The Magazine of
the Writing Life

July / August  2001

Culture Club

Wellfleet hosts a distinguished inner
circle of summer residents

by Jeff Ousborne  

THE LEAPFROG PRESS OPERATES out of a windowless loft in a converted boathouse on the swampy inner harbor of a Massachusetts fishing village, just around the corner from the town lobster barn. Founded five years ago by local writers Ira Wood and his wife, Marge Piercy, Leapfrog has gained national attention with books like Arne Tangherlini's and Richard Rosenthal's Rookie Cop. It may seem an improbable place for a publishing house, but this is Wellfleet, after all: a vacation spot so intellectually focused that its public library is a tourist attraction, a place so bookish that even the police force is run by an author. Rosenthal, who spent twenty years with the New York City Police Department before he came to town, says, "I put on my résumé that I was looking for a job in a low population-density town where I could work on my writing." He got the job, and thereby joined a long tradition of Wellfleet "wash-ashores" who ply their craft in splendid exile.

The town's literary history begins in 1855 with Henry David Thoreau. Lured by the rugged beauty of Cape Cod, he walked the region's outer beach, the "bared and bended arm of Massachusetts." At Wellfleet, he spent a night at a local oysterman's house and met a man known as the Wizard, one of the several eccentrics he encountered on his trip. The Wizard muttered curses between his teeth, and his words, "Damn book peddlers, all the time talking about books," reads like prophecy now. In the years since, this sheltered, tranquil seaside town has evolved into a place where artists and intellectuals work, play and chatter endlessly about books.  

With a cozy harbor facing Cape Cod Bay and most of its oceanfront an undeveloped public beach, Wellfleet is a town where the land, and the people who live on it, turn inward. About 20,000 years ago, a glacier from the Laurentide ice sheet etched the geological contours, leaving a chain of fresh- and saltwater ponds, as well as sand cliffs that reach 150 feet. The village itself, nestled in a sheltered hollow sloping down toward the sea, was settled in the seventeenth century, a little south of where the Pilgrims first landed at Provincetown. For centuries, the town teemed with whalers, fishermen, sail makers and boat builders. At the First Congregational Church, which overlooks the harbor, the bells still ring according to the mysterious dictates of ship's time: six cycles of eight bells throughout the day, the cycle repeating every four hours to coincide with the shifts of sailors standing watch.  

The arrival of literary critic Edmund Wilson fixed the town as a writer's destination. On his way to becoming one of America's preeminent men of letters, Wilson mentored Princeton classmate F. Scott Fitzgerald and introduced Vladimir Nabokov to America. The precocious young Wilson discovered Cape Cod in 1920, when, during an affair with poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, he followed her to Truro, a town up the shore, and—unsuccessfully—proposed marriage. His love affair with the lower Cape proved more enduring: In 1941 he and his third wife, Mary McCarthy, set up house in Wellfleet, just a few yards off Route 6, the Cape's notoriously congested main highway. They squabbled viciously and wrote voluminously until their divorce in 1945. Wilson remained a resident until he died in 1972, hosting writers like John Dos Passos, W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender (who was among those encouraged to etch poems and epigrams into the guest room window with a diamond-tipped pencil Wilson provided).  

As Wilson recounted in a letter, he knew well the languorous underside of Wellfleet: "the parties, the days at the beach, the picnics, the flirtations, the drinking spells, the interims of work between trips, the moldy days of winter by the stoves, the days of keeping going on a thin drip or trickle of income." Poet Charles Philbrick captured the town's bohemian languor, adding a pinch of collective self-dramatization: "We live on the fringes,/ Desperately,/On lobsters and gin, and the thunder of unbuyable verse." McCarthy had little use for such idling. After the divorce, she scorched Wellfleet (disguised by the name "New Leeds") and its milieu in her roman à clef, A Charmed Life. Much of the book's most corrosive scorn is reserved for the town's alcohol-drenched writers and artists, the "rustling freelancers" who came to "gather dust."

By midcentury, Wellfleet's prestige matched its Bohemiam pretensions. Intellectuals like literary critic Alfred Kazin and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., as well as hordes of vacationing psychiatrists and academics were swimming beneath the sand cliffs. Kiazin riffed on the scene in his sad and funny autobiographical essay "Wellfleet and the Beach of the Intellectuals." It's ostensibly a sketch of his marriage to a novelist, dissolving in cocktails, beautiful sunsets and urbane gossip, but the piece frames the cultural moment. Despite all the one-upsmanship and nature worship, Kazin notes, "how little, really, the intellectuals on the beach made of summer." And though his prose is in a different key than McCarthy's, he hits the same notes, skepticism and contentiousness.

Perhaps the tension between introversion and sociability is endemic to any literary community; as such, Welllfeet's club remains a little reticent and suspicious. Phillip Hamburger, a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1939 and a longtime seasonal Wellfleet resident, first visited the town as Wilson's friend. He's far from dreamy-eyed about the notion of an idyllic writerly scene. "Painters are more collegial," Hamburger says. "When you get a whole bunch of painters together, they're helpful. With writers, you get no solidarity and no mirth."

Still, hamburger has been returning to Wellfleet for three decades and is currently at work on a book there. In any case, the town is eminently casual. "During my first week of work, I walked in and [writer] Alison Lurie was sitting in a chair, reading," says Elaine McIlroy, director of the Wellfleet Public Library. "I knew then that I was in the right place. "As befits a bookish town with only two bookstores, the public library is a popular excursion. "For many regulars, it's the next stop after the beach, a place where year-round residents, seasonal tourists and weekend tourists bond, get integrated," she says. It also boasts a regular writers group and readings by locals such as Annie Dillard, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Stanley Kunitz and Marge Piercy.

Yet despite the creative energy and dressed-down urban sophistication ("By August, it seems like the entire New York intelligentsia falls into town as if on a giant inclined plane," says Wood), Wellfleet's distinction from other towns along Route 6 is its serenity. There's silence and solitude in Wellfleet even at the pinnacle of high season. That's a virtue whether you're working on a novel or just working on a suntan.

Copyright © Book Magazine
This article appeared on Page Seven in the issue of July/ August 17, 2001.

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