New England Homestead

March, 1969
Vol. 142 (3):19-21

Published by Inquirer and Mirror, Springfield MA


Posted Feb 2004 at
    Lincoln bibliography



Joseph C. Lincoln. Cape Cod Historian

    "Bayport, in that day, was not only by the sea, it was of the sea. The sea winds blew over it, the sea air smelled salty in its highways and byways, its male citizens — most of them — walk­ed with a sea roll, and upon the tables and whatnots of their closed and shuttered 'front parlors' or in their cupboards or closets were lacquered cabinets, and whales' teeth, and ala­baster images. . .and heaven knows what brought from heaven knows where, but all brought in sailing ships over one or more seas of the world."

    This is Joseph C. Lincoln describing a Cape village of the seventies. This is a man introducing his own heritage in his novel Fair Harbor (1922), as he has introduced it over and over again in novels before, and others which followed. Cape Cod was in him; he could no more separate himself from it than he could have divested himself of his right hand.
    Born in 1870 in Brewster, Mass­achusetts, Lincoln early lost his mari­ner father as so many of his characters lost fathers and husbands, sons and sweethearts. The sea, he grew up knowing, is merciless. But it also has a compelling charm. Though his mother took him to live in Boston, his life there was a kind of exile. In the summers he was back on the Cape, learning all there was to know about boats and fishing, about sea­faring men and the way their families lived ashore. He lived by the ocean, in it, on it. He could clock the tides; he could dig clams; he knew where and at what season beach plums grew. And he observed the village ways: the salty talk, the strange mixture of provincialism and globe consciousness.
    But a young man could not possibly see how all this observation of a region, this intimacy with a certain kind of life, could be of commercial value. And young Lincoln had his own way to make.
    For some unexplained reason he found himself in a broker's office in Brooklyn. No one needs to be told why he hated that office, why he left it to try a much more tenuous way of making money, commercial art. He had always been fond of drawing; certainly, as a way of earning a living, it would be pleasanter than working for brokers. With a partner, he sold— or tried to sell — pictures. In order to make them more alluring he some­times wrote jokes or verses to ac­company them. Surprisingly, the jokes and verses sold better than the draw­ings.
Lincoln thus came inadvertently upon his life work. In 1899 he felt sufficiently confident to give up every­thing and devote himself to writing. (And, as hundreds of young writers do, he moved to New York.)
    At first he seems to have specialized in verse written in the Cape Cod vernacular. His first book, Cape Cod Ballads, came out in 1902. But the Saturday Evening Post bought a story (a Cape Cod story, of course), and then, in 1904, Cap'n Eri was pub­lished. The young man had found his forte. And for forty years thereafter he produced a novel a year — some­times more — besides countless short stories. And always these are Cape Cod narratives. Even their titles often proclaim their nature: The Portygee, Fair Harbor, Rugged Water, Partners of the Tide, Blowing Clear. Fate gave an ironic turn to this writer's life when it permitted him to spend his last days in Winter Park, Florida!
Joseph C.. Lincoln, the penniless artist, did achieve literary success, if the word "success" may denote fi­nancial achievement. And this success means that many a reader greeted each new Lincoln novel with a sigh of satisfaction, knowing that here was fresh balm for troubled spirits, a happy antidote for worry and irri­tation and boredom. He was never disappointed: "There's enough worry in this world," Lincoln said once, "without finding it in books." Happi­ness and serenity and the smooth solving of all questions are what he sought to provide in his stories. It speaks well for his ingenuity that he never failed.
    As to the matter of "sorrow" in books — he may not have conquered that, however well-intentioned he was.
    Certainly his work progresses from the light-hearted comedy Cap'n Eri to the more serious "problem novel" such as The Aristocratic Miss Brewster (1927) and Blowing Clear (1930),

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talking over a fencein which the humor occurs in occasion­al patches only. The change matters very little. His work never changed in its fundamental aim, enunciated so clearly by Lincoln himself. Everyone, he said in effect, is so well acquainted with sadness that it should be kept out of books.
Joseph C. Lincoln never failed to give honest entertainment. He never failed to amuse, to create what the sophisticated sneeringly refer to as "escape literature."
    Admittedly, those who go to books only to escape life, or to pass away an idle hour, may not have the highest motive for reading. Still, if fiction is not to give pleasure, why write it? So eminent a novelist as Somerset Maugham has repeatedly said that the only aim of the writer of fiction should be to entertain.
    One outstanding characteristic is that of predictability. One reads a Lincoln novel in a relaxed mood, knowing that somehow, in some way, everything will come out all right: the plunging stock market will rise, the most attractive young man among the characters will certainly win the most attractive young woman, the falsely accused will be vindicated. Some deaths will occur, some lasting mis­fortunes — but not to the leading characters, not to those with whom the reader identifies. He is therefore completely satisfied, particularly if he easily maintains the willing suspension of disbelief.
    Other techniques guaranteeing al­most inevitable reader-satisfaction occur in some form in each novel (though not all of them in any single novel). One of these is the middle-aged (or older) hero and heroine, and his or her romance. Such a romance frequently takes place in the same story as a love-affair between two young people. Cap'n Eri for example, has two middle-aged couples as well as a young pair of lovers. Keziah Coffin, in the novel bearing her name, is after many years united with her true love, Cap'n Nathaniel Hammond, though the ostensible love story is that between the very young minister and the pretty Grace Van Home. How­ever, in The Aristocratic Miss Brewster, only one courtship is shown — that between the thirty-six-year-old Mary Brewster and the forty-two-year-old Cap'n David Cummings. No one can deny that the story of love coming late (or relatively late) in life has an almost irresistible reader appeal.
    Allied to this element of late-blooming love is the element of heroism — of almost romantic distinction — be­stowed on a man or woman past first youth. Novel after novel is built around one strong character, a man or woman who has seen much trouble and bravely surmounted it, and is thus equipped to help and guide those struggling about them.
    Whether this character is Cap'n Eri, retired, or Cap'n Sears Kendrick, temporarily beached because of in­juries, or Keziah Coffin, tied to a vicious husband, or Aunt Lavinia Badger, deserted by a worthless one, it is always sturdy and attractive, possessed of a dry sense of humor. Lincoln makes these middle-aged heroes and heroines very real; by his sympathetic portrayal of them he seems to be saying that they represent the Cape Cod personality, its courage and its invincibility.
    Lest the average reader be over­awed by the picture of unfaltering courage and unmatched efficiency of his protagonists, Lincoln takes care to present, in almost every story, some example of extreme weakness. These range from such simple-minded crea­tures as Lorenzo of Blowing Clear and Amaziah of Great-Aunt Lavinia, to foolish, inexperienced young men like Raymond Condon of Blowing Clear and George Kent of Fair Har­bor. The first two are middle-aged men of low IQ, drawn into marriage by large, commanding Widows who make their lives miserable. The latter are young fellows who, introduced to the dazzling possibilities of the stock market, eventually find themselves appropriating money not their own in order to keep on with their specu­lations.
    Outright villainy occurs in some of the novels, and in presenting his sharpers and confidence men, Lincoln displays a subtlety not obvious else­where. Benjamin Brewster of The Aristocratic Miss Brewster is a bad man of deepest dye, and yet his game is so well concealed that the reader keeps wondering what it is, even while sensing uneasily that something is wrong. As for Egbert Phillips of Fair Harbor we know at once — for we are told by the Judge — that here is a bad actor; but we know it only by hearsay.
    All of these elements — the com­fortable predictability, the middle-aged protagonists, the humorous and forgivable weaklings, and the con­vincing sinners, combine to make Lincoln's novels highly entertaining and delightfully restful.
    Perhaps nowhere else can one obtain so detailed and colorful — and so nearly correct — pictures of life on Cape Cod from the 1870's on. Lincoln was born on the Cape; he spent the best part of his impression­able years there. He knew it and its people through and through. And he loved it. Small wonder that he was incapable of writing anything that was not imbued with Cape pod atmos­phere. The reader, opening one of the novels, steps immediately into the special world of a small lonely bit of land constantly lashed by the sea.

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    No one on the Cape is ever, even for a moment, unconscious of the Atlantic. Its fogs come in to muffle a small town. Its tides come in to make hazardous the picturesque
"flats." Storms are strong and merciless, and many times spectators, powerless to help, must watch a ship go down, its crew perishing. Some­times the life boats are launched in the wild gale; ice coats the oars and the rubber "sou'westers" of the men. Sleet bites into the weathered faces, all but blinds the keen eyes. The mis­sion may be successful, or it may not be. The villagers, waiting, do not question the terrible sentence of the elements.
    Cape Cod has other faces, however. It has the small, self-contained vil­lages with white houses and white picket fences. The more prosperous citizens may own regal homes standing tall and proud above their neighbors, and crowned with cupolas. There are usually two churches — that of the "orthodox" or "regular" congregation, and that of the Universalists (re­garded by members of the former as very light-minded.). Occasionally a "Come-Outer" chapel or "bethel" may be added, this when a certain number begin to regard with serious mis­givings the orthodox luxuries of car­pets, organs, and professional clergy. The people of Cape Cod are the products of the sea and its influence. Almost every adult (in the seventies and eighties) 'had been abroad at least once, even the women. Nearly every sailor's wife had been at sea for weeks at a time, with her husband. Their front parlors are small museums, their memories are filled with pictures of South Sea islands and far-away ports in exotic lands. Their conver­sation is colorful with sea terms; for instance, a caller is not invited to "come in": he is commanded to "come aboard;" "left" and "right" are always "port" and "starboard."
    They have all lost someone — brother, son, husband, friend — to the sea. And they are aware that their neighbors have suffered similarly. Thus they are unconsciously convinced of the impermanence of life, and they cling to  their  religion which is like granite, unshakable, unquestioned.
    And yet, oddly enough, the very evanescence of earthly life seems to give it tremendous importance. These village people are concerned when a woman has a second new silk dress within a year. They buzz for days over a girl in her twenties marrying a man in his late thirties. ("More like an adoption ceremony than a wedding!" they snort.) They know all about each other, and they are not shy about commenting on what they know.
    And everyone — even the most strong-minded — lives in near-terror of the collective village tongue. "What will people say?" is uppermost in their thinking. The really independent souls surmount this terror, naturally; but they are never unconscious of it.
However, nobility can flourish even in an environment intellectually and emotionally as narrow as this village life. Lincoln shows this again and again; it is the great single theme of each book. His strong people — his Cap'n Eris, John Heaths, Keziah Cof­fins, Lavinia Badgers — are able to overcome sorrow, disappointments, past mistakes. They do so without snivelling.
    Despite Lincoln's philosophy that trouble enough exists in the world without getting into books, there is an undeniable element of pathos running through his stories — as if he simply does not realize the depths of pathos his writing reveals.
Consider Abishai Pepper (Keziah Coffin), the middle-aged man who lives with his sister, so dominated by her that he dares do nothing of his own volition; his spirit is completely cowed, and he is fully as much in prison as any convicted felon. And what of Amaziah Holt (Great-Aunt Lavinia) also middle-aged, who mar­ries a malicious, small-minded woman, and thereafter lives completely under her rule?
    A certain passage, meant, surely, to be amusing, seems to sum up a truly terrible pathos — that of the narrow, insular life. It occurs in Keziah Coffin. "The fog was cruel to the gossips of Trumet that day. Mrs. Didama Rog­ers. .. never entirely recovered from the chagrin and disappointment caused by that provoking mist. When one habitually hurries through the morn­ing's household duties in order to sit by the front window and note each passer-by, with various fascinating surmises as to his or her errand and the reasons for it, it is discouraging to be able to see only one's own front fence and a scant ten feet of sidewalk. And then to learn afterwards of a dozen most exciting events, each distinctly out of the ordinary, which might have been used as excuses for two dozen calls and as many sen­sations!"
    The sensitive reader does not laugh at this. He feels only that here is a situation so appalling, a restriction of life so decided that it must arouse only pity. Part of the pathos is that Didama's situation is not even digni­fied enough to be called tragedy. It is only the dry withering of what-might have-been. And it is intensified by the fact that Didama — and hundreds of others like her — are not aware that any other sort of life exists.
    Trouble in books? Joseph C. Lincoln, hearty and salty and whole­some as he is, has not kept it out of his. And so we can concede him a sure place among New England writ­ers. We can say that he has given us the life of a certain place, made us intimately acquainted with its land­scape, its architecture, its mores, its people. And he has done so — made Cape Cod real to us — because he showed it to us not only in terms of its strong and successful and happy, but in terms, too, of its ineffectual, and miserable, and unsatisfied. In this way he has been a true historian; we have much for which to thank him.

pulling lobster pots
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New England Homestead
"Joseph C. Lincoln"
Abigail Ann Hamblen