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On New England

A generous helping of the region’s literary heritage

By Michael Kenney
Globe Correspondent / August 23, 2009

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Two compilations, one on Nantucket and the other on Cape Cod, and a collection of essays on Hadley, are not only good companions for late-summer and early-fall “staycations’’ but also fresh reminders of the region’s rich literary heritage.

In her introduction to “The Nantucket Reader,’’ Susan F. Beegel observes that it is “the sea around Nantucket’’ which provides “a vast narrative engine, rolling and booming out stories.’’

Beegel serves up, of course, plentiful helpings of Melville and Thoreau, but also the pleasures of discovery - and of rediscovery.

Eliza Spencer Brock writes of the loss of a Fall River vessel in Arctic waters in her journal of a three-year voyage with her husband aboard the whaling ship Lexington in the 1850s: “Why [the crew] did not hear the Howl of the Seal in time to keep off Shore is quite a matter of wonder to all; they are distinctly heard one mile, or more. They howl and bark just like a Dog. Middle and Last [watches] a Calm and thick Fog, as usual.’’

Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket’’ is an elegy for a cousin killed in the explosion of a destroyer during World War II. It begins:

“A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket --/ The sea was still breaking wildly and night/ Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,/ When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net.’’

Beegel also offers the still-chilling opening chapter of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws’’ and journalist Ron Winslow’s tension-filled account of the oil-tanker Argo Merchant groping through the dark in the hours before it grounded on the Nantucket shoals.

In his collection “A Place Apart,’’ editor Robert Finch includes Henry C. Kittredge’s anecdote-rich accounts from the 1930s of the hazards of dory fishing and the “sometimes profitable practice of strolling along the beach looking for chance wreckage.’’

Finch also includes two writers better known in other contexts: the critic Edmund Wilson and Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

Wilson writes, with a crystal eye for detail, of going out one night in Truro to check the fish traps and finding “butterfish, great flapping silver flakes, making a smacking crepitation of fireworks when they were thrown onto the floor of the boat.’’

And Merton recalls a train trip with his father as a boy: “the long, long journey through the sand dunes, stopping at every station, while I sat, weary and entranced . . . turning over in my mind the names of places . . . The name Truro especially fascinated me. I could not get it out of my mind: Truro, Truro. It was a name as lonely as the edge of the sea.’’

There are shipwrecks as well, but for a good account of a wreck and a rescue, there is “The Finest Hours’’ by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman.

Two oil tankers had been caught off Cape Cod in a winter northeaster in February 1952. Both ships were split in two by the 70-foot seas, and the Coast Guard went to their aid. Only two 36-foot lifeboats, each with a crew of four men, were available to aid those aboard the Pemberton and it is that rescue which provides the authors with the material for a gripping tale.

Hadley, on the Connecticut River across from Northampton, is not a summer’s destination such as Nantucket or Cape Cod - although it is on the road to the Berkshires.

In “Cultivating a Past,’’ historian Marla R. Miller writes that during the winter of 1827 a group of local men “gathered together to talk about reading’’ - an early flowering of today’s book groups. They knew “the value of history, and the pleasure of settling down for a good read.’’

Among the “good reads’’ gathered here is an account by Douglas C. Wilson, a former Washington reporter and publications director at Amherst College, of the “Angel of Hadley.’’

In local legend, the “angel’’ was William Goffe, one of the “regicides,’’ or members of the military court that sentenced Charles I to death. Goffe fled to New England after the restoration of the monarchy, eventually settling in Hadley.

As Wilson recounts it, Goffe made a dramatic appearance in the 1670s, during King Philip’s War, to warn the townspeople of an impending Indian attack.

A contemporary account describes “a grave elderly man’’ who “not only encouraged them to defend themselves, but put himself at their head, rallied, instructed, and led them on to encounter the enemy’’ - and who, as suddenly as he had appeared, disappeared.

“With time,’’ Wilson writes, “stories about the regicides, unconfirmed and unrecorded, became wisps of memory only - the myth makers’ skein.’’

Michael Kenney, a Cambridge-based freelance writer, often reviews books of local and regional interest.

THE NANTUCKET READER
Edited by Susan F. Beegel
Mill Hill, 392 pp., $34.95

A PLACE APART:
A Cape Cod Reader

Edited by Robert Finch
Countryman, 464 pp., paperback, $21.95

THE FINEST HOURS:
The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue

By Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman
Scribner, 204 pp., illustrated, $25

CULTIVATING A PAST:
Essays on the History of Hadley, Massachusetts

By Marla R. Miller
University of Massachusetts,
384 pp., illustrated, $34.95

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