Henry Beston (June 1, 1888 – April 15, 1968) was an American writer and naturalist, best known as the author of The Outermost House, written in 1928. Beston, who described himself as a "writer/naturalist", is considered one of the pioneers of the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson said that Beston was the only author who ever influenced her writing.
Beston saw an accelerating technological society as a force that would separate humankind from its natural roots; he saw human life as properly arising from nature; and counselled us to suture the widening rift between the two.
Beston struggled to speak for what he saw as the wounded Earth --- and to re-awaken in his fellow men that appreciation and reverence for the natural world which, he believed, had always before sustained and given context to human life. He struggled to produce language equal to the task he set himself, often spending an entire morning on a phrase or sentence, and often failing. He raged and grieved over the state of the world, and sought a perfection of language that might change hearts; given this standard, he found even letter-writing an excruciating task.
I remember my father, alone at the dining room table,
The ink bottle safe in a bowl, his orange-red fountain pen in his big hand.
The hand moved slowly back and forth, and the floor below was white
With sheets of paper, each carrying a rejected phrase or two
As he struggled all morning to finish just one sentence,
Like a smith, hammering thick and glowing iron ---
A Jacob, wrestling with the astonishing angel.
Despite this or maybe because of it, in the 1940s, Beston received honorary doctorates from Bowdoin College, Dartmouth College, and University of Maine and was made honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard. He was also made honorary editor of National Audubon Magazine.
Beston lectured regularly at Dartmouth College and wrote for publications like The Atlantic and Christian Science Monitor throughout the 1950s. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS) in 1954, and in 1959, he was the third recipient of the AAAS' Emerson-Thoreau Medal, previously awarded to only Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot.
Beston addressed the matter this way:
"I suppose that I do link up with Thoreau, but I have not been under his influence. He is not a naturalist. What interests him and stirs him most deeply are the principles governing the individual life when that life is enclosed in a gregarious society. If I tie in with anybody, it is with Richard Jefferies. We are both of us scholars with a poetic joy in the visible world." (More on Richard Jefferies can be found on this website.)
In search of a simpler more spiritual existence
By the time Henry first went to what he would later call "the Eastham sands," he had been, by turns, an itinerant teacher in France; the author of a war memoir, a journalistic account of naval life, and several books of fairy tales and heroic stories for children; and the editor of The Living Age, an offshoot of the Atlantic Monthly which featured reprints of articles from British, French and German magazines for an American audience.
Along the way, he had dropped his Irish surname and adopted his mother's maiden name, Beston, for his writing life. Thus it was that in September of 1926, Henry Beston, 38 years old and single, went for a two-week vacation to a small frame cottage he'd had built on the sand-dunes two miles south of the Coast Guard station at Nauset, on Cape Cod. His house, dubbed "the Fo'castle" by Beston, was built by Eastham carpenter Harvey Moore in the late spring of 1925.
He had not intended to stay, but, as he recounted later in The Outermost House,
"The fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go."
Spiritually shaken by his experiences in World War I, Beston retreated to the outer beach at Eastham, Cape Cod in search of peace and solitude. And there he lived alone in his tiny 20 x16 house, with the Atlantic Ocean on his front door and Nauset Marsh behind him.
Here, to a tiny house set alone on a dune above the sea, a man has come in solitude to watch, and listen, and bear witness.
He watches on winter nights as fishing schooners, last vestiges of the age of sail, move slowly beyond the bar, or come to frozen grief upon it.
He listens to the myriad voices of the surf, and attempts, in words, a faithful notation of the music he has heard.
He bears witness to the comings and goings of constellations and tides, the nightly patrols of the coast guardsmen who walk the beach; he ponders the dark imperatives that lie behind the migrations of birds and fish, the mysterious "peoples of the sea."
Into the vast bright days of autumn he goes, and we go with him, gathering driftwood against the winter nights; in spring we walk inland over the greening moorland, off to meet the alewife run; in summer we kindle our cooking fire on the beach, and sleep between sand-dunes as the constellations wheel above us.
Is this not the life we all dream of?
Beston stayed there, on and off, for about two years, and was usually on the beach for the many severe storms that struck the Cape in the winter.
"Nature," he wrote in French, "there is my country. The work--- to celebrate, to reveal the mystery, the beauty, and the rites of Nature, of the Visible World. To bind this feeling to my name."
His house was located two miles south of the Nauset Coast Guard Station, and his only neighbours were the Coast Guardsmen, who patrolled the beach.
"Nature is part of our humanity” he wrote “and without some awareness of that divine mystery man ceases to be man".
About Henry Beston
Writing in longhand at the kitchen table overlooking the North Atlantic and the dunes, Beston produced a poetic, perceptive chronicle of nature's year, and our place within it. The rhythmic sweep and flux of the tides, the migrations of shorebirds, the shimmer of August heat and the fury of February storms, the march of constellations across the night sky: all were caught in the net of his senses and transmuted, indelibly, through the poetic power of his pen. Beston considered himself a poet of the landscape, bearing witness to the cycles and recurrences, great and small, of nature; and The Outermost House can be read as a single, sustained song, a lyrical meditation on the cycling pageant of the seasons.
Beston donated the "Fo'castle" to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1959. But with his health deteriorating, Beston returned to the beach in Eastham one last time on October 11, 1964, when his famous house was dedicated as a National Literary Landmark. The house was carried away by extreme high tides during a winter hurricane in February 1978.
Waldron wrote that thousands still come to the beach each year, wanting to learn more about this man who retreated to the outer beach "in a search for the great truth, and found it in the spirit of man," as his National Literary Landmark dedication plaque read. "Many know the book, some carry it with them," Waldron wrote. "Still they come, pilgrims of a sort- stirred by his sense of wonder but drawn by his vision of hope."
Career and other books
Born Henry Beston Sheahan, Beston grew up in the Boston suburb of Quincy, Massachusetts with his parents, Dr. Joseph Sheahan - an Irish-American physician - Marie Louise (Maurice) Beston Sheahan, his Franco-American wife, and brother George, a doctor. Beston attended Adams Academy in Quincy before earning his B.A. (1909) and M.A. (1911) from Harvard College.
A Volunteer Poilu (1916) – Henry’s mother was French and he loved her very much. She died when he was eight. After he finished at Harvard, he went abroad and taught at an extension that Harvard had in Lyons, France; and during that year, Henry got “an incredible, deeply felt sense of a traditional landscape --- a sense that informed the rest of his life. This was before the First World War, and I think that year in France was one of the things that moved him, in 1915, to become a volunteer in the ambulance corps, before America entered the war”. [Kate Beston]. In 1914 he had returned to Harvard as an English department assistant, but joined the French army in 1915 and served as an ambulance driver. His service in le Bois le Pretre and at the Battle of Verdun was described in this first book, A Volunteer Poilu.
Full Speed Ahead (1919) - In 1918, Beston became a press representative for the U.S. Navy. Highlights from this period include being the only American correspondent to travel with the British Grand Fleet and to be aboard an American destroyer during combat engagement and sinking. His second book of journalistic work, Full Speed Ahead, described these experiences.
The Firelight Fairy Book (1919) and The Starlight Wonder Book (1921) - Following the end of World War I, Beston began writing fairy tales under the name "Henry Beston". In 1919, The Firelight Fairy Book was published, followed by The Starlight Wonder Book in 1923.
The Outermost House (1928) - is now considered a literary classic. Prior to spending his year on the beach, Beston had fallen in love with Elizabeth Coatsworth [right], an accomplished poet and novelist. Leaving the Great Beach in 1927, Henry had a raft of journals, but not yet a book manuscript. When he proposed marriage to Elizabeth, she replied, "No book, no marriage." Henry spent the next year sculpting his musings and observations into The Outermost House; it was published in the fall of 1928, and the Bestons were married the following June. The book got good reviews, and began to develop a small but devoted list of admirers; its reputation persisted and grew through subsequent printings, until today it is universally recognized as a classic of American nature writing. An audiobook version was released in 2007.
Northern Farm: A Chronicle of Maine (1948) - Initially, Henry and Elizabeth lived in a house in Hingham; but Henry grew restive there, and longed for unspoiled, pastoral country. As Elizabeth wrote, "Henry did not like this life with its grind of passing cars and its quality of an old South Shore village slowly turning into a suburb." And so, with one daughter now (Margaret, born June 30, 1930), and a second on the way, Henry returned to Hingham from a 1931 summer trip houseboating to ask her a question.
"How would you like to have us buy a Maine farm?"; and Elizabeth replied immediately, "It sounds fine."
They bought Chimney Farm in Nobleboro, Maine a few weeks later, and in the spring of 1932, while Elizabeth remained in Hingham, giving birth to their second daughter, Catherine (or Kate), Henry supervised renovations on the old farmhouse that would become the family’s home. They spent summers there during the 30’s and early 40’s, keeping the house in Hingham and the Fo’castle on the Cape, to which they seldom now returned; and by the end of the Second World War, Maine had become their permanent home.
His literary output after The Outermost House was not great. Northern Farm, his book about life in Maine, was compiled in the late 1940's from a series of country-living columns he wrote for The Progressive magazine. Although Beston wrote several more books while living in Maine, he never again approached the overall quality that he achieved in The Outermost House.
Herbs and the Earth (1935) – Herbs and the Earth is “a poetic meditation on herbs, history, the mysteries of the soil and the magic of growth”. It is one of the few books of Beston still in print.
The St. Lawrence (1942) - he wrote The Saint Lawrence, a geographical and historical tour of the great seaway, for the "Rivers of America" series
White Pine and Blue Water: A State of Maine Reader (1950) (editor) - Beston edited an anthology of writings about Maine, White Pine and Blue Water (1950)
Henry Beston's Fairy Tales (1952) - Beston revised his earlier work in children's literature and published Henry Beston's Fairy Tales in 1952
- Book of Gallant Vagabonds (1925)
- The Sons of Kai (1926)
- The Living Age (1921)
- American Memory (1937)
- Five Bears and Miranda (1939)
- The Tree that Ran Away (1941)
- Chimney Farm Bedtime Stories (1941)
Beston died on April 15, 1968 in Nobleboro, Maine, and is buried in a small cemetery at Chimney Farm. Chimney Farm was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007.
An anthology of Beston's writing, The Best of Beston, is a reprint of an earlier volume, Especially Maine: The Natural World of Henry Beston (1972) ; it provides an excellent introduction to his work.
Kate Beston – from "Coming Back,":
To one familiar with Henry’s prose, so confident and serene, sure and magisterial, the folowing reference to grief and rage may be surprising. …..
"I hear my dead father
Still grieving and raging downstairs like the minotaur
in the palace cellar; like water
my mother’s voice goes on soothingly.
all of us who write put our best selves into our writing, so that the reader’s impression of the whole person is bound to be skewed. ….People put their best selves into their writing, and they should --- but there’s a lot more to the living, whole person, and not all of it is happy.
- The paintings of Cape Cod, are by Edward Hopper
- The painting of the fishes is by Betsy Paine Cook
- The painting of the sage and his pupil, by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale
- We cannot attribute the dunescape as we found it on Pinit, with no artist mentioned.
For iPad/iPhone users: tap letter twice to get list of items.