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Why Write a Biography of Henry Beston?

While The Outermost House is, as Robert Finch writes, a work “established on imperishable foundations,” Beston’s fear that he would be remembered for that book alone has proven to be unfounded. The continued appeal of Beston’s other work has been borne out by the recent reissue of several of his books, including Herbs and the Earth, Northern Farm, The St. Lawrence, and Chimney Farm Bedtime Stories, and by the designation of Chimney Farm as a Literary Landmark in August 2012. At times, Beston’s take on the link between humankind and the land can seem elegiacally agrarian in its romantic appreciation of rural life (he sometimes referred to himself as a Virgilian in his outlook) but more often his critique of modern civilization is still remarkably current, even prescient, in a world where political and religious extremism, and corporate industrialism on a global scale has spawned a more violent, materialistic, and pessimistic humankind that searches—often in very odd places—for hope and spiritual solace. The keystone to our well-being as individuals and as a species, Beston believed, is in the elemental presences of the world; the cycles of the seasons, the sky above us, the waters around us, and the beloved earth beneath our feet. As he wrote in the foreword to the 1949 edition of The Outermost House: “Once again, I set down the core of what I continue to believe. Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man. When the Pleiades and the wind in the grass are no longer a part of the human spirit, a part of very flesh and bone, man becomes, as it were, a kind of cosmic outlaw, having neither the completeness and integrity of the animal nor the birthright of a true humanity. As I once said elsewhere, ‘Man can either be less than man or more than man, and both are monsters, the last more dread’.”

It is, in a sense, unfortunate for Henry Beston’s literary reputation that he is so strongly identified with this one classic book, for it has overshadowed his other works, several of which are also outstanding. As Sherman Paul writes in For Love of the World: Essays on Nature Writers, “Beston should figure for us as a writer of several works, not just The Outermost House.” In 1960, when Beston became the third recipient of the Emerson-Thoreau Medal awarded by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences—the first two writers to be so honored were Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot—the award was, as always, given in honor of the writer’s total literary achievement, not just one work. It should also be emphasized that while Beston’s most well-known works are generally associated with Cape Cod or Maine, his work transcends local or regional significance. Henry Beston is clearly a product of New England’s great literary tradition, however, he can only be considered a local or regional writer in the same sense that Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, et al. are local writers; they are writers in whose work close observations about a specific place build into universal truths concerning humankind and the world around us. Robert Finch, another outstanding writer about Cape Cod, stated in his introduction to the 1988 edition of The Outermost House that it is astonishing that no biography on Beston has yet been written. When one considers how many great modern writers were admirers of Beston—including Rachel Carson, Sylvia Plath, Kurt Vonnegut, and John Hay, to name just a few—this does seem to be rather surprising to say the least. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that Beston was not a prolific writer. He wrote slowly, taking great pains to create prose where “sound and sense” work together seamlessly. What Beston may have sacrificed in quantity, however, he made up with quality— as a prose stylist, his work is exemplary; his books and essays are models of clear, concise writing. Few writers have managed to capture the rhythms of the English language as lyrically as did Beston. As one of his contemporaries, the literary critic and essayist Van Wyck Brooks states in From the Shadow of the Mountain, if modern literary critics truly appreciated the aesthetics of writing “there would be no writers more critically esteemed than Henry Beston or Rachel Carson or Loren Eiseley.”

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