Edmund Wilson's Cape Cod Landscape

By Wilson, Reuel K. | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Edmund Wilson's Cape Cod Landscape


Wilson, Reuel K., The Virginia Quarterly Review


Beginning in the summer of 1920, when he came to see Edna St. Vincent Millay in Truro, Massachusetts, my father, Edmund Wilson, made a habit of visiting the Cape Cod shoreline. He was fascinated by the Cape's unique mixture of forest, marsh, bay, and sea. Provincetown, at the very end of Cape Cod, became his summer base of operations in the twenties and thirties. Its narrow streets and breathtaking sea vistas beckoned city dwellers, while offering the vitality of a still viable fishing community. During the summer it attracted crowds of artistic and would-be artistic people. In 1941, Wilson bought a house in Wellfleet, fourteen miles south of Provincetown. He would keep the house on Money Hill until his death in 1972, and it was here that he first moved in with his third wife, my mother, Mary McCarthy, and me (age three).

Over his lifetime, roughly half of which he spent on Cape Cod, Wilson kept a personal diary that, although maintained intermittently and sometimes written in haste, he intended for publication. Many of its entries concern people, and these tend to be anecdotal; some describe nature and landscapes-these are often carefully fashioned word pictures. Wilson was well versed in nature and could name most of the flora and fauna he observed in the wild. During the forties he kept an aquarium/terrarium in the hall outside his Well-fleet study. The specimens of pond life that he collected there fared poorly as a rule, although I remember he had some success nurturing tadpoles, or pollywogs as he called them, into frogs. During the summers of my childhood and early adolescence, Wilson often joined his family for an afternoon swim at Gull Pond. Each trip to the pond followed the same ritual: first my father plunged into the water, then, reborn as a blustering water demon, he vigorously splashed water in my direction and that of any other children who might have been present. Only a little scared, we shrieked in feigned terror at the onslaught of this all-too-benign spirit of evil. After this short performance he took a quick swim, describing a few circles in the water using a peculiar flailing one-arm sidestroke. After swimming, he donned an old oxford shortsleeved shirt over his brown bathing trunks and a worn brown fedora hat-to depart on a long nature walk around the pond.

In the early journals Wilson shows a predilection for seascapes on the New Jersey coast near his family home in Redbank; then the focus gradually shifts to Cape Cod. The Cape also surfaces in Wilson's poetry, for he was an avid writer of verse, light as well as elegaic. Night Thoughts (1953), a collection of assorted poetry with a few prose pieces, incorporates six poems (two of them ambitious in scope) on Cape Cod themes. Among the papers that Wilson sold to Yale in 1968 is a corpus of unpublished, and in some cases unfinished, work entitled "Wellfleet Poetry." The texts, written in the forties during, and after, his marriage to Mary McCarthy, reveal some of the darker confines of his psyche. I should emphasize that he wrote poetry and the diaries "with his left hand." This kind of writing was mostly done in intervals between concentrated work on more demanding projects. Wilson never did write about Cape Cod in his fiction, although he planned to stage one episode of a (never written) novel in Provincetown. His long-standing friend John Dos Passos, for many years a Provincetown resident, also seems to have treated the Cape as a place to write, rather than write about. A few minor writers who lived on Cape Cod have written about it quite well. Among these are Susan Glaspell, Mary Heaton Vorse, and Harry Kemp (all part of Wilson's Provincetown circle in the twenties and thirties), John Peale Bishop, his Princeton classmate, and the Canadian writer Marie Claire Biais, whom Wilson introduced to Wellfleet and the American reading public.

The Cape Cod where I grew up is not quite the same today as it was then. To be sure, the solid nineteenth-century house (built by a sea captain) is still there, as is the adjacent cottage, once the wing of a sister house across the street, that Elena Wilson (Wilson's fourth wife) so kindly bought and set up for me and her son, Henry Thornton. …

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