Sunday, December 7, 1997

Cape Ann

Written in 1997 for the New York Times Magazine

Anyone who lives on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, and actually leaves from time to time, gets used to explaining the map and the world in this way: No, we’re the other cape. North of Boston. That’s right, the small one . . . . And after a few years (to those of us who aren’t natives) this becomes a method of assessing one’s allegiance, because everybody who lives here eventually realizes that we are really inhabiting an island, linked to the big mainland only on sufferance and by a couple of mere bridges which emphasize the disconnection each time they let us on and off.

Cape Ann is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean on three sides and poked into by salt rivers on the fourth. It is a floating world complete unto itself. Though its corpus is all jagged granite, marsh, and moors, its psychology is that of an island drifting seaward, snagged only tenuously alongside the continent by steel and concrete, feeding for centuries off the fish of the sea. The people are islanders in mind and personality, insular through and through, with all the obsessions, satisfactions, faiths, frustrations, and pleasures of islanders. We know our cape in detail and claim you can never truly know more than a smidgin of it. We go to Boston, 38 miles away, as reluctantly as possible. We begrudgingly call ourselves the other cape, then snicker inwardly when strangers think they have misheard the name—and we are quietly relieved.

Socially, Cape Ann is two towns that are quite distinct; in shape it might be a liquefied clock by DalĂ­. Between five and seven there is Gloucester, once the busiest fishing port in the country, ever unsure how to deal with a depleted profession. Even today the small city mostly resembles the Edward Hopper paintings that caught its hilly, vagrant harbor light, its forlorn cemeteries and rail yard, its glowing clapboard-lined streets. It can still boast a fleet of lobstermen, and for half the year whale-watch boats go out to sport alongside the agile humpbacks, while at least one schooner under full sail plies the great embrace of Gloucester’s harbor.

Rockport, at two o’clock, is a strenuously picturesque boomtown, its summer streets lined with tourist flypaper and endless, self-parodying art galleries selling paintings of what you see when you turn around. Those streets in winter are barely recognizable, blocked with snow and devoid of human life, with a few boats rocking in a muttering and senile sea. This is maybe a Gloucesterite being envious of the town’s summer lucre: in fact Rockport has a superb setting, with grand oceanic vistas, seaside inns, Twin Lights (the only double lighthouses in the world), and the cunning to keep day tripper money visiting the motley shops year after year. If much of it seems immeasurably more bogus than when I was a kid—except for a wonderfully rickety art movie-house, upstairs in an old meeting hall—many of us are grateful that Rockport’s hullabaloo is confined to one season, and that its dread of liquor until very recently kept it a dry town which sent visitors to Gloucester restaurants in search of a drink.

There is more to Cape Ann than these rivals. There are the satellite communities of Magnolia, with its gray castle built in a Gothic-medieval hodgepodge by the millionaire inventor John Hammond; and of Essex, with a shipbuilding museum on the river by idyllic marshes where an industry once flourished, and a long honor-guard of clam shacks and antique shops, each waiting for its inventive millionaire. Both are “up the line” or “over the bridge”—meaning off-cape. Beaches of grandeur stretch within easy reach: Wingaersheek, Crane (in Ipswich), Singing Beach (in Manchester-by-the-Sea, formerly mere Manchester). Still, the only way to get to know Cape Ann is to drive all the way around it, on the shore road (127). This takes less than an hour.

You follow the coast through a litany of brief villages, and personalized coves which look as if the inflatable sea-monster that appears on 19th century maps has taken big bites out of the shore. Goose Cove, Bay View, Lobster Cove, the Mill, Halibut Point, Annisquam, Pigeon Cove, Riverdale, Plum Cove, Lanesville, Bass Rocks, Folly Cove: many have their own idiosyncratic beaches and perhaps a tiny post office, a softball field, a few old barns hidden in trees, a futuristic home dominating a point, a variety store amid a strip of stalwart houses huddled together, an art gallery shut tight, lanes heading down to the glittering water, offshoot roads leading you astray. Though these villages have no validity to the census takers, their limits and their personalities are quite real to their denizens.

One tributary of 127 worth pursuing is along Gloucester’s East Main Street to Rocky Neck. The Neck, which gazes out on wooden houses standing precariously above Smith’s Cove, can be a mini-Rockport in the summer, with waterside restaurant-bars where you can try the fried piece of cod which passeth all under-standing. But the view of fishing boats is an eternal image of the town, and the switchback lanes are shaded and lovely. From the Neck the road becomes Eastern Point Boulevard, and just past Niles Beach it leads down Eastern Point to the cape’s largest mansions and most majestic views. A little farther on is the so-called Back Shore, with its big fair-weather hotels gazing over the rocks, and eventually the stunning sweep of Good Harbor Beach.

Settled in 1623, Cape Ann was early on a fishing center, but in the last two centuries its other lifeblood was granite. (Stone for Union Station in Washington, D.C. came from here.) Today the abandoned rock quarries behind Lanesville and Rockport are fresh water swimming-canyons in the summer, access permitting. The huge stone walls that one sees everywhere belong to another age, as does a fishing fleet that historically numbered 350 boats and is now a few dozen and going down—the once-teeming banks overfished, the rooted way of life tottering. The lobstermen and clamdiggers will keep on, Gloucester’s frozen fish factories will survive on catch from all over the world, but whether fishing itself will be successfully replaced by light industry or, as a cynical friend says, by “cuteness and overdevelopment,” is an open question.

Visitors all see the harbor and the remnants of the fleet, and the famous fisherman’s statue along the boulevard—the man at the wheel staring out across the enormous arc of the harbor, past Ten Pound Island. (He was recently joined by a nearby statue of the fisherman’s wife.) Yet no site is more moving in this regard than the Gloucester City Hall, an 1870 Victorian edifice which resembles a French mairie. Within are vibrant WPA murals, a marble Winged Victory gracing the prow of a dory, a tin-roofed auditorium upstairs where Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum held forth. And, all around, reminders:

A Shipwrecked Sailor,
Buried on this coast,
Bids you set sail.
Full many a gallant ship,
When we were lost,
Weathered the gale.

So reads a carved wooden bas-relief of waves. Lining the walls of a dark staircase are more sobering plaques, the death toll of men who perished at sea from 1874 to 1978. (At the end of the 19th century, the fleet routinely lost fifteen boats and a hundred men a year.) The names make clear Gloucester’s immigrant influx. Largely Yankee and Irish before the Civil War, they were soon joined by Nova Scotians. Next came Portuguese, and Italians early in the 20th century; each successful generation whose sons could quit fishing thus made room for another immigrant group. The Italians helped bring in gas-powered boats that would gradually replace the large fleet of sailing schooners.

Much of Gloucester’s appeal lies in the fact that it has one of everything, in that small-town way which is in fact highly efficient. On two blocks of Main Street, for example, there is a school of art for children; a higgledy-piggledy antiques store whose treasures regularly surprise the proprietor; a bistro to equal any in the state; a thriving Mexican restaurant; fine vintage clothing, record, and photo shops; a health food emporium, an Army-Navy store, a barber shop with a whirling tricolor pole; several fishermen’s bars whose shadows remain a respite from the glare of daylight; and a genuine caffĂ© whose pastries rival any in Sicily. There’s the added warmth of an unexpectedly superb local library, a bookstore defending its terrain against the internet, and one prodigal used bookshop. (A few miles away, little Lanesville has arguably the very best in the country specializing in nautical works.) There is also an active local symphony, a strong jazz scene built around the late, inspirational trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, and a busy repertory theater, the creation of Israel Horovitz—who often writes plays set here.

At Halloween one sees the mordant humor of the Gloucesterite writ large. For at least a month you find mock-corpses everywhere—lynched from tree limbs, upended in trash barrels, flung over hedges, pinioned on roofs. These murdered scarecrow dummies are more ghoulish than any pumpkin grin, with echoes of a pagan respect for and mockery of death. When the Vietnam Moving Memorial came to town a decade ago, half of Gloucester turned out to see it; the list of locals who gave their lives in that war was astonishingly long. This is not only a deep-bred patriotism. The equivalent toll of lost fishermen over the decades reminds you that people here are not afraid of punishing labor, nor are they afraid to die.

Every exceptional locale has its singular wisdom. I like to believe that T.S. Eliot, whose boyhood summers here were absorbed into his imagery, was invoking Cape Ann in Ash Wednesday:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks . . . .

The bestseller and film about a storm that swallowed one of Gloucester’s vessels a few years back generated nationwide interest in its fishing heritage and its bars. With luck this glimmering fame may provide something more lasting than a few perfect T-shirts. It would be providential if Gloucester could find more in the mythos of, say, Kipling’s Captains Courageous than just a name for a restaurant; if it could make more fitting use of its past. God knows the place has suffered enough.

Cape Ann has magnetized American painters for a hundred and fifty years. John Sloan complained to Van Wyck Brooks early in the century that “. . . there was an artist’s shadow beside every cow in Gloucester, and the cows themselves were dying from eating paint-rags.” Those today who turn the sausage-crank of harbor and seascapes are battening off a strong tradition of painters who saw more than the standard lighthouse, pier, fisherman’s shack. The list of regulars in the first half of this century includes Maxfield Parrish, Milton Avery, Childe Hassam, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Maurice Prendergast. Unlike many scenic spots, Cape Ann drew them back steadily, season after season. The coast and the town views that so attracted them survive intact; streets whose charged geometries Hopper caught are still virtually identical except for the cars.

These modern luminaries were in turn feeding on the example of Winslow Homer, who visited twice and put his artistic blessing on the cape, and native son Fitz Henry Lane, now one of the most prized 19th century American painters. Beyond the precise realism and romantic hues of Lane’s wide-angle harbor views, his work is imbued with a deep mysticism, a reverential glow for the place that awakened him as an artist.

You can find work by most of them at the Cape Ann Historical Association, a Gloucester museum that is an ideal starting-point for any visitor. It has a diorama of the 19th century waterfront, with a fish packing house, schooners, piers, a smoke house, and a marine railway. There is also the boat of Howard Blackburn, the town’s most celebrated schooner captain. Blackburn managed two single-handed Atlantic crossings after having lost his fingers to frostbite in a shipwreck years before; no wonder Main Street’s largest tavern used to be named after him. (Winslow Homer stayed upstairs.) In 1901 Blackburn set the record for a solo crossing, 39 days Gloucester-Lisbon, in this actual “Gloucester sloop”—a standard turn-of-the-century vessel. A local fisherman, Alfred Johnson, had been the first to sail the Atlantic solo, in 1876.

Cape Ann has also drawn writers (this is a somewhat personal subject), who find it a good place to work with few distractions, no pretenses, an inspiring prospect of the sea, and rock slabs that conveniently turn into trampolines you can bounce ideas off. Kipling’s novel is the great evocation of local hard labor, which remains strangely absent from many painters’ work—though it is crucial to Horovitz’s plays. An ongoing poetic tradition includes Charles Olson (constructing a Cape Ann cosmology) and Eliot, who in The Dry Salvages speaks of Gloucester’s magnificent Portuguese church, Our Lady of Good Voyage:

Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish. . .
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning. . .
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea’s lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell’s
Perpetual angelus.

Naturally, many people move here to get away from the warp and woof of the world —not just the requisite artisans and backyard philosophers, but venture capitalists and commercial filmmakers too. They are often attracted not simply by the physical beauty, which has a distinct personality, but by the pagan sense of Cape Ann as a place of mysterious power generated somewhere deep in the earth. Outsiders dismiss this as island malarkey, and maybe it is—but then again, they don’t live here.

The source of this mysticism is not simply the ocean. Its geographical heart is the vast wooded area known as Dogtown, the cape’s central ice-age tract, crisscrossed with rocky foot (now mountain bike) trails. Dogtown is crucial to the psychology of the Cape Anner: it is our barbaric hinterland, our Amazon basin, on which all our houses are turning their backs to gaze seaward. Dogtown reminds us that an ancient untamed chaos—the wild, unknowable New England woods—is lurking right behind us.

Summer here is the season that brings the visitors. As a friend of mine puts it, “Cape Ann is ten weeks.” He means July through mid-September, because May and June can easily be dismal. Still, soon enough the magic begins, and there comes the steady clatter of shutters taken down, lawns mowed viciously, weekenders trundling about the back roads; the ceremony of unheated houses being opened and sailboats made ready and launched. For those freshly arrived there is sometimes a new bakery to try, and always the antique and junk shops to plunder—that stampede of white elephants. We year-rounders regard the summer residents with a fishy glance, but it is rejuvenating to have fresh faces to unsettle us, to shatter the claustrophobia of a long winter that was followed by bitter spring rains and mud.

Autumn is the happy reverse: the summer people are leaving and we’ll soon have the place to ourselves again. It is, we like to tell each other, the best time. This isn’t true, because the summers here are pure glory, with a thunderous beach light that invades our houses and drives out the grayness of the rocks and details the coast and brings out the excited blue of the sea. Yet the satisfaction of autumn is feeling the edge of a summer that will soon be imaginary linger, just before the sky turns to gunpowder and the leaves to sudden flame; of watching the year’s warmth hover in place for a few more weeks before it all changes.

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