great and as active today as they have ever been, and tomorrow’s morning will be as heroic as any in the world.’ That certainly justifies anything that we and you and our successors will do in saving Cape Cod.”
(Palmer was representing Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall at the Outermost House National Literary Landmark ceremony at Coast Guard Beach, Eastham — October 11, 1964.)
Congressman William Delahunt (Massachusetts)
“Sometimes the incredible becomes so familiar, we don’t notice. Then along comes someone like Henry Beston to put into words the spectacular splendor of where we are on the Outer Cape.” — Aug.7, 2001, 40th anniversary of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Henry Beston in Coast Guard uniform on Coast Guard Beach, Eastham, 1920s.
Henry Beston in front of the Fo'castle, 1925. This photo was taken Yngve Rongner of the U.S. Coast Guard's Nauset Station.
Henry Beston outside the Fo'castle, overlooking the Atlantic. (Photo courtesy Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, Santa Fe, NM.