The Realistic Regionalism of Joseph C. Lincoln OSV logo
Alice P. Kenney
New-England Galaxy 7(4): 29-40. 1966

New-England Galaxy was a publication, from 1959-1979, of Old Sturbridge Village, a wonderful museum of 19th Century New England town life, and this article is posted with OSV's permission.

The realistic regionalism of Joseph C. Lincoln

by Alice P. Kenney

    Cape Cod in the 1960's is a place to spend a vacation. Visitors hustle down the freeway, lodge in mass-produced motels, and eat in snack bars exactly like snack bars all over the United States. But perhaps on a rainy clay they take the children to the museum at Provincetown— and there another Cape Cod awaits them. That Cape was a place where people lived and worked, as sailors, fishermen, or farmers. No tourists came to visit, and many of the inhabitants went away on long voyages. Nevertheless, Cape Cod was home to seamen all over the world no less than to the families who remained on shore and made the homes which they came back to. Early in the twentieth century, Joseph C. Lincoln wrote forty novels and many short stories which show how this Cape Cod was transformed into the Cape of today.

    Both background and experience qualified Lincoln to write about the Cape. Descended on both sides from blue-water captains, he was born in Brewster in 1870. His father was drowned at sea soon afterward [actually, he died of a fever in Charleston, SC]. Lincoln spent his boyhood in Brewster but moved at the age of twelve to Chelsea, a suburb of Boston. After graduating from high school, he attempted to make a career in a stockbroker's office and in commercial art. Then he worked on a short-lived magazine for bicycling enthusiasts. After it ceased publication, he became a free-lance writer. He moved to New York and then to Hackensack, New Jersey. In the summers, however, he returned to Chatham on the Cape. His popularity increased gradually after the publication of his first novel in 1904 and reached its peak in the 1920's. Then readers forgot him. When he died in 1944, preoccupied reviewers mentioned the event and hurried on.

    Lincoln's continuing association with the Cape meant that he could draw material for his stories not only from childhood memories but also from direct observation of the great changes that came to the region during his lifetime. At the time he was born, Cape Cod was declining from its position as a
Lincoln in the 1920's.
Photo courtesy of Donald P. Consodine.

leader in New England's fishing industry and contributor to the Yankee merchant marine. The clippers and square-riggers that had brought the wealth of the world to the ports of Massachusetts drew officers and men from Cape Cod. Many smaller vessels in the coasting trade had been built and operated from its harbors. Other industries included whaling, oyster breeding, salt production, and the manufacture of Sandwich glass. This economy had utilized the Cape's few resources—sand, salt, sea, and men —and supported a cosmopolitan though uncultivated society.

    When Lincoln was a boy, Confederate cruisers had recently inflicted great losses upon Yankee shipowners. Competition between sailing vessels and steamships was fierce. Protective tariffs passed to encourage domestic industries discouraged importation. Investment profits in the railroads and mines of the trans-Mississippi West attracted Yankee financiers. Boston's shipping declined, and with it that of the Cape. Deep-sea captains came home to stay from foreign ports and coastal voyages. The railroad replaced the packets which had run from every town to Boston. Whale-oil lamps and Sandwich glass went out of style, and it was no longer profitable to fatten Chesapeake oysters in Wellfleet Harbor. Salt making and fishing suffered from more efficient competition elsewhere. After the completion of the Cape Cod Canal in 1916, the sailing days of the Cape were over.

    This transition was one of Lincoln's principal subjects. In Keziah Coffin he described the surprisingly complex social structure of the 1850's

We divide ourselves into about four sets — aristocrats, poor relations, town folks, and scum. The aristocrats are the big bugs like Cap'n Elkanah and the other well-off sea captains, afloat or ashore. . . . The poor relations are mainly widows and such, whose husbands died or were lost at sea. . . . The town folks are those that stay ashore and keep store or run salt works or somethin'. And the scum work around on odd jobs or go fishin'.

    By the late 1870's and '80's this hierarchy had begun to crumble. Lincoln remembered from his boyhood years four kinds of sea captains: retired, dignified captains; shrewd, humorous captains, also retired; fishing and coasting captains; captains of fruit ships in the Mediterranean trade. These men who had been young in the 1850's were the last generation to rise in the time-honored New England way —going to sea with or without parental consent as cabin boys or foremast hands, winning officers' berths by grit and ability, and finally attaining command of vessels from fishing smacks to clippers. Low wages and difficult conditions had discouraged most Americans from attempting careers as seamen. It was therefore possible for a large proportion of the Cape boys who went to sea and made it their profession to rejoice in the title of "Cap'n." Now, however, there was a shrinking market for their services and they were forced to seek other means of support.

Lincoln's birthplace in Brewster. Photo courtesy of Donald P. Consodine.


    The old clipper captains, who were sometimes paid as much as five thousand dollars for a single passage, had been in a position to save considerable sums. The captains of square-riggers were similarly favored. If they had invested wisely, they were able to retire, build fine mansions in conspicuous locations, and take command of local politics. Younger captains, and those less fortunate in their investments, continued to sail under ever more difficult conditions. But by 1900 even the coasting and fishing captains were being forced ashore.

    Lincoln's first novel, Cap'n Eri, clearly reflected the change in seafaring life. Eri Hedge had run away to ship before the mast, but his experiences as a common seaman had been brutal and his career as a master by no means romantic. He had finally given up sailing altogether in order to support himself by boat fishing. Shrewd,
A page from the manuscript of "All Aboard," owned by the Chatham Historical Society. Photo by Charles W. Cartwright.
humorous, and full of stories, he was respected in the community and had no difficulty in getting his way in local affairs when it was important to him. But when a boy of his acquaintance tried to run away to sea, he prevented it and sent him back to school to prepare to enter Annapolis.

    These unemployed captains tried many means of support. Lincoln showed them serving as postmaster, keeping store, operating wholesale fish concerns, engaging in marine salvage, and following other occupations. Probably the most substantial of them was Elisha Warren in Cap'n Warren's Wards. He had invested his savings in cranberry bogs and served as selectman and bank director. It was his good fortune— or misfortune—to be called to New York to administer the estate of his brother, a wealthy financier. A. (bijah) Rodgers Warren had steered rather close to the limits of the law, and the problems of untangling his financial affairs, managing his two spoiled children, and discouraging the fortune hunters who surrounded them called for all Cap'n Warren's native and acquired sagacity.

    All these shore-bound seafarers had to make places for themselves among neighbors who had never left the land. Some of these neighbors were professional men, ministers, doctors, and lawyers. Others were storekeepers. There were homegrown artists, craftsmen, novelists, and a poet. Some young men with roots in the Cape returned there from elsewhere to establish careers. Some preferred not to work at all, living on spinster sisters or long-suffering wives. Still others swindled and sharped the community at large.

    The women of this society were as resourceful as the men. Lincoln focused particularly on widows and spinsters, left alone in the world and forced to support themselves. The widows had usually lost their husbands at sea. They struggled along on small means, employed as housekeepers, seamstresses, or nurses. Occasionally one rebelled against this drudgery as did Thankful Barnes, who took advantage of "Thankful's Inheritance" to open a boardinghouse. "Great-Aunt Lavinia," also the beneficiary of a legacy, invested it shrewdly and made a considerable fortune. Martha Snow, in Cap'n Eri, answered a matrimonial advertisement in her search for employment, but in general the widows resented any suggestion of remarriage as a means of economic relief. Most, nevertheless, eventually accepted the proposals of lonely captains attracted by their good sense and cheerful courage.

    Lincoln's spinsters, on the other hand, were likely to jump at the first opportunity to change their condition. Usually thin and tense, in contrast to the stout and stable widows, they spent their time keeping up appearances and engaging in surmises about their neighbors. They were frequently encumbered by weak-willed male relatives whom they kept in leading strings.

    The girls in this society possessed the same traits as the mature women, but most had not yet been through as much trouble. Next to their unsinkable older relatives, the girls sometimes appeared insignificant through no fault of their own. Many had to care for aged or ailing-parents or to help with the family business. They usually proved exceedingly shrewd businesswomen, bringing new ideas in purchasing and selling, lifting obsolescent enterprises out of ruts, and carrying them through periods of transition. The economy by which these people lived declined, but at the

One of Wallace Morgan's illustrations for Keziah Coffin (N.Y., 1909). Courtesy of Donald P. Consodine.
same time a new source of livelihood appeared. Even before the Civil War it had become fashionable for the wealthy to have summer residences. Nahant had been developed first, and then the North and South Shores toward Cape Ann and Cape Cod. The coming of the railroad made access to the Cape easier. In the 70's, Bostonians were already renting cottages there. Between then and 1890, wealthy summer residents built, bought, or converted homes along the shore into palatial mansions. Then, as the idea of the vacation percolated downward from the captains of industry to the rank and file, more modest visitors began to arrive. Their means were too limited to permit the purchase of shore property, and the time at their disposal was too short to make such a purchase worthwhile. Natives began to take boarders into their homes and to build boardinghouses. Among the characters in Lincoln's early short stories were Jonadab Wixon and Barzilla Wingate, retired captains who joined forces with a shrewd, slick landsman named Peter T. Brown to operate a summer hotel.

    The people of the Cape were of two minds about this invasion. They welcomed the impetus the newcomers gave to business but resented their patronizing attitude. Nate Scudder in Mr. Pratt's Patients and other stories is Lincoln's best example of the native who set out to skin the transients, but Wixon, Wingate, and Brown and even generous Thankful Barnes did not hesitate to charge what the traffic would bear. Scudder's principal victims, two young New Yorkers, were wealthy enough to regard even downright imposition with lordly indifference. They, however, had inherited their money and were bored with it; men who had made their fortunes the hard way kept a much closer watch on expenditures. They were by no means devoid of community spirit. Some who had been born on the Cape laid extensive plans to improve their native towns, but unfortunately these benefactions were often bestowed in a manner so patronizing that they aroused more resentment than gratitude.

    Most of Lincoln's summer residents were wealthy. Their fortunes were of their own making, usually from finance rather than from manufacturing or distribution. Lincoln's financiers were in many respects similar to his sea captains. One of the most fully developed was Big Jim Colton in The Rise of Roscoe Paine. Fighting his way from humble beginnings as a telegrapher to the command of a railroad empire, he had acquired great wealth, the custom of having his own way, and a charming daughter. But the struggle had taken its toll. His investments were a constant care, his wife was "nervous," and his own health was seriously impaired.

    Despite these disadvantages, the success of Colton and his fellows attracted young men from the Cape. Some, who had exceptional opportunities to make contacts, were offered responsible positions with great business organizations. For ordinary people, however, the promise of wealth lay in the stock market. And of the stock market Lincoln was profoundly distrustful. Widows, spinsters, and shrewd young men who should have known better were tempted by all kinds of schemes from local development projects to western mines. They invested in glittering promises and lost everything. A few embezzled to cover their losses and had to be bailed out by their more prudent friends. Occasionally an amateur made a brilliant coup. Roscoe Paine rescued one of Colton's speculations by sensing when to buy, and "Great-Aunt Lavinia" saved her windfall inheritance by guessing when to sell. But in general Lincoln's characters discovered by painful experience that the stock market was a place for professionals.

    After the First World War, the Cape took much more for granted both summer residents and their way of life. The popularization of the automobile meant that increasing numbers of transients came from the middle and lower classes. Furthermore, the permanent inhabitants of the Cape were buying cars and radios themselves, and paying more attention to formal education. For their own convenience as well as that of their summer visitors they paved their roads and installed electricity and telephones. They placed their economy on a basis of quick turnover and high yield for three months of the year and relative inactivity for the other nine. No longer was the Cape struggling for a semblance of self-sufficiency; it frankly depended on the tourist for survival. Some people took in boarders or ran hotels. Storekeepers

Harold Brett's portrait of Lincoln, owned by the Chatham Historical Society. Photo by Charles W. Cartwright.

reorganized to make their profit in the summer months. Service stations took the place of livery stables. Even churches planned active summer programs to encourage sufficient contributions to keep them going during the winter. And every permanent inhabitant of the Cape searched his or her attic for heirlooms that might tempt the voracious antique-hunters.

    The antique business drew Lincoln's special attention in the 1920's. He showed retrospectively how some Cape Codders had long been interested in their fine old furniture and depicted a whole gallery of "antiquers." He described dealers who were themselves scrupulous craftsmen, others who were somewhat less straightforward, and a few who were out-and-out frauds. The purchasers, on the other hand, ranged from ignorant status seekers to connoisseurs who sincerely appreciated their fine pieces.

    Many popular novels of the 1920's depicted the more dismal aspects of urban and rural life. Lincoln, who had once been described as "a photographic reporter with a sense of the ridiculous," attacked this new form of "realism." In "The Realist" he described Sergius Hartshorn, who came to the Cape to gather material for a novel. The novel turned out to be an exposé of a downtrodden rural community whose inhabitants were caricatured as miserable and depraved objects for social reform. "Nothing was exaggerated, nothing was glossed over, nothing omitted except—well, those things which the eyes of Mr. Sergius Hartshorn, the 'realist,' were not fashioned for seeing."

    In the 1930's new literary forms appeared, and Lincoln hastened to try them. Storm Signals was his contribution to the mythology of the Civil War, in which, as he pointed out, Cape Cod played a minor role. He also wrote a tale of detection, Out of the Fog. As a murder mystery it was scarcely satisfactory, since the corpse was proven to have died a natural death. But as a study of the forces set loose within a small community when a young man of position was believed to have met with foul play, it was equal to Lincoln's best work. It also contained his one description of a family of "Portygee" laborers. His last novel, The Bradshaws of Harniss, recorded his reaction to the outbreak of World War II and to his own limitation by reason of ill health and advancing years.

    In the twenty years since Joseph Lincoln laid down his pen the Cape has altered almost past recognition. Its lighthouses are overshadowed by radar stations. Its beaches are inundated by tourists to such an extent that the Federal Government has taken action to preserve them. For a brief, blinding moment the searchlight of publicity played over a summer White House at Hyannis-port—ironically, Democratic. The effect of all these changes on the people of the Cape is yet to be seen, but it is certain that Cape Cod as Lincoln knew it belongs to history.

    It is therefore possible to assess Lincoln's regionalism in historical perspective. From this point of view, his limitations become immediately apparent. Geographically, he excluded a large portion of the Cape. Although he always used fictitious place names—Cape Cod in his stories is "Ostable" County, and the principal towns are "Harniss," "Denboro," "Bayport," "Orham," "Wellmouth," and "Trumet" — these names are close enough to the real ones to make it fairly evident what actual areas he had in mind. The towns of Harwich, Dennis, Brewster, where Lincoln grew up, Chatham, where he spent his summers, Eastham, Orleans, Wellfleet, and Truro lie side by side around the elbow of the Cape. None of the action took place in Provincetown, bounding this area on one end, or Hyannis at the other, which he called by their proper names. The south shore, towards Falmouth, was hardly mentioned at all; Sandwich was a geographical location on the way to Boston. Albert P. Brigham points out, interestingly enough, that Lincoln's portion of the Cape is actually of a different geological origin and has different soils from Provincetown on the one hand and the south shore on the other.

    Lincoln's stories were also severely limited in time. Though the absolute range of the period he dealt with was 1812 to 1942, only three novels were set before 1870 and relatively few after 1920. The majority, and the most characteristic, centered in the years between 1890 and 1910 when Lincoln himself was a young man who had left the Cape to earn a living and returned to it only for vacations.

    A third limitation was social and economic. Although nearly all Lincoln's characters worked hard and took immense pride in their work, their range of occupations was narrow. The men were captains, active or retired, proprietors of small businesses, bankers, lawyers, or financiers on vacation. The women were schoolteachers, housekeepers, mistresses of boardinghouses, or widows and spinsters with small incomes. Occasionally there was an artist or a misfit, often as a figure of fun but sometimes, as in Shavings and Queer Judson, as a central figure.

    With the exception of an occasional minister or doctor and a number of lawyers, members of the professions and intellectuals had little place in Lincoln's world. When they did appear, they tended to be ill at ease. Quite as evident as Lincoln's lack of assurance with blue-blooded intellectuals was his neglect of those at the other end of the social scale. Immigrants and common laborers practically never appeared. His characters owned shares in cranberry bogs and worked on fishing vessels, but they did not cultivate the berries or ship before the mast. With few exceptions they were of native American ancestry, New England Protestant religion, and Republican politics. Lincoln's idea of "immigrants" was Irish; he took no notice whatever of the huddled masses from southern and eastern Europe who were crowding New York at the time he was writing.

    Religion, to Lincoln's characters, was a practical matter. They went regularly to meeting on Sunday, but which meeting was determined more by social status than by spiritual fervor. There were usually two churches in a town. One was the orthodox Congregational meetinghouse there since colonial days and attended by leading families, many of whom had likewise been there since colonial days. The other was likely to be a revivalist chapel— Methodist, Baptist, or "Come-Outer" —and to include the less substantial citizens. Other denominations simply did not exist. Lincoln paid little attention to the doctrine preached from these pulpits unless it happened to disturb the community. His characters' beliefs were important only as they affected their actions. Many—especially the captains—freely admitted that their personal creeds were "broader-beamed" than any they had learned in church. On the other hand, some were religious fanatics, usually revivalists or spiritualists. These fanatics, however, were frequently presented as persons unbalanced to the verge of insanity by some traumatic event. Ministers Lincoln respected if they practised what they preached, though many of his characters got a good deal of amusement from poking fun at their pastors' pretentious attempts to create the appearance of superior virtue.

    Formal politics engaged little of Lincoln's attention, political issues almost none. Head Tide turned on the attempt of an insurgent group, led by a young editor, to unseat the dominant aristocracy within a local Republican organization, but even here the conflict was social rather than ideological. Lincoln usually interpreted political conflict as the dissatisfaction of some individual or group with the way some other individual or group was administering an office, rather than as a struggle for office for its own sake. Occasionally, as in Head Tide, someone would seek to gain an unfair business advantage by political operations, but graft, corruption, bosses, machines, and the other problems that go with urban politics were not pressing in Lincoln's world. To state and national politics he paid little attention.

    To a large extent, Lincoln's emphases were determined by the structure of the society he was writing about. He described a culture which was, when he had come to know it, extremely isolated. He often told of roads on which a journey from one town to the next was a major achievement. The railroad improved the situation somewhat, but the trains were chronically late and it was difficult to get to and from the depot. For much of Lincoln's life it was probably easier to go to Boston from Brewster or Chatham than to Falmouth. This society was also narrow in its
Lincoln's home as it looks today. Photo courtesy of Mrs. J. Freeman Lincoln.
economic opportunities and its religious and political views. Immigrants were few except for the Portuguese, who were concentrated around Falmouth [and Provincetown].

    Lincoln therefore described the Cape as it was and, so describing it, accepted its limitations. Like most regionalists, he wrote about a world he had grown up in and then left. Unlike some of them, he continued to return to it and in his writings kept pace with its development. In his earliest works he was concerned with the decline of the old Cape society and the conflict between natives and summer residents. After 1910 he began to tackle problems of wider scope: the tensions of city life in Cap'n Warren's Wards; the morality of high finance in The Rise of Roscoe Paine; international understanding in Kent Knowles: Quahaug; the nature of Americanism in The Portygee. All these questions he presented as typical Cape Codders saw them, and the inevitable distortions resulted largely from the fact that the people on Cape Cod had little direct experience with them. After 1920, the operation of time removed the generation Lincoln remembered most vividly—the salty retired captains and their tart womenfolk— and the automobile revolution changed the Cape almost beyond recognition. He tried to keep up with the automobiles and the antiquers, but was more successful at exploring the roots of the society he remembered—of imagining in their prime the men he had heard spinning yarns by the depot stove. In the 1930's he began to delve into the formal history of the Cape, but also continued his chronicle of its contemporary development. His last novel, in the midst of the Second World War, was as solidly based in its own time as his first had been. Perhaps the most outstanding feature of Lincoln's work as a whole is its consistent quality. His novels try to do many different things, but there is not one that is not constructed as soundly and solidly as a fine piece of antique furniture. Lincoln knew his region. He explored its potentialities and discovered its limitations, and had the good sense to respect both. He reproduced the natural and human environment of Cape Cod, not statistically but imaginatively. His creativity showed the discipline of the loving craftsman. His purpose was to produce neither the scientific image of the photograph nor the artistic impression of the painting, but the honest vision of the ship portraits that adorned his captains' parlors. As Cap'n Perez Ryder explained it in Cap'n Eri

"You have to he awful careful painting vessels. Now you jest look at that picture," pointing to the glaring likeness of the Flying Duck that hung on the wall. "Jest look at them sails, every one of 'em drawin' fine; and them ropes, every one in jest the right place. That's what I call paintin'. ... The reel thing is the schooner, rigged jest right, trimmed jest right, and colored jest the way the Flyin' Duck was colored. You understand them waves was put there jest 'cause there had to be some to set the schooner in, that's all."

    Alice P. Kenney, who is assistant professor of history at Cedar Crest College, grew up on the stories of Joseph C. Lincoln, which she made the subject of her master's thesis at Middlebury College. She has published numerous articles and is currently writing a book about the family of Herman Melville's mother.