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Dedicated to Henry Beston's literary classic and the
spirit of life on the Great Outer Beach of Cape Cod

About Henry Beston ...

A wanderer ... a vagabond. That's how Henry Beston, author of The Outermost House, often described himself during his years on Cape Cod, which began shortly after World War I and concluded in the early 1930s.

"The Vagabond of the Dunes" is how he often signed letters to friends and family. After all, the dunes of Eastham had become a refuge for him after dealing with the stresses of World War I and working out of The Atlantic Monthly offices in New York.

Henry Beston in 1963

(Photo courtesy Thornton Burgess Society)

 

At thirty-something and probably in a state of bewilderment as to where his life was going, Beston began staying on the Cape in the early 1920s. Later, he stayed with the Sullivan family at their cottage across from the Salt Pond, which led him to start making plans for a little house on the dunes. Here, he could wander and write at his leisure.

During a four-week stretch in the spring of 1925, local carpenter, Harvey Moore, and his crew of workers constructed a small but snug 20x16 house about two miles down the beach from the Coast Guard Station in Eastham. "On its solitary dune, my house faced the four walls of the world," Beston wrote. It was here that he would go on to write his masterpiece, The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, and re-dedicate himself as a "writer-naturalist."

The book enjoyed modest success at first, but eventually went through dozens of printings. A French edition was also published in 1953.

Beston wrote many other books during his life, but none of them have been as highly regarded as The Outermost House.

Son of a doctor

Born Henry Beston Sheahan on June 1, 1888, the Vagabond grew up in Quincy, Massachusetts, the son of Dr. Joseph Sheahan and Marie Louise (Maurice) Sheahan. He referred to his early years living on School Street in Quincy as "a New England boyhood of sea and shore, enriched with a good deal of the French spirit, from a French mother."

Beston attended Adams Academy in Quincy, and saw his father pass away during his teen years. While his brother, George, became a well-respected surgeon, the younger Sheahan opted for a profession as a wordsmith. Beston graduated from Harvard College in 1909, and received his masters degree from the Cambridge school in 1911.

After leaving Harvard, Beston went to France for the first of many trips there, teaching for a year at the University of Lyons. He returned to Harvard in 1914 as an English department assistant. In 1915, he joined up with the French army during World War I, and also served in the American ambulance service. His first place of duty was at le Bois le Pretre, at the Battle of Verdun. Those experiences were chronicled in his first book, A Volunteer Poilu.

In 1918, the 30-year-old writer became an official press representative with the U.S. Navy, and was the only American correspondent aboard an American destroyer when a submarine was engaged and sunk. He was also the only American correspondent to travel with the British Grand Fleet. These experiences were the basis of his second book, Full Speed Ahead.

However, those first two books -- which he would later label as "journalism" -- did not come without cost. The war experiences had taken their toll on Beston and propelled him in a totally different direction -- he began writing books of fairy tales cleansing his mind of those horrors. In 1919, The Firelight Fairy Book was published, followed by the Starlight Wonder Book in 1923.

The Firelight Fairy Book had another edition published in 1922, with a preface written by Beston's good friend, Colonel Theodore "Young Teddy" Roosevelt. Beston was a great admirer of Young Teddy's father, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the author went on to support Republicans such as Calvin Coolidge. On the other hand, he was often critical of Democratic presidents, particularly Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Another change in direction

With his mind now on the right track, Beston found himself working as an editor for The Living Age Magazine, which was housed in the offices of The Atlantic Monthly in New York City. Frustrated by the overflow of propaganda from European publications flowing into his cramped office, Beston began searching for an outlet for his creative juices.

He would find it on the outer beach of Cape Cod.

During those years, it often was difficult pinning the adventurous author down. He could be wandering about on the beach in Eastham ... or sipping gin at a New York hotel in the wee hours of the morning ... or perhaps in Topsfield, Massachusetts, where he had taken a residence.

However, it wasn't long before he spent all his time in Eastham. The Sullivan family, relatives of Eastham's Beverly Plante, hosted him at their cottage. He also reportedly stayed at Highland Light in Truro at some point in the early 1920s.

As his beach house, built on several acres of leased Eastham dune land, was taking shape, The Book of Gallant Vagabonds was published. Even though Beston categorized it as "a book of travel and biography," the effort may have also reflected his own state of affairs. In 1926, he also published The Sons of Kai, based on a Navajo Indian children's story.

He described himself that year as "somewhat of a wanderer."

Wandering took on a whole new dimension later that year, when he moved into his new house, the "Fo'castle." He stayed there for days or weeks at a time, occasionally retreating back to Tom Kelley's Overlook Inn when the elements became too harsh to handle. When he needed supplies, he signaled Kelley from the house (the dunes were visible from the Overlook, located on what is now Route 6), and either the innkeepers or a taxi took him to Orleans.

He called on the Coast Guard several times a week, and often provided a hot cup of coffee for the Coast Guard officers on their nightly patrols. Friends from Eastham often visited him there, and publishing figures such as Corey Ford stopped by on occasion.

When the fall of 1927 rolled around, Beston realized that his "Year upon the beach had come full circle," and "it was time to close (my) door." He retreated to his studio in Quincy and completed the manuscript, and The Outermost House was published in the fall of 1928. It reportedly sold well in the local stores.

Having realized his writing potential on the dunes, another important phase of his life was just beginning. His relationship with author and poet, Elizabeth Coatsworth of Hingham, Massachusetts, had reached a higher level than ever, and Beston proposed marriage in January of 1929. The two were married in June, and spent a two-week honeymoon at the Fo'castle before traveling in New England.

The couple had two children, Margaret and Catherine, after settling in at Hingham. However, the increasingly hectic pace of suburban life was not to Beston's liking. When Maurice "Jake" Day, illustrator of Beston's fairy tale books (and who later drew "Bambi" for Walt Disney), told him of a farm for sale in Nobleboro, Maine, Beston jumped at the chance to buy it. "It sounds fine," his wife said after he proposed the idea over a lunch of fish and chips.

The Bestons traveled frequently, going between Hingham and Maine and also taking long trips to Mexico and Europe. Beston didn't write another book until 1935, when he came out with Herbs and Earth, based on his experiences in his herb garden at Chimney Farm (his Maine home).

The historical collection American Memory followed in 1937, and Chimney Farm Bedtime Stories, told by Beston to his daughters and set down by his wife, came out the next year. After extensive traveling in Canada, he wrote The St. Lawrence for the Rivers of America series in 1942.

Northern Farm, which chronicled his life as a Maine farmer, was his last authored book in 1948. White Pine and Blue Water, which Beston compiled and edited, came out in 1950, followed by Henry Beston's Fairy Tales, a collection from his earlier books, in 1952.

During his later years, Beston spoke of possibly writing his memoirs, but that subject that never materialized.

While Beston had cut back on his writing after the early 1950s (when he also lectured regularly at Dartmouth College), the honors were just beginning to come in. Dartmouth and Bowdoin Colleges both presented him with honorary doctorates. In 1959, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences presented Beston with the Emerson-Thoreau Medal for distinguished achievement in the field of literature, an honor whose only other recipients were T.S. Eliot and Robert Frost. He was also named as an honorary editor for National Audubon Magazine.

Beston's crowning achievement came on October 11, 1964, when the U.S. Department of the Interior, recognizing Beston's influence in bringing about the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore, declared The Outermost House as a national literary landmark. Thousands attended the ceremony, referred to as "the coronation" by the Bestons, at Coast Guard Beach.

However, Beston's health had also begun to fail him in the early 1960s. A series of small strokes had left him wheelchair-bound. In collaboration with Alva Morrison and Wallace Bailey, Beston donated the Fo'castle to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1959. The Society continued to rent out the house to birders and solitude seekers until 1978, when the house was washed out to sea by a tremendous February blizzard.

Beston died in 1968, less than two months before his 80th birthday, and was buried a few hundred yards in back of his Nobleboro farmhouse. Elizabeth Beston continued to live there until 1986, when she died at the age of 93.

-- Don Wilding


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