When Jane Austin Came to Town
Nantucket Essays Nantucket History & People

When Jane Austin Came to Town

Part 2: That’s Austin with an “i”

by James Grieder

According to off-island enthusiasts, visiting Nantucket was something like a trip to a living history museum. As with Rome, the ancient glory of Nantucket had faded, but its heritage remained. An article in Harper’s Magazine from that time drew a connection between Nantucket’s main product— whale oil for lighting—and the experience of the “good old days” that Nantucket now represented. Between the ages of “lusty barbarism” (lighted by tallow) on the one side and “overstrained and diseased civilization” (lighted by kerosene) on the other, stood Nantucket and the “golden age of reason”— lighted by whale oil. Nantucket’s predominantly Federalist-style homes embodied “all the Renaissance classicism of Andrea Palladio as reinterpreted by Inigo Jones, Christopher Wren, and Robert Adam, and then stripped down to its bare essentials for trans-Atlantic shipment, whence it found its way to the houses of American rum merchants and whaling captains. It was the École des Beaux Arts simplified—the grand formal orders of antiquity that America had long consigned to a cobwebby corner of the national attic and forgotten. Above all, it was restrained and dignified, calming, orderly, and elegant, an architecture worthy of the forward-looking, rationalistic culture of the America of the late nineteenth century.”

A prime example of this new kind of tourist was Jane Goodwin Austin, author of twenty-four books and numerous short stories. Austin’s most popular works were her Pilgrim stories, based on family lore, archival research, and a creative imagination, and she had an enormous impact of the national myth of Thanksgiving that is generally embraced today. In January of 1882, she published Nantucket Scraps: Being the Experiences of an Off-islander, in Season and Out of Season, Among a Passing People, describing her first visit to the island, followed by her return during the off-season in an effort to learn more about the “real” Nantucket.

Writing in the third person as “Mysie,” she begins with an experience familiar to most island visitors: the boat ride here. Mysie, who with the “selfish acumen of an old traveller” had secured one of the best seats up on deck “before the crowd perceived there were more sitters than seats.” Departing from New Bedford, the boat was uncomfortably crowded until it stopped at Oak Bluffs, where the vast majority of the passengers disembarked to, as Mysie described it, “herd together in gregarious hilarity.”

As they chugged along Nantucket’s north shore, “the only visible impertinence offered by man to Nature was the creaking and hissing boat and its freight of peanut-eaters. In the lovely dusk of the summer evening, the shores of Nantucket defined themselves with a stillness and dignity most comforting after the clamor of Oak Bluffs. Mysie makes a study of the wharves of Nantucket, and contrasts the “new smug pier, still smelling of cement, and with offensively square and unworn piles, and smart black chains innocent of rust or barnacle” with the far more interesting “creaking old wooden wharf, gapped all around like an old man’s teeth, and with half its boarding gone or loose, so that one feels, with a delicious thrill, that to stray down here on a dark night might end the genteel comedy of life with a bit of tragedy.”

Mysie cherished the cobbled streets of Nantucket, though “they are now somewhat uneven, and at occasional intervals are ground into powder by ages of use; although this peculiarity makes driving through the streets a somewhat heroic process, causing those still in possession of their own teeth to congratulate themselves upon the fact, no right-minded person would wish to see these alluvial cobbles give place to any modern innovation whatever.”

Staying at a boarding house on Pearl (now India) Street, she asked the family she was staying with what sights she should see during her stay on-island and was given a list that will be familiar to later visitors as well:

“What would you like to see first? There is the museum with the sperm whale’s jaw, and the bric-abrac shops, and the wharves, and the bathing-houses, and the Unitarian bell out of a Portuguese convent, and the graveyards, and the mill….” The ‘Oldest House’ was one of their destinations, although at the time “it was but a ghost of a house, with great holes in the roof, chasms in the chimney, no glass in the boarded windows, and all one angle so eaten away by the tooth of Time and the east wind that one might put one’s finger through what had once been solid oak, ..and grasp at the mouldered heart of the old home. Anything but nice…for it was very much decayed and out of shape; but…full of romantic and melancholy interest.”

Mysie seated herself on the “short worn turf, compacted by the pressure of the hundreds of feet…which in those two centuries had gone in and out over that sunken door-stone,” while her guide regaled her with garbled stories of the place—some still told today— “true perhaps, perhaps not—for yet another peculiarity of Nantucket is its utter apathy with regard to its own legends, and the impossibility of verifying them. One hears a vague and careless story from one person; and painfully seeking to amplify and establish it from other sources, is generally met with an indulgent smile, and ‘Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. Maybe it is so, but I don’t seem to know. Perhaps Grandma So-andso would know.’”

Returning to her boarding house after the walk, Mysie engaged with her hosts in a longstanding Nantucket tradition of lamenting the current sad state of the island compared to the good old days when “every door stood open, or at most latched, with the string hanging out; and every man, woman, and child felt a friendly interest in every other, and nobody was homeless or friendless, whatever happened to his own house or his own family…” The elder local continued: “In the new order of things dawning upon the shores of Nantucket, the Cliff has been seized upon by ‘strangers,’ who are putting up the regulation seaside villa in great numbers; and, out of compliment to the æsthetic taste of the day, painting it deep red, sunflower yellow, postman’s blue, or the deepest and muddiest chocolate to be bought for money.”

The Summer Boarder is “a new variety of the order Man,” according to Mysie, that evolved in the environment of a “crowded summer resort with such paucity of accommodation that it is only by bold and persistent warfare any one may acquire or keep a carriage, a dry bathing-house, a good seat at the table, unchipped cups, the attention of servants, or the earliest services of the laundress.” Upon arrival, they lay aside “all those restraints which under ordinary circumstances limit the exhibition of the natural instincts. The Summer Boarder neither feels nor feigns the slightest preference of his neighbor over himself; but calmly securing all that is desirable within his reach, casts a malevolent eye upon such matters as the neighboring Summer Boarder has secured for himself…

“Those who wish to dissect and classify the Summer Boarder will find an excellent field of observation and some splendidly developed specimens at Nantucket during the season; that is, during July, August, and part of September. The growth is abundant, the characteristics strongly marked, the conditions unusually favorable; for not more than half the persons thronging the island during the last two years could be comfortably accommodated, and there are few places where good humor, courtesy, and a contented spirit, or their reverse, find more opportunity to flourish.”

“Nantucket is quite right and perfectly honest, for each purchaser has eyes, hands, and should have judgment of his own. If he has not, Nantucket has studied the art of sheep-shearing for many years, and does it very skilfully and pleasantly. But Nantucket, like many other gentle and silent entities, is very shrewd; and although confessing freely that the Summer Boarder is profitable, she perceives and is keenly annoyed by such of his faults as touch herself, as for instance, his conviction that money buys everything, even the Dauphin, and heirloom silver; his intrusiveness, his noisiness and late hours, his general air of taking possession in the name of ‘big I’ of what may or may not belong of right to ‘little u;’ his ignorance of the island code of manners and speech, of the respective claims of island families and names, of traditions, of genealogy, of maritime matters, and of a thousand other things.”

“Already the old things have passed away from this once peculiar place, and the older people find no consolation in the renewal of material prosperity brought by the summer visitor to Nantucket.”

The next day, all of the traditional points of local interest having been visited, Mysie was convinced to take a trip on the island’s latest mode of transport, the Nantucket Railroad: “Yes, let us go to South Shore—to Surf Side, I mean,” said her guide, “the engine is named Dionis after the first Tristram Coffin’s wife, and when it whistles they say Dionis is shrieking at the invasion of Coofs.” Not everyone was in favor of the newfangled device. “Improvements are not always betterments,” said one of the senior folk in attendance, “in my day, the girls and I walked all the way to South Shore instead of down to the depot. Three miles out and three back, and then we were ready to dance all night, and go fishing next morning.”

Undeterred, Mysie and her companions set out for the station, where Dionis sat steaming on the rails. With a shriek of its whistle, the train slowly pulled away from the town depot, “past the crumbling, empty wharves, the deserted candleworks, the closed warehouses, once filled with oil and candles, or provisions for whaling vessels, that now look like the closed mausoleums of dead and buried prosperity.” Dionis made her leisurely trips back and forth every hour—“except of course when the train operators are getting their dinner, for on Nantucket the idea of one man being served at the expense of another man’s comfort or convenience has not yet superseded that notion of individual dignity and the individual’s right to himself and his time which is the quintessence of republicanism.

“So, on a glorious summer afternoon, Dionis, with a shriek of derisive laughter, deposited some fifty persons among the lumber of the incipient Station, Rink, and Refreshment House, and immediately backed herself to Nantucket, having no facilities for turning round, leaving the Squantum to its fate.” There wasn’t much in the way of shelter at Surfside for the visitors, simply “a tent with tables and benches, instead of the primitive arrangement of seats upon the sand, shingles for plates, and fingers for forks, incident to the good old times.”

The next day, Mysie departed for an extended stay in ‘Sconset, which at the time was considerably more remote from town than it is today. Earlier in the nineteenth century, ‘Sconset was the setting of a localized mini-tourism boom where well-to-do ship-owners, merchants and captains, along with their wives and children and perhaps a servant or two sought relief in the summer from the then-bustling cobbled streets of Nantucket Town. But new accomodations were required— “The little mob of cottages setting to each other upon the brow of the cliff offered no fitting accommodation for these magnates, even had there been enough in number, and they proceeded to erect a sort of marine villa as different from the impertinences of today as they were from the huts of the whale observers, being plain, comfortable houses, painted with many coats of white or Quaker-brown paint, with green blinds, a piazza in front, and a ‘walk’ on top, and a little stable to shelter an excellent horse, absolutely necessary for a family living seven miles from its home or any sort of market.”

With the collapse of the whaling industry, the magnates departed, and a second wave of local tourists with houses in town built more modest dwellings between the ‘marine villas’ and the old fishing shacks. “But now, since 1880, another change has come upon ‘Sconset; now the hardy fisherman upon the cliff finds that he can make more money by renting his cottage to the summer boarder, and himself going ‘down town’ for change of air, than by living quietly at home.

“Like the rest of the island, or even more than other localities, this hamlet is fast hastening to destruction, that paradoxical destruction born of prosperity. It was built, or rather a few fishing-houses for occasional use were built, in 1676, and for two hundred years it bore a character all its own, as distinctly flavored, and to the appreciative palate as piquant and delicious, as that one squantum clam. But, alas! the world has found it out, has laid its degrading and commonplace grasp upon it; and the beginning of the end already stares one in the face…”

It was on the trip to ‘Sconset that Mysie “first saw the Nantucket moors.” A brief stop to pick wildflowers ended with “an unconsidered scream from her friend’s lips, who pointed at Mysie’s skirts and gasped, ‘Ticks!’ Undoubtedly that impromptu embroidery, looking as if it were done in brown beads, but with the novel feature in embroidery of a constantly changing pattern, was ticks. When they returned to their lodging the tick check, still familiar to visitors and locals today, began: ‘I counted mine as I drowned them,’ said one, ‘and there were a hundred and thirteen.’ ‘I measured mine instead of counting,’ replied Mysie, not to be outdone. ‘How much do you fancy a wash basin holds? Mine is full.’ ”

Wandering around the village of ‘Sconset, Mysie came upon an ancient man, sitting on a bench on the bluff and looking through a spy-glass. Assuming he was a retired captain, she said, “I suppose you are quite in the habit of coming out here to look for wrecks, are you not?” The old man snorted his response, “I’ve only been here once in my life, and I hope it’ll be the last, for a nastier hole I never did see.” His home was in South Boston by way of Ireland, and that’s where he’d rather have been: “an elegant view of the harbor and forty-eight ferry-boats a day and a street-band three times a week in the Square,” and all other needed conveniences close at hand; “what made me girls think of coming to this heathen old place, beats me.”

The Boston visitor may have been disappointed but Mysie was charmed, and resolved to return in the off-season to discover the ‘real’ Nantucket. The real Nantucket would reveal itself only after the crowds had faded away; locals made themselves scarce when tourists thronged the streets and lanes of the island.

Making arrangements for the late fall excursion, Mysie soon encountered the first difference from the “in season”—finding somewhere to stay. “The very Nantucketers who had most patiently entertained the Summer Boarder during his appointed period were most resolute in having nothing to do with him when that period was over.”

The steamship ride to Nantucket was very different from Mysie’s last trip— in addition to the long, rolling journey across the Sound in foul weather, the boat was virtually empty except for “laborers of one sort and another, simply using this boat as a means of transit to and from their labors…And yet the discomfort and solitude filled her with exulting visions of a Nantucket purified from Summer Boarder and no longer impregnable.”

When Mysie arrived at the wharf in Nantucket, “the wharves had an oddly deserted look, and the dark waters leaped higher about them, preparing for the winter storms, in which they often rise and take back the territory man has stolen from them.” Nevertheless, she “found it all that she had hoped, more than she had expected. The streets were empty and quiet, the few pedestrians briskly going about their business; nobody lounging, nobody looking in at shop-windows, nobody staring vacantly about in search of some indefinite wonder. Several of the shops were closed…this class of merchants take their own holiday during the offseason, either going on ‘the continent’ to visit their friends, or retiring into private life and resting in change of work.”

The railroad engine Dionis was “laid up for the winter, her dismal shriek giving place to the wintry wind howling across the moors in prophecy of a storm. ‘How do you get to Surf Side without the railroad?’ inquired she of an ancient and fish-like wanderer around the deserted station. ‘Same way as we did afore we ever see a railroad,’ replied he, with a friendly grin: ‘foot it, or hire a team, or get a lift in somebody else’s.’ An off-season stay in ‘Sconset—if one could even get there— was out of the question, for “while in summer two large hotels and nearly all the cottages of the hamlet are offered to the public not only willingly but eagerly, in the winter it is all but impossible for an unfortunate coof to find shelter or welcome. The hotels are closed, the families who took boarders have either gone ‘to town’ for their own recreation, or are resting from their labors and annoyances, and loathe the face of a summer visitor.”

Remaining in town, “a few more quiet days were spent in paying parting visits to certain persons and places of whom and of which Mysie had grown fond. One of these was the Athenæum, one of the principal buildings in Nantucket, and one of the most interesting. Here is the hall where ‘Patience’ is played, and where the peripatetic lecturer delivers one of his two discourses for the current season; here also the more stately dancing parties are held, and any other solemn assembly for which people are ready to pay a serious entrance fee…The librarian is a lady whose courteous and charming manner and ready interest in her visitors adds an attraction to this pleasant retreat, too often lacking in more pretentious institutions… The hall is a very pleasant reading-room, where one may see the latest magazines and take what book one likes from the shelves, or consult dictionaries and encyclopædias without formality.”

Mysie signed the guest book—or rather, the “Book of Strangers” back then— when she visited in August 1877, using her real name, Jane Goodwin Austin, one of hundreds of visitors over the years who have left a note of their passing in multiple volumes stored safely in the vault at the Atheneum. Goodwin’s historical novels, written later in her career, were published as the Pilgrims were increasingly gaining fame—Standish of Standish, for example, was published in 1889, just after the famed National Monument to the Forefathers was completed. A copy of Nantucket Scraps, Austin’s travelogue of her visit to Nantucket, is available for reading in the Atheneum’s Great Hall collection. That venerable institution, the Nantucket Atheneum, continues to welcome residents and visitors alike, serving as an oasis of calm in the orderly chaos of a typical Nantucket summer day; the source of a wide variety of programs intended to enrich the cultural and intellectual lives of its patrons; and a public space for the community where all are welcome.

Articles by Date from 2012