Among the Isles of Shoals: On Celia Thaxter’s Sense of Place

Unknown Photographer, Celia Thaxter, 1835-1894

Among the Isles of Shoals, in addition to serving as regional writing and nature writing, was also published as nineteenth century travel writing. Celia Thaxter’s charming prose, written in a collection of essays, was issued seasonally in the Atlantic in four installments during 1869, and were later published collectively in 1873 with twenty-eight reprinted editions, including a guidebook for fifty cents in 1877. They appeared together in a composition of what could be described as the work of an artistic documentarian, on the subject of an enchanted island people.

Thaxter’s volume, framed as travel writing, reads as an invitation for escape to an idyllic seascape peopled by an imagined folk, and specifically an invitation issued to a select audience for the purpose of commercial profit.  These tiny islands, nine in all, are set apart from the mainland of New Hampshire and Maine by nine miles of sea, which added to their mystery, desirability, and even celebrity during the flourishing late nineteenth century tourist industry in the New England region.  Seven of these islands are highlighted by Thaxter and include Appledore, Smuttynose, Star, White, Seaveys,  Londoners, Malaga, Cedar, and Duck.

Postcard, Celia Thaxter’s Cottage, Isles of Shoals

Of those, Thaxter’s father, Thomas,  owned Appledore Island and built a large hotel named “Appledore House,” on it to accommodate over 160 guests there during the high season each year.  Thaxter owned her own cottage, as well, where she developed a tiny salon culture that included the Boston art and literary circle of friends who visited the Isles of Shoals to see her during the summer.  In particular, James and Annie Fields, of Ticknor and Fields Publishing in Boston, visited and encouraged Thaxter, by then a poet, to write about the Isles of Shoals with the intention of publishing her recollections.  

It was after Thaxter became invested in her own literary celebrity, that she established a context for the Isles of Shoals which is shrouded in romantic, elegant, and grand language. Her prose style helps to characterize the native islanders primarily through the nature and landscape of the region in a cyclical manner, which signify the beginning and ending points of each of her four original essays.  Altogether, she creates an artistic literary composition that renders a region illuminated by her personal responses to nature in all its seasons, almost as selling points for the privileged visitor who might afford to seek travel to a destination that she prescribes as an elixir.

 

Postcard, Appledore House, Isles of Shoals

As Thaxter begins with an account of the people of the Isles of Shoals, or “Shoalers,” she sets herself apart from them, even as she describes her impressions of her own life there.  Thaxter writes from the perspective of an onlooker, rather than an inhabitant, which signifies her narrative voice with the authority of a tour guide.  The native islanders are also described in such a way as to present them to the reader as authentic, as she alludes to their unique qualities that align them with other travel destinations, which implies an opportunity for the privileged traveler to experience something akin to the grand European country tour in a nearby New England region.

Thaxter uses her literary talents to create visual compositions for her readers that depict the effects of the local islanders upon visitors as something to be obtained, if only in memory for their diaries or sentiments expressed upon postcards.  In this, the use of nature imagery, especially as it pertains to the sea and the weather, help to underscore the unusual qualities of the island inhabitants and also create more allure for the possible visitor, who might appropriate something of the “folk” or the “indigenous” to bring home with them after a visit to the Isles of Shoals, as a kind of keepsake from their enlightened travel experience.

Unknown Photographer, Celia Thaxter in her garden, Isles of Shoals, 1892

The speech and disposition of the island “folk” adds more to the characterization of the New England regional landscape that a traveler might discover on the Isles of Shoals, as Thaxter points out that, “The local pronunciation of the Shoalers is very peculiar, and a shrewd sense of humor is one of their leading characteristics,” which again forwards the people of the region as aligned with the preservation of an old-fashioned New England experience.  Additionally, her account ordains the Isles of Shoals as the God-given respite for the weary urban dweller. 

Thaxter writes, “But to the human creature who has eyes that will see and ears that will hear, nature appears with such novel a charm, that the luxurious beauty of the land is half-forgotten before one is aware.”  Thaxter further invokes the blessings of the ethereal qualities of the islands when she writes, “But if summer is a laggard in her coming, she makes up for it  by the loveliness of her lingering into autumn; for when the pride of the trees and flowers is despoiled by frost on shore, the little gardens here are glowing at their brightest, and day after day of mellow splendor drops like a benediction from the hand of God.”

Childe Hassam, Celia Thaxter in Her Garden, 1892

Indeed, Thaxter’s literary composition of the Isles of Shoals may be likened to a landscape painting, but it is more specifically neither a sort of history painting, nor a pastoral painting, but rather, a genre painting — with all the rural qualities of atmosphere dotted here and there along with the imagery of the island people moving about in their daily lives.  The nineteenth century artist, Childe Hassam, also enthusiastically appropriated the jagged rocks, the colorful gardens, and the lovely shorelines of the Isles of Shoals for his contributions to American Impressionist landscape painting.

But it is the writing of Thaxter, who carefully crafts the essence of the “Shoaler,” as they are molded and shaped by the nature and landscape of the Isles of Shoals to stand as models for her imagination, that depicts the Isles of Shoals from her own memories and experiences.  In each of her vignettes, as in differing snapshots from a stereoscope, Thaxter describes “Shoalers” in the many ways that the islands themselves have shaped and formed them.  To visit there, then, is to experience something of a God ordained Eden peopled by a wholesome village life.

Stereoscope Image, Appledore Island, Isles of Shoals, nd

There can be no doubt that Thaxter’s own love affair with the Isles of Shoals is demonstrated in her romanticized view of New England regional living “among” the Isles of Shoals, as she clearly expresses herself to her readership, throughout Among the Isles of Shoals.  One of her earlier poems, “Land-Locked,” concentrates on longing for her return to this particular New England region, after so many seasons away from there, while married and living with her family in the Boston area. 

Again, it is specifically the strong emotional attachment that she feels, which is so evident in Among the Isles of Shoals, through her skilled use of nature and landscape imagery as she writes, “O wistful eyes, that watch the steadfast hill,/ Longing for level line of solemn sea!” and “To feel the wind, sea-scented, on my cheek,/ To catch the sound of the dusky flapping sail,” which again, exemplifies Thaxter’s attuned sensory perception in her writing that focuses on her lamentation over a life lived between “on” and “off” the Isles of Shoals.

 

Stereoscope Image, Summer Regattas, Isles of Shoals, nd

“Among” suits Thaxter best, however, since later in life she lived only on the Isles of Shoals during the summer season, when her friends visited her to sample some of what she describes in her poems and essays.  Her detached life from the “Shoalers,” with whom she once counted herself a native islander in the days of her childhood and young adulthood, had passed into her personal history, which she reflects upon in her volume if only to briefly account for herself as “among.”

Thaxter writes an invitation for readers with means to secure funds for distant travel with no small expense for an island vacation.  Regattas and other leisure activities for upper classes were available in summer months, but contrasted the difficulty of wintering on the islands.  For Thaxter, the off-season is always relieved by the dawn of the warmer sea air and the promise of a summer spent on islands, when, “what happiness was mine as the deepening rose-color flushed the delicate cloudflocks that dappled the sky, where gulls soared, rosy too, while the calm sea blushes beneath” and accompanied by a “perfect sense of bliss.”

Stereoscope Image, Isles of Shoals, nd

Always, Thaxter returns to cloaking the inhabitants on the Isles of Shoals in nature imagery, even through a veiled apology in the very last of her words on the subject of the Isles of Shoals, “It is to be hoped that a little rill from the tide of emigration which yearly sets from those countries toward America may finally people the unoccupied portions of the Shoals with a colony that will be a credit to New England.”  The sights and sounds of nature that lure the reading audience of the periodicals, so popular in late nineteenth century America, to the shores of the Isles of Shoals is attached to the indigenous people there, through the mystery, desirability, and even celebrity that Thaxter’s prose creates.

Among the Isles of Shoals: On Celia Thaxter’s Sense of Place, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020. All references, citations, sources, and bibliographies are available upon request. 

Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from Wise Welsh Witch.

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