On the beach, where the sea wets the land, boundary disputes and ambiguities naturally pile up with bladderwrack and plastic bottles. The seaman looks anxiously to his depth sounder as he closes with the shore, for land is always dangerous to ships, while the landsman fears the water—the tide fanning out at speed over the level sands, the undertow, the deep. The law of the land gets into trouble when it reaches the ocean, often being hard put to it to say where the land is, or if the land is. Here on the Pacific Northwest coast, for instance, whose mixed diurnal and semidiurnal tides work in a lolloping daily rhythm of high-high-water, low-low-water, low-high-water, and high-low-water, the state of Washington holds title to the inshore seabed “up to and including the line of ordinary high tide,” which would be a tidy definition, except that no such thing as an ordinary high tide has ever been witnessed in these parts.
Legally, socially, morally, the beach is a marginal zone to which marginal people tend to gravitate, and where respectable folk tend to behave in marginal and eccentric ways. The best beach architecture reflects the limbo-like character of the place. In David Copperfield, Mr. Peggotty’s residence on the sand at Yarmouth has long since ceased to be a ship but has not yet entirely become a house. Author and illustrator are at odds over what sort of an object it is:Dickens describes it as a stranded barge, right side up; Phiz pictures it as an upturned boat. The discrepancy is a happy one, for everything about Peggotty’s “ship-looking thing” is importantly discrepant—his apparent wife is not his wife, his stable family, seated snugly round the fire, turns out to be an assortment of stray widows and orphans. The warmth and solidity of their domestic interior, crowded with knick-knacks, freshly painted and “beautifully clean,” are pitched against the “great dull waste” of the sands outside. That a wrecked ship should serve as a welcoming lighted haven from the cold and storm of early nineteenth-century England is a wonderful, paradoxical transformation of a kind that could happen on the outermost fringe of society—on the beach.
So the Prince Regent, later George IV, built his astonishing royal pavilion beside the sea at Brighton. Many years later an aged courtier, Lord Pitt-Lennox, fondly remembered George as “that mighty magician, who, Aladdin-like, raised a magnificent town from a small insignificant fishing village.” (Thackeray, born in 1811, the first year of the regency, recalled him as “Swaddled in feather beds all his life, lazy, obese, perpetually eating and drinking,” and referred to the pavilion as “the Prince’s hideous house at Brighton.”) The pavilion was—outlandish. Its onion domes reminded early guidebook writers of the Kremlin, its stables were “Indian,” its furnishings a riot of chinoiserie. Recreations there were famously dissipated in the Byronic style of cards, women, wine, and laughter (sermons and soda-water the day after). The Prince’s chief architects—first Humphrey Repton, then John Nash—were paid to let their fancies fly. Working down on the coast, they were unbridled by the conventions that helped to tame their designs in London and the genteel shires. On Brighton beach there were no existing buildings with which the new pavilion had to blend, no local arbiters of taste to protest the excesses of the plan. The result was a pure seaside extravaganza, a forerunner of Coney Island, a monument to the beach as a territory of extraordinary license.
On a subtler scale of marginal behavior, there is Henry James, on holiday at Etretat in 1876. James disliked the sea but loved the seaside, a significant distinction. At Newport, Palm Beach, Cannes, Hastings, he wrote appreciatively of places where the land was “exquisitely modified by marine influences” and where the “habit of pleasure” was developed under the “pressure of luxury and idleness.” At Etretat, the novelist wore a white flannel fishermen’s cap (“these articles may be extolled for their coolness, convenience and picturesqueness”) and canvas shoes. Reclining on the pebbly beach, he watched “Mademoiselle X., the actress of the Palais Royal Theatre” take to the water from a plunging-board.
She wears a bathing-dress in which, as regards the trousers, even what I have called the minimum has been appreciably scanted; but she trips down, surveying her liberated limbs. “C’est convenable, j’espère, hein?” says Mademoiselle, and trots up the spring-board which projects over the waves with one end uppermost, like a great see-saw. She balances a moment, and then gives a great aerial dive, executing on the way the most graceful of somersaults. This performance the star of the Palais Royal repeats during the ensuing hour, at intervals of five minutes, and leaves you, as you lie tossing little stones into the water, to consider the curious and delicate question why a lady may go so far as to put herself into a single scant clinging garment and take a straight leap, head downward, before three hundred spectators, without violation of propriety—and why impropriety should begin only when she turns over in the air in such a way that for five seconds her head is upwards. The logic of the matter is mysterious; white and black are divided by a hair. But the fact remains that virtue is on one side of the hair and vice on the other. There are some days here so still and radiant, however, that it seems as if vice itself, steeped in such an air and such a sea, might be diluted into innocence.
To find James going on so waggishly about the brevity of a young woman’s trousers is itself a significant example of seaside license, if not quite in the royal pavilion class. In the somersaulting actress, he hits on the embodiment of the ambiguous, topsy-turvy character of the sea coast, where inland values and meaning are apt to be inverted and diluted by marine influences.
In literature, painting, and movies, the beach has long figured as a dangerous edge where social rules grow lax and where the land is vulnerable to foreign ideas, as to foreign invasion. It is the scene of extravagant pleasure, tragedy, dramatic confrontation, self-knowledge, crime. From King Lear to Brighton Rock, Key Largo to Atlantic City, sands, cliffs, piers, waterfronts represent the extreme margin of society. What is surprising is that historians and sociologists have generally preferred to stay well inland of this fascinating area, and until now, with the exception of a handful of anecdotal histories like Anthony Hern’s useful small book, The Seaside Holiday (1967), the coast has been pretty well clear.
First published in French in 1988, Alain Corbin’s the Lure of the Sea is a compact and brilliant taxonomy of the shifting meanings of the sea and shore between the mid-seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. Corbin, who is a professor of history at the Sorbonne, is evidently fond of margins:his last book to be translated into English was Women for Hire, which was both a scholarly history and a libertarian defense of prostitution. In The Lure of the Sea he roams, with an air of devastating familiarity, through writing in Latin, English, French, and German, through poems, travel memoirs, journals, and philosophy, generalizing stylishly as he goes along. That the academic English into which the book has been translated by Jocelyn Phelps still retains a powerful Gallic accent only adds to the impression that one is witnessing a great lecture-hall performance by one of those Parisian scholars whose chief business it is to dazzle with provoking insouciance.
He moves at speed, though never too fast to relish a paradox or tease a deep signification from a passing phrase. He conducts the reader from a theocentric interpretation of the shore as the line drawn by God’s finger after the Flood, through the sea as experienced by neoclassical travelers on the Grand Tour, to the beloved sea of the Romantic poets and the growth of the popular seaside resort that came in their wake. Corbin is especially good at compressing a whole cast of mind into a few sentences. Describing the beach as the manifestation of the power of a benevolent god, for instance, he writes:
The biblical text magnifies the paradoxical strength of the sands. It focuses attention on the shoreline, and fills it with meaning. Nowhere else do the power and goodness of the Creator appear so clearly as on the beach that still bears the imprint of his finger. This most astonishing miracle is constantly being fulfilled. For the Christian, the threatening wave is merely a reminder of misfortune and the Fall. The line where it breaks arouses astonishment, and fosters admiration and thanksgiving. For the Christian, the curve of the wave in the presence of divine omnipotence, as it becomes calm and ebbs away, evokes a gesture of respect.
Corbin’s beachgoers all treat the shore as a source of important knowledge:they take themselves to the water’s edge in order to learn—about God, then about ancient history and modern fortifications, then about the “primordial” characters who make their livings from the sea. In the Romantic period, they went to the beach to gain self-knowledge. Even the ritual of therapeutic sea-bathing (which began to be touted as a cure-all in the 1670s) was for most people a terrifying educational experience. An attendant was employed to force the bather’s head below the waves:
Brutal immersion head first in water at a temperature of 12 to 14 degrees brings about an intense shock. This practice was part of the technique for toughening the patient, as Michel Foucault once described it. It is reminiscent of tempering steel. The process acts on the diaphragm, considered the seat of sensibility…this was a means of toughening young girls who suffered from dangerously pale complexions; it got them accustomed to being exposed to the elements, and prepared them for the emotions and pains of puberty, as well as the sufferings of childbirth.
The history of the coast (at least since the early eighteenth century) is inseparable from the history of tourism. Corbin tracks the Grand Tourists, accompanied by their tutors, on their pilgrimage to the shores of the Mediterranean, where they tramped round the designated classical ruins, sketched the military architecture of the major harbors and sought out the vantage points (these were listed in guide-books) that would put them, as it were, in front of the easel supporting a painting by Claude Lorrain or Salvator Rosa. They went to see what had been seen many times before, and whose meaning had been already firmly established by better minds than their own—and they went in groups, for the lone traveler is inevitably at a disadvantage when what he seeks is essentially public knowledge. Corbin locates the beginning of industrialized mass tourism in the neoclassical “picturesque code,” and identifies the Romantic insistence on solitary adventure and solitary sensation as, in part, a turning-away in disgust from the upper-class coach-party trips of the previous age.
The visit to the lonely shore became an exercise in self-discovery and self-expression. “The ocean’s vastness became a metaphor for the individual’s fate, and made of the beach a fine line marked by the rhythms of the water, which were in turn driven by the lunar cycle; treading this line became an invitation to reassess one’s life.” The problem with this kind of private communion with the deep lay in communicating the intensity of one’s experience to one’s fellows. Byron (“And I have loved thee, Ocean!”) used his pen; less talented folk used their bodies. “Unprecedented ways of standing or posturing on the beach or of sitting or lying on the sand were the signs of this deepening of the quest.” So the prized solitude of the Romantic traveler was not so solitary after all.
From late in the seventeenth century to early in the nineteenth, the attractions of the beach steadily accumulated, and Corbin makes an amusing inventory of things that drew tourists to the sea some twenty years before the generation of Byron, Shelley, Heine came on the scene and swept all before them:
A look at the popular journals devoted to the world of the sea and published during the last forty years of the [eighteenth] century shows the fascination exerted by the shore and the powerful evocativeness of this theatre of the void criss-cross with shadows:it was a kaleidoscope that juggled composite mosaics and created fleeting series of characters, stony men who had not changed since the times of the bards and the Druids, virgin priestesses of Belenus, strong-blooded barbarians whose ferocity satisfied readers’ sadistic sides, heroic rescuers, anxious women gathering the sea’s manna on the strand and the rocks and awaiting the fishermen’s return, and the moving spectacle of young girls questioning the sea-gulls about the destiny of their beloved. All these polysemous figures nourished the contemplation and reverie that filled tourists’ souls and which had already been refreshed by the legends collected from the shore-hauler’s mouth or from the old fisherman. In short, the quality of the place, at the meeting-point of sea, sky, and land, facilitated the mingling of images and an additional feeling of travelling through time and space. It was a springboard for the imagination, producing a body of literature and painting whose richness between 1810 and 1840 exceeded that of rustic imagery.
When Corbin takes leave of his subject, in 1840, railway lines run from London and Paris to the beach resorts. The ship-like architecture of the new coastal town is in place, with its passenger-deck promenades and its line of boarding houses and hotels fused into a single white superstructure above the sea. The modern seaside—the product of a complex braid of ideas going back some two hundred years—is under way.
It is with high hopes that one opens John Stilgoe’s study of the American coastal edge, Alongshore. Stilgoe, who is a professor of landscape history at Harvard, has a good track record. He has published three substantial books on the impact that Americans have made on their environment, and his last one, Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820-1939, dealt with the ambiguous margin between the city and the country in a way that might have been a rehearsal for dealing with the even more ambiguous margin between the land and the sea. In Alongshore he sensibly focuses on his own home stretch of shoreline—and he is extraordinarily lucky to live where he does. The twenty miles of coast between Gurnet Point and Strawberry Point on Massachusetts Bay is a fascinating configuration of water, sand, architecture, and salt marsh. Between the towns of Cohasset to the north and Duxbury to the south lies a maze of shoals and bars, gluey mud, sandspits, dog’s-leg channels where the tide runs fast and dangerously, brackish creeks, beaches, dunes, and lagoon-like pools of sheltered water. Local industries range from tourism and fishing to national security and the drug trade. It would be hard to find on a world atlas a better place to write about as a test-case sample of seaside life.
In his introduction, Stilgoe announces Alongshore as a “personal book”—which means, unfortunately, that he has put aside the lucid expository prose of his earlier work and set up shop as an unbuttoned stylist. His writing here seesaws between the sonorous and the whimsical. He describes himself as “the barefoot historian,” though when he was a fully-dressed historian his prose was far plainer than it is in Alongshore. He likes to rummage at leisure through his dictionaries, searching for antique and dialect words like “marge,” “glim,” “dipsey,” “guzzle,” which he then proceeds to work to death. “Gunkhole” (a small muddy anchorage) is already a threadbare old favorite of the boating magazines; Stilgoe makes a great fuss over his discovery of it, equips it with a deeply suspect etymology, and uses it, on average, once every eighty-five words for the next ten pages. When he writes of “explorers and mariners gunkholing their way [from Europe] to America,” he robs the poor word of what little meaning it has left: the explorers and mariners might as well be said to have found their way to America on pogo sticks.
The prevailing tone of Alongshore is well caught in a sentence that deals ostensibly with the sale of thrillers in beach resorts:
How tourists can be pleased to learn that among the locals lurk drug smugglers, thieves, and murderers remains a deep unreached by dipsey lead, something the barefoot historian ponders frequently between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
The pompous syntax, showy alliteration, the drollery, pipe-sucking, and disabling self-consciousness are the stylistic signature of the book: Stilgoe loves language, but handles it with such clumsiness that it’s not to be trusted in his keeping.
Some of the merits of his previous books survive here. He has developed a useful scattershot approach for targeting slippery and elusive subjects. Short, copiously illustrated chapters on topics that bear more or less indirectly on the main theme are assembled in a way that seems arbitrary until you realize that the center is being defined by its periphery. If Stilgoe were to draw a man, he’d start with the hands and the feet. So in Alongshore there are chapters on swimsuits, piracy, coastal defenses, boat design, the rise of the outboard motor, quicksands, the color chartreuse, and so on. Now Stilgoe is inland, now he’s out at sea—as he moves around his subject, crossing and recrossing it, the line of the coast gradually emerges; though the resulting picture is a lot more blurred here than were his portraits of the suburbs in Borderland and of the railroad communities in Metropolitan Corridor.
He raises many good questions, but answers them in a weirdly offbeam way. Alongshore begins with a fierce assault on the word seascape. “Seascape cannot properly designate the subject of this book, for all that its cousin landscape proves useful in designating land shaped by people for their own needs and in classifying certain sorts of pictures or views. The whole concept of seascape reeks of lubberly bias.” The dictionaries are consulted (Webster’s, Century, the 1891 Adeline’s Art Dictionary), and Stilgoe concludes that seascape was a mid-nineteenth century British neologism, a pretentious word for a pretentious object—a picture of the sea drawn by a non-seagoer from a stable perch ashore. Thackeray is brought in as a witness:in “A Shabby Genteel Story” aCockney dauber named Andrea Fitch is found on the cliff at Margate, blathering about “yonder tempestuous hocean in one of its hangry moods” as he sketches “a land or a sea-scape” (the hyphen is a Stilgoe addition to Thackeray’s original text). “In a few sentences, Thackeray ridicules the ostentation of seascape.”
That is nonsense. The word was not a neologism in the mid-nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary (which doesn’t seem to have a place on Stilgoe’s shelf) cites the Hull Advertiser, 1799: “One of the most eminent marine painters has painted sea-skips.” In “A Shabby Genteel Story,” Thackeray ridicules the person of the painter but has nothing whatever to say about either the word “seascape” or the genre it denotes.
Yet the appearance of the word in English, somewhere toward the end of the eighteenth century, was an important event in the evolving history of the coast, and Stilgoe is right to draw attention to it. “Marine painting” meant pictures of ships and harbors. In the work of the Van de Veldes and Dominic Serres, for instance, the water itself is a secondary element in the composition and often looks as stiff as if it were molded in plaster of paris. As Alain Corbin demonstrates, the sea was becoming increasingly interesting during the course of the century as a subject in its own right. A new word was needed to distinguish between marine paintings and paintings whose main focus was on the turbulent water, the translucence of a cresting wave—paintings in which ships, if they were present at all, were there to be overwhelmed by the greater majesty of the sea, like Turner’s The Shipwreck (1805).
The OED’s second citation is from A Guide to Watering Places (1806), which commends a hotel with “a fine sea-scape from a terrace in the garden.” As the Grand Tourists had used to view harbors from a scenic overlook through a Claude Glass, and so turn them into living paintings, now, nearly a hundred years later, the sea itself had become a legitimate object of mental picture-making. Seascapes—both as canvases and as views from the terrace—were all the rage, and the pursuit of seascape, even before the word was coined, had begun to drive fishermen, boatbuilders, and other traditional shore-dwellers from their old quarters, as the leisure industries seized hold of the best beaches. In Sanditon (1817), Jane Austen registered the dramatic change in value of waterfront property, from worthless desert to prime real estate. Bournemouth, which began life in 1810, was, like Sanditon, a town built around a seascape.
Why does Stilgoe so detest the word? Any serious reckoning with “seascape” would lead one to the fact that the coast has been importantly shaped by the tourist industry for the last 250 years. Alongshore might usefully have considered the question of how far the development of the American seaside kept in step with its British and European counterparts; but Stilgoe’s earliest substantial reference is to Thoreau’s beachcombing in Cape Cod (1865), which is altogether too late for the purpose. According to the Encyclopedia Americana, Newport, Rhode Island, became a beach resort in the years immediately following the War of Independence, when it lost its strategic value as a naval station—which would make it younger than Scarborough and a few years older than Brighton. Stilgoe, though, seems in this book to be a historian with little interest in history, and his disregard for the past enables him to invent it at his convenience.
Like so many other writers about the coast, he affects a tone of routine threnody and his book takes the form of a lament for yesteryear—for lost crafts and industries, lost places, lost people. It’s always the conceit of such writers that the golden age of the beach existed within living memory and that its fall from grace has happened as a result of very recent industrial, social, or bureaucratic upheavals. Since 1800, the beach has been a place for children, and everybody likes to think that his or her own childhood belonged to a larger age of innocence. So Edmund Gosse in 1907 conjured the glory of the Devonshire rockpools of his boyhood, only to reveal that no one would ever see them again as he had seen them.
If the Garden of Eden had been situate in Devonshire, Adam and Eve, stepping lightly down to bathe in the rainbow-coloured spray, would have seen the identical sights that we now saw—the great prawns gliding like transparent launches, anthea waving in the twilight its thick white waxen tentacles, and the fronds of the dulse faintly streaming on the water, like huge red banners in some reverted atmosphere.
All this is long over, and done with. The ring of living beauty drawn about our shores was a very thin and fragile one. It had existed all those centuries solely in consequence of the indifference, the blissful ignorance of man. These rock-basins, fringed by corallines, filled with still water almost as pellucid as the upper air itself, thronged with beautiful sensitive forms of life—they exist no longer, they are all profaned, and emptied, and vulgarised. An army of “collectors” has passed over them, and ravaged every corner of them. The fairy paradise has been violated, the exquisite product of centuries of natural selection has been crushed under the rough paw of well-meaning, idle-minded curiosity.
The collectors (who, as it happens, earn a good, plain, well-researched passage to Alongshore) came and went. In 1950, when I was seven, I vacationed with my parents on the same stretch of the south Devon coast and saw rockpools just as startlingly clear, as populous, as magical, as any described by Gosse in the golden age of ca. 1856—same prawns, same anthea, same dulse, same corallines, same pellucidity. (They’re all gone now, of course.)
Stilgoe, born in 1949, seems too young for his heavy-lidded Tiresian style, but he would have one believe that the 1960s marked the beginning of the end of the old, idyllic coast. Embedded in the chapter titled “Harbors” is an age-of-innocence description, only marginally flyspecked with professional landscape-history jargon, of a harbor as Stilgoe himself might remember seeing it at age seven:
Right next to the water…stood a densely packed concatenation of spaces and structures and vessels, a concatenation enlivened from late spring through early autumn by furious activity, for even in midsummer wooden boats rumbled up marine railways for repair and repainting, especially for the bottom repainting that helped fast boats win races. The ring of land jammed with cradled boats all winter marked the visual high-tide zone, a zone in from the actual high-tide limit but in which vessels occupied space comfortably, almost “naturally.” Crowded, active, and instantaneously announcing itself as the boating edge of the land, the harbor collar attracted everyone from boys building or repairing a rowboat to fishermen examining a hauled-out trawler to tourists savoring a salty scene.
And then, in the 1960s, the collar frayed…
People of all ages and classes—fishermen, yachtsmen, boys, and tourists—are interlocking elements in this scene of idealized social harmony. But the picture begs a lot of questions. Why are the marine railways occupied by racing yachts, while the trawler appears only to have been beached? Why are there so many yachts in sight and only one fishing boat?What are the fishermen saying about the yachtsmen, and vice-versa? What is everyone saying about the tourists? What Stilgoe portrays, quite unwittingly, is a battleground of competing class and economic interests, where the recreational boating industry has driven commercial fishing into a corner of a harbor to which the fishermen no doubt feel historically entitled. The “collar,” as Stilgoe fondly calls it, might reasonably be perceived by some of the people in his picture as a noose.
The “Harbors” chapter is a fair example both of Stilgoe’s general method and of the note of false elegy that pervades the book. It begins with a nostalgic salute to the builders of wooden boats and to the continuous maintenance work needed to keep them afloat. All the boats mentioned are, significantly, pleasure craft—sailboats, skiffs, and small motor cruisers. The chapter goes on to note, sadly, the triumph of fiberglass over wood in the evil 1960s. (In a memorable insult delivered by an older technology to its newfangled successor, the great wooden boat designer L. Francis Herreshoff once likened fiberglass to “frozen snot.”) The “plastic” boats required less maintenance, so there was less work for the traditional boatyards; and as the new craft became lighter and lighter in weight, the old marine railways were torn up to be replaced by Travelifts. Many boatyards went out of business or were swept off the foreshore by yacht marinas. Now—according to Stilgoe—the marinas themselves are under threat, for “boatyards and marinas are worth more as vacant lots suitable for condominium development than as operating businesses.”
The harbor of Stilgoe’s glory days was a noisy, active place, with people caulking, painting, replanking, tinkering with marine diesels, and killing off the shellfish population with the toxins from their antifouling bottom paint. The harbor whose coming he unveils is silent and passive—a place where people go only to gawk at a seascape empty of all significant activity.
Harbors exist merely as parking lots in which boats temporarily dock, midway in odd passages from garages and inland boat dealers to garages again. And tourists stand on wharves, charmed by the neatness, by the quiet, oblivious to the economic and social change so manifest in the fiberglass boats and the condominia.
There’s more rhetoric than truth in Stilgoe’s vision of the death of the harbor. There has been no sudden Fall, as he describes; rather, change has come in a long, uneven drift whose general direction has been apparent since the early nineteenth century, but whose habit of speeding up, slowing down, and sometimes reversing itself, has tended to confound its forecasters. Whenever coastal shipping and inshore commercial fishing have gone into decline, the slack in the seaside economy has usually been taken up by the tourist, retirement, and recreation industries. The time of the Napoleonic Wars and the consequent naval blockades of cross-Channel shipping routes did not merely coincide with a great burst of resort-building on both French and English coasts.
Diagnosing death all depends on what you are prepared to count as life. The elegiac gong was being sounded on Stilgoe’s home coast for many years before Stilgoe himself arrived there. The Federal Writers Project guide to Massachusetts (1937) noted that tourists (known then, more politely, as “visitors”) were Cohasset’s “main source of revenue,” and Samuel Eliot Morison, in the Maritime History of Massachusetts (1921) declared that his Massachusetts Bay was dead and gone:”Yachting centers have now replaced fishing villages; Italian gardens and palaces blot out even the memory of rugged seashore farms.”
As for Stilgoe’s surprising requiem for the passing of the yacht marina, environmental groups everywhere will cheer the news. But it would be premature to light the clifftop bonfires yet. It’s true that many pint-sized marinas inside old fishing harbors are losing out to “dockominiums”—apartment blocks, each with a small maze of mooring-floats at its feet. However, there is big money in the marina business. The going rate for a marina slip is about $10.00 per month per foot of boat-length, or $3,600 a year to tie up a small family cruiser to a pontoon. A large marina will have close to 2,000 individual slips with an annual turnover of perhaps $8 million. The new marinas are too big for the harbors that used to contain them:shielded by their own rip-rap sea-walls, they sprout, like bleached fishbones, from every available patch of urban shoreline, as familiar a staple of coastal architecture now as piers and lighthouses. While Stilgoe watched, the harbor moved elsewhere.
July 14, 1994