Literary Imagination

Literary Imagination IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

From artists such as Fitz Henry Lane (1804–1865) to Nell Blaine (1922–1996), Cape Ann has been an inspiration for painters for more than two centuries, but it has also served as the setting for a number of literary depictions, which have been both embraced and contested for their verisimilitude to life as experienced by the area’s inhabitants.

One of the most noted of these is the poem “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). In December 1839, three massive hurricanes struck Gloucester Harbor. Local collections hold accounts of these storms by Amanda Babson (1811–1857) and Azor Knowlton (b. 1789), but the story that would become famous was not written in Gloucester, and it takes considerable poetic license. Longfellow read about the storms in the newspaper and reflected in his journal: “News of shipwreck horrible on the coast. Twenty bodies washed ashore near Gloucester, one lashed to a piece of the wreck. There is a reef called Norman’s Woe where many of these took place; among others the schooner Hesperus. Also the Sea-flower on Black Rock. I must write a ballad upon this.”[1]

Longfellow was conflating two separate incidents. The Hesperus was wrecked in Boston Harbor, but he adopted that schooner’s name in his diary and later in his ballad. In the Boston newspaper that Longfellow probably read, the story of the Hesperus wreck appeared just above the headline “DISASTERS FROM CAPE ANN.” The newspaper stories of shipwrecked and lost lives included that of “the body of a woman, found lashed to the windlass bitts of a Castine schooner.”[2] After writing “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” Longfellow asked his friend Epes Sargent (1813–1880) to act as his agent in arranging for its sale; the poem was first published by Park Benjamin in the newspaper The New World on January 11, 1840.[3] Longfellow did not visit Gloucester until years later, when, according to Elizabeth Stuart Phelps (1844–1911), she showed him Norman’s Woe for the first time.[4]

Longfellow’s poem, widely reprinted in newspapers throughout the country, made Gloucester into a popular destination for tourists who wanted to see where the tragedy had occurred, even though the Hesperus had not been wrecked “on the reef of Norman’s Woe.” In her diary, Amanda Babson described “dreadful storms and what makes it still worse people are drowning and no assistance can be render’d them the storm is raging so violent.” The next day, she reported, “One woman found and two women they dragged on shore alive and not much hurt — oh heavens what a storm this has been and how much distress it has brought.”[5] Local accounts such as Babson’s personalizes the distress and despair that Longfellow’s poem describes.

Sandy Bay (Rockport) resident Azor Knowlton offered a less detailed description in his almanac of 1839. He described the “uncommon gale” of that December in which “Lots vessels went ashore at the Harbor and a number of lives lost Breakwater damage.” Knowlton used an almanac as a diary for many years, and this practice has a long history in American letters. Almanacs were surpassed only by the Bible as the colonial era’s bestseller. Throughout the eighteenth century, most people owned almanacs and commonly made notes in them. Many, such as this one from 1839, were sold with blank pages interleaved with the text; in fact, this printer’s practice dates back to the Englishman Joachim Hubrigh’s 1565 almanac. In the nineteenth century, the pocket diary largely supplanted the use of almanacs for recording events, but Knowlton continued to write in his almanac, tipping in pages and stitching in leaves as needed. In her study of annotating almanacs, including those of George Washington, Molly McCarthy examines how early Americans accounted for time through the mixture of innovation and restriction afforded by the almanac format.[6]

The early American literary imagination was not cultivated only in writing, however. At the start of the nineteenth century, the lyceum movement took hold. Lyceums, as explained by the movement’s founder, Josiah Holbrook (1788–1854), were places where people could connect intellectually as well as for moral improvement.[7] The people of Gloucester quickly joined the movement, unanimously resolving in 1830 that “it is expedient to form in this town an Association to be denominated the Gloucester Lyceum.”[8] Announcements of featured Lyceum speakers as well as reports of talks and other events there pepper the local newspaper during the Lyceum’s almost four decades of existence.

Many names in the Sawyer Free Library’s Lyceum Records are still recognizable, including two leaders of the Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Local luminaries such as Fitz Henry Lane regularly attended the Lyceum, as did many members of the general public.[9] One teenager, Francis Bennett, Jr. (b. 1837), recorded his attendance at the Lyceum, noting that he had heard Emerson speak “on the Anglo American” and described it as “a capital lecture.”[10] Amanda Babson also recorded her visits to the Lyceum, though as a woman in the gathering’s early years, she would not have been permitted to speak. The Gloucester Telegraph explained: “The assistance of ladies in declamation was much to be desired, but since the Scripture forbade them to speak in assemblages of men, he [the Secretary] reminded them that a box had been provided for their written communications, and it was hoped ‘that many of our talented females’ would contribute to the entertainment of the Society.”[11] As Babson’s own archives reveal, she and her female companions found other means of expression in semipublic exchanges.

Accounts of events at a public forum like the Lyceum provide one record of Gloucester’s intellectual life. Another source of information can be found in the minutes of reading groups, which often reveal what the day’s bestsellers were. The Scottish novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) remained wildly popular throughout the nineteenth century in the United States. His depictions of a bygone era in the Scottish highlands featured romantic notions of clan life in a simpler time amid rugged natural beauty. One of his ballads, “The Lady of the Lake” (1810), was the choice for a group of Annisquam residents who gathered to give dramatic voice to the poem, setting the scene with “green branches harmonizing with the sylvan character of the place.” The meeting minutes suggest that the poem, which depicts in part the internecine struggle between England and Scotland, was selected not only for its popularity but also because of its resonances with “our own late war.” [12]

Procter Brothers BookstoreProcter Brothers “Old Corner” Bookstore at 121 Front Street, Gloucester. Photography by W.A. Elwell, ca. 1862. Cape Ann Museum.

Finding out what books people read and how they read them are difficult questions for historians. One avenue of research is discovering the kinds of books that were being sold at any given time. Salem was the center of literary production for the North Shore until well into the nineteenth century. As early as 1770, Robert Bell, a Scottish émigré by way of Ireland, traveled to Salem from Philadelphia to hock his literary wares, promising “books cheap” for all “Lovers of literary Instruction, Entertainment, and Amusement.”[13] William Edmund Pearson Rogers (b. 1802) was the first printer/publisher to set up shop in Gloucester, producing the first local newspaper, The Gloucester Telegraph, as well as a number of religious tracts.[14]

As the nineteenth century wore on, various Boston literary circles convened on the North Shore. In 1874, James T. Fields (1817–1881), a partner in and then the owner of the famed Boston publishing firm Ticknor and Fields, built a house on Thunderbolt Hill in Manchester after many summer visits. Ticknor and Fields published works by such literary luminaries as Emerson, Thoreau, James Russell Lowell (1819–1891), Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), and Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909). He also befriended these writers, entertaining them both in Boston and at Thunderbolt Hill.[15] Jewett became a companion of Fields’s wife, Annie (1834–1915). Toward the end of her life, Jewett published a contemplative poem about dying at sea entitled “The Gloucester Mother.”[16]

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps also found inspiration in the local people. A prolific novelist and essayist, Phelps grew up in Andover and in Boston, and starting as a young woman, she spent summers in Gloucester. In her novel A Singular Life (1895), which extols the life of temperance, Phelps thinly disguises Gloucester as Windover. The novel depicts a seminary-trained minister who defies conventional religion to help the poor people of Angel Alley, the name she gives to Gloucester’s Duncan Street. As she reflects in “Among the Gloucester Fishermen," published that same year, Phelps was keenly aware of the class tensions between the hard-working residents of Gloucester and the summer people who are seen as “more or less idle folk.” Critics both lauded and rebuked A Singular Life. One reviewer praised Phelps for achieving for temperance what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) did for abolition, while another accused her of “misrepresent[ing] and defam[ing] the mental and moral capacity and the Christian character of the fishermen and of their friends and neighbors” for her own “gain and lucre.”[17]

A number of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century maritime stories used Gloucester as a home base. In 1850, Nancy Gardner Prince (b. 1799) published a memoir of her adventures on the high seas as well as in Russia and the West Indies. Though her mother’s family was from Gloucester, her grandfather was born in Africa and enslaved by Captain Winthrop Sargent, and her grandmother was “an Indian of this country [who] became a captive to the English, or their descendents.” Prince’s Narrative begins in Gloucester, where she and her brother spent their summers earning money for their family by picking berries and catching fish; later they found more permanent employment in Salem.[18] After a life abroad, including a brief stint in Jamaica, where she started a missionary school, Prince settled in Boston. There she published her Narrative, which was widely read in abolitionist circles. Her fate remains a mystery, however: no record of her death has been found.[19]**

Another maritime story that took inspiration from Gloucester was Captains Courageous, by the Nobel Prize-winning British writer Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936). To depict the lives at sea of Gloucester fishermen, Kipling made four short visits here between 1892 and 1896. But the stories he heard from his friend Dr. James Conland (1851–1903), who worked aboard fishing schooners as a young man, inspired his novel as much as his research visits did.[20]

Though Gloucester as a source of literary inspiration often focuses on its twentieth-century depictions in the poetry of T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) and Charles Olson (1910–1970), the archives reveal that it has been inspiring poets and authors for centuries. Not all of these local writers had access to publishing, but as discussed further in Women’s History, they found other means of sharing their talent for and love of written expression.

**Since the printing of the catalog, Unfolding Histories research assistant Peggy Calkins not only established that Nancy Prince was the half sister of Lucy O. Voice, but also that Nancy died in Boston in 1859.  See  New England Historic Genealogical Society; Boston, Massachusetts; Massachusetts Vital Records, 1840–1911, 72  and Prince, Nancy. A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Nancy Prince. Boston: published by the author, 1850, 19.

[1]. Samuel Longfellow and Kenneth G. Leach, eds., Life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: With Extracts from His Journals and Correspondence (Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1886), 339.

[2]. “The Late Gale and Its Effects,” Columbian Centinel, December 18, 1839.

[3]. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Letters of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Andrew R. Hilen (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1966), 205–207.

[4]. Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Chapters from a Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1897), 157.

[5]. Amanda Babson, “Diary, December 1839,” MSS., Box P2A Folder 2 (Gloucester, Mass.: Cape Ann Museum).

[6]. Molly McCarthy, The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 15, 22.

[7]. Josiah Holbrook, American Lyceum of Science and the Arts (Worcester, Mass.: Samuel H. Colton, 1827).

[8]. As quoted in Outline of History and Dedication of the Sawyer Free Library, of Gloucester, Mass. (Gloucester: Cape Ann Bulletin Steam Book and Job Print, 1884), 1.

[9]. “Fitz Hugh Lane, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Gloucester Lyceum,” American Art Journal. Accessed November 30, 2017. http://fitzhenrylaneonline.org/uploads/FoleyFHLEmersonLyceum.pdf.

[10]. “Francis Bennett,” MSS, Octavo Vols. B (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society).

[11]. As quoted in Outline of History and Dedication of the Sawyer Free Library, 5.

[12]. Reading Circle Book, 1877–1888, MSS. (Gloucester, Mass.: Annisquam Historical Society).

[13]. “Auction of Books,” Essex Gazette 2, no. 104 (July 17, 1770). For more on Robert Bell’s influence on the early American literary market, see James Green, “English Books and Printing in the Age of Franklin,” in A History of the Book in America: The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World, ed. Hugh Amory and David Hall (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 289.

[14]. John J. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann: Including the Town of Rockport (Gloucester, Mass.: Procter Bros., 1860), 528.

[15]. Gordon Abbott, Jeffrey’s Creek: A Story of People, Places, and Events in the Town That Came to Be Known as Manchester-by-the-Sea (Manchester-by-the-Sea, Mass.: Manchester Historical Museum, 2003), 285.

[16]. Sarah Orne Jewett, “The Gloucester Mother,” McClure’s Magazine 21, no. 6 (October 1908), 703.

[17]. Munroe Stevens, “A Singular Life” Reviewed and Gloucester Vindicated (Gloucester?, 1896), 7.

[18]. Nancy Prince, A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince (Boston: published by the author, 1850), 1–5. My thanks to Cape Ann Museum Adjunct Curator Erik Ronnberg for bringing Nancy Prince to my attention.

[19]. Ann T. Keene, “Prince, Nancy Gardner,” American National Biography. Accessed January 15, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.1603516.

[20]. David C. McAveeney, Kipling in Gloucester: The Writing of Captains Courageous (Gloucester, Mass.: Curious Traveller Press,1996).

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