CAPE PRIZES WORK OF LATE NOVELIST
July 12, 1993
by: Jeff McLaughlin, Globe Staff
CHATHAM -- Novelist Joseph C. Lincoln, known during his lifetime as
''the man who put Cape Cod on the map,'' lives
on nearly 50 years after his death in the hearts and minds of thousands
of Cape residents and visitors who avidly collect and read his books
still. Virtually every used book store, antique shop, flea
market, library benefit and church rummage sale on the Cape this summer
will be offering Joe Lincoln books for sale. Ranging in price from $3,
for tattered ''reading copy'' editions put out by reprint publishers in
the 1920s and '30s, to $300 or more for signed, pre-World War I first
editions with original dust jackets, the Lincoln books still sell
There are 47 in all, so it's a bit like a cottage industry.
Born in Brewster in 1870, buried in Chatham in 1944, Lincoln grew up on
the Cape listening to old salts spin stories of long ocean voyages and
howling gales. He absorbed all the salty gossip, Yankee business talk,
cracker-barrel philosophy, formal sermons in church and moral lessons
in the kitchen that filled that late-19th century world. He developed a
deep love for the hard- working folks who lived on the sandy, scrubby,
wave-washed peninsula -- and when he came to writing, first poems and
then, in 1904 and for 40 years thereafter, novels, it was those people
and that Cape Cod that he wrote about.
Lincoln wrote heartwarming, homespun yarns, simple and sentimental
tales about retired sea captains with names from the Old Testament,
plucky young orphans who find true love at last, shrewd village
"characters" with barnacle-crusted homilies for any occasion -- all
residents of a Cape Cod that was but a wistful memory even when the
books were fresh off the presses.
"Many people buy the Lincoln novels simply to read wonderful stories of
old Cape Cod," said bookseller Nancy Titcomb, a Lincoln collector and
scholar who, with her husband, Ralph, owns and operates Titcomb's Book
Shop in East Sandwich. "Others are serious collectors of rare editions
and any other materials connected to Joe Lincoln."
"So there two parts to the phenomenon," Titcomb said. "Joe Lincoln
wrote of a Cape Cod that visitors wanted to find, that they still want
to find, and that Cape Codders have always loved to reminisce about.
But it's not just nostalgia that's kept interest in him high. There's a
warmth and genuineness in his writing that stands the test of time."
A biography of Lincoln, "The Prolific Pencil," assembled in 1980 from
lecture notes put together by the late Rev. Percy Fielitz Rex of
Pocasset, an unabashed fan, will win no literary prizes, but it sells
briskly, largely because of the excellent illustrated
bibliography of first editions by Stephen W. Sullwold that serves as
Lincoln memorabilia -- portraits and photographs, handwritten
manuscripts, first editions and ephemera -- are among the centerpieces
of the Chatham Historical Society collections, open to the public at
the historic Atwood House museum in this saltwater town at the elbow of
Hilda F. Traina, director of volunteers at the museum, said last week,
"We get a steady stream of people from all over the country who come
here because of Joe Lincoln."
One of the most popular and prolific novelists of the
first half of the 20th century, Lincoln published an average of one
book a year between 1902 and his death in 1944, each of which sold
between 30,000 and 100,000 copies. His byline also was found regularly
in many of the popular magazines of the 1920s and '30s, as editors paid
top prices for serial rights to his stories up to seven years before
they were written.
In his heyday, his name appeared regularly on the best-seller lists in
Publishers' Weekly and The Bookman magazine, but then, so did the names
of such largely forgotten writers as J. Thorne Smith, Gene Stratton
Porter and Kathleen Norris.
What has kept Lincoln's name and his books alive is the same thing that
has kept him out of the canon of great literature -- his unabashed
optimism, folksy humor, and deep interest in presenting the good side
of human behavior, with scant regard for complications in either plots
In 1939, when the Cape's largest town, Barnstable, celebrated its
tercentenary, Lincoln was a featured speaker. He was introduced by a
native Cape Codder, Chester A. Crocker, with wry humor, as quoted in
the Rex biography.
Crocker said: "His novels have won greater popular acclaim than any
author the old peninsula has ever produced. Why, we Cape Codders have
to read Joe's books to find out how to act, so we won't disappoint the
Mitch Eskie of Chatham, who with his wife, Brenda, founded the Joseph
C. Lincoln Society in 1992, said recently: "He was certainly the most
famous man on Cape Cod in his day, and very likely the most beloved.
Parents read his stories to their kids out loud; thousands of postcards
were sold of his house, 'Crosstrees,' on Shore Road here in Chatham;
and even now, his absolute love for this part of the world shines
through on every page."
The Eskies, with their 10-year-old daughter, Deborah, and Irish harpist
Thomas Dutton of Chatham, are keeping the Lincoln legacy alive this
summer with readings, theater pieces and musical shows based on his
writings. Their hope is that someday soon he will be remembered as
widely and as fondly across the nation as are Laura Ingalls Wilder, who
wrote "Little House on the Prairie," and Lucy Montgomery, author of
"Anne of Green Gables."
Like those authors, Lincoln knew he had an audience that cared not a
whit for literary fashions, intellectual trends or wrenching
"I like my fellow average man on the whole," wrote Lincoln
in a 1926 essay in American Magazine, "and I like to have him like me .
. . He is not a Socrates, nor a George Washington, nor a Galahad.
Neither is he a Pecksniff, nor even a Babbitt. Such as he is, he is
without doubt the backbone of this nation and every other . . . I
insist that a reasonable cheerful attitude toward life is not optimism
nor sentimental falderal. I maintain that it is the realest of realism,
because it is the outlook of the average sane human being."
Mitch Eskie said, "Thoreau gets all the attention. But he only wrote
one book about Cape Cod. It's time Joe Lincoln got his due."
Nancy Titcomb with books by Joseph Lincoln in her bookstore. / GLOBE
STAFF PHOTO / WENDY MAEDAPHOTO
Copyright 1993, 1998 Globe Newspaper Company
Edition: THIRD, Section: METRO, Page: 13, date: July 12, 1993