British Association for American Studies


Storify of our #bookhour twitter chat on CAPE COD by Henry David Thoreau

k7112During May’s #bookhour discussion Dr. Ben Pickford, Dr. Michael Collins, Dr. Thomas Ruys Smith and Joanne Mildenhall discussed the practical and literary economies of Thoreau’s Cape Cod (1865), the role natural and human histories play in the narrative, and the book’s place in Thoreau’s canon as well as in the larger arena of American literature. Debates arose around Thoreau’s treatment of public and private property in relation to both land and literature, the relevance of historiography in the narrative and the significance of the book’s structure. Comparisons were discussed with the work of Washington Irving, Herman Melville and Sarah Orne Jewett, centering on humour, genre and depictions of the natural environment. The discussion then moved on to the relevance of the book’s environmental and human concerns today, and its significance in Thoreau’s trajectory as an author. Catch up on the chat in the storify below!

 Thoreau’s Cape Cod

Henry David Thoreau visited Cape Cod in 1849, 1850, and 1853. These trips formed the basis for a series of essays, several of which were published in magazines. After Thoreau’s death the essays were gathered together, arranged into ten chapters and published as Cape Cod in 1865. Cape Cod opens with a description of the shipwreck of the St John and a ride by coach across the Cape, but the heart of the book lies in the following chapters in which Thoreau and his companion walk the 30 mile beach from Nauset Harbor to Provincetown. His trips to the Cape, Thoreau wrote, were intended to afford “a better view than I had yet had of the ocean,” and the Atlantic dominates the narrative, from the fatal shipwreck of the opening episode to the later reflections on the Pilgrims’ Cape Cod landing. Thoreau pays characteristically close attention to the plants, animals, topography, weather and human history of the area, and alongside his own observations relates the experiences of local fishermen, farmers, salvagers, lighthouse-keepers and ship-captains. These stories of exploration, settlement and survival in the natural environment of the Cape prompt Thoreau to reconceive the history of New England and to recognise the parochialism of history itself.

Related post: ‘Now comes good sailing’: Henry David Thoreau’s Cape Cod (1865) and Early Postbellum America by Dr. Benjamin Pickford


Q1. Thoreau gives the sea providential qualities that threaten the practical/spiritual survival of the Cape. What economic lessons follow? (Benjamin Pickford)

Q2. My 1950s popular edition of Cape Cod shifts most of Thoreau’s digressions on the history of the Cape into an appendix. What are these sections for? (Benjamin Pickford)

Q3. How does Cape Cod relate to Thoreau’s philosophy and other writings? (Michael James Collins)

Q4. How does the form of Cape Cod help Thoreau explore the book’s key themes? (Michael James Collins)

Q5. Reading Cape Cod I kept thinking of Sarah Orne Jewett’s stories – how may it relate to the Local Color movement? (Thomas Ruys Smith)

Q6. Thoreau claims: “The ocean is but a larger lake.” What do we make of his treatment of water compared to, say, Walden? (Thomas Ruys Smith)

Discussion Leaders

Thomas Ruys Smith (@ThomasRuysSmith) is Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Culture and Head of the Department of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is the author of River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi Before Mark Twain (Louisiana State University Press, 2007) and Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century (Continuum: 2011).

Michael James Collins (@collinsactually) joined Kent as a Lecturer in American Literature in September 2012. His research has two strands. First, he writes about antebellum American literature, particularly in relation to questions of how print and performance culture interact in this era. His first monograph, entitled Theatre of Print: The Drama of the American Short Story, 1800–1865, is forthcoming with University of Michigan Press.  His second area of research developed out of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship held at The University of Nottingham and concerns how realist fiction explores the effect of emergent theories of culture upon radical, transnational conceptions of class solidarity.

Benjamin Pickford (@DrPickford) completed his PhD on Ralph Waldo Emerson at the University of Nottingham in September 2014. He is currently working on two monograph projects – an intellectual biography of Emerson focusing on his poetic theory, and a cross-disciplinary study of alternative economic models in late nineteenth-century American culture.