Cape Cod History main page; Lincoln bibliography

posted May 2004 in

Forum (New York, NY)
volume 59 (Feb 1918), p. 219-225


By Charles Francis Reed

WHEN Joseph Crosby Lincoln starts to talk of the types from which he has drawn the people of his novels, there unfolds before the listener a picture of that vast arm of the land stretching out into the Atlantic, and known on the map as Cape Cod; of the seafaring men who, in the past century, have carried the flag of the United States into the far places of the earth; of sturdy, motherly women, who loved the sea; and of modern men and women whose lives stand in sharp contrast to the people of the Cape.

" Cape Cod? " Mr. Lincoln's rather ruddy face brightens with a smile. "Well, I ought to know the folk of Cape Cod. I was born there, in Brewster, lived there all my youth, and since leaving, I can't remember ever having missed visiting the Cape during the year. Sometimes I've only gone there for a few days, often for months, but I always go back—I suppose that it's the call of my blood."

And the man who has written so many intimate pictures of the old seafaring people, visioning the scenes of his mental children, that are famed across the land, paused in reflection.

"My father was a sea captain, so was his father, and his father before him, and all my uncles. My mother's people all followed the sea. I suppose that if I had been born a few years earlier, I would have had my own ship. But when it came time for me to earn a living, the steamship was driving the old square rigger out of existence, and the glorious merchant marine that we had built up in the first part of the nineteenth century was fading into a tradition.

"So I went to Brooklyn to live, and became a broker! " Mr. Lincoln laughed.

In analyzing his work, however, one cannot help but feel that American literature is the gainer by his plunge into the commercial world, which gave him his opportunity to write, for as no author of recent years he has portrayed so vividly the types whose quaint life along the New England coast has kept its character, even now.

The peoples of the Cape come of a sturdy race, as all the New England settlers, primitive in their ideas of right and wrong, tempered by a certain shrewdness in their mental attitude toward barter and trade. To them the sea was the highway of the world, and they found in the depths a source of revenue and on the surface a trade that led them around the Horn, into the Far East. In the hundred odd years that followed their early adventures, there came into being a fleet of sturdy vessels sailing yearly from Cape towns—ships that went to the great ports of England and France, ships that whaled off Labrador, and ships that dared the Pacific and returned laden with rich cargoes of the Orient.

As the trade expanded, the type of man who was master of the boat changed. He was no longer the Puritan fisherman who seldom ventured far from land—he was the rover, the shrewd man of business who had his offices in the far corners of the earth, his vision and attitude toward life broadened. To his firmly implanted sense of morality he added a characteristic gift of humor, flavored by his contact with varying types of nationalities.

Even as late as sixty or seventy years ago, it was unusual for the native Cape Cod boy not to go to sea in his early teens. A few of them remained behind to become storekeepers, or to take up the profession—the town doctor or lawyer, but most of them, even though they did not follow the life in after years, shipped for a voyage or two. At twenty years of age, the young man who expected to follow the sea as a profession was, in all probabilities, an officer, at thirty a part owner of a vessel. If he had luck and had come home from one voyage after a profitable trade, he became part owner of several ships, with an office in one of the larger towns, or perhaps as far away as Boston. Later, always taking into consideration that he might sail with one of his own ships for the pleasure of the voyage, he returned to the Cape Cod large wooden house; he had surely built, to spend the rest of his life in dignified luxury, living chiefly in the days when he had been an active sailor.

It was in this life that Mr. Lincoln grew up. From his family and neighbors he heard tales that they told one another, of adventures of the sea, or ashore in a land of strange people and customs. Even Mr. Lincoln's mother had made a sea voyage after her marriage—perhaps as a bride. The knowledge and love of the sea thrilled him, and, with this in his mind, Mr. Lincoln became to reveal these romantic peoples in fiction.

" As my mother and 1 were alone in the world, and as I was to be a business man, it was decided that I had better not waste time in going to college. So, as I said before, I went to live in Brooklyn and entered a broker's office. It was not work to my liking," however, for I wanted to draw, and eventually, under the guidance of Henry Sandham, whose familiar signature was 'Hy,' I went to Boston. There I took an office with another fellow and we started to do commercial work. We were not overwhelmingly successful, and often, to make the picture sell better, I wrote a verse or a joke. Sometimes the verse or joke sold without the drawing. Shortly after this, Sterling Elliott, who was editor of the League of American Wheelman, sent for me and offered me a position as staff illustrator. I accepted. That was in the clays when everyone rode a bicycle, and the journal had a circulation of over one hundred and twenty-five thousand weekly, so my verses and illustrations became known to a fairly large public.

" In the meantime I was back in Brooklyn, married to a Massachusetts girl, and doing considerable verse for various publications. They were mostly poems in dialect (that is, in the vernacular of the Cape), and I had almost unconsciously turned to the Cape for my inspiration. I sensed the fact that there was subtle humor in the men and women of my own stock. Then, too, they were unusual characters, and the homes that made a background for their lives were picturesque to a superlative degree.

" It was about this same period that 1 wrote my first short story. I went again to the Cape for my inspiration, drawing the type of man I knew best for my central character, and the story sold to the Saturday Evening Post.

" And I have been writing fiction ever since. In 1904 my first novel, 'Cap'n Eri' was published. Other novels have followed with fairly annual regularity. They have all centered about Cape Cod and its people, for having thoroughly mastered the psychology of a type of American that was known, appreciated, though through an economic law, fast becoming extinct, it seems better to keep on picturing these people. I have, of course, taken them away from the Cape, setting their individuality in various phases of life.

"The type of sea captain who figures in my stories has not necessarily an accurately corresponding type in my acquaintance. Going back to the Cape after having lived in New York and Boston, I was able to get varying angles on the lives of men and women I had known from childhood. The old sea captains that I remembered best as a child were of more than one character, classified according to their work. One was the dignified old man who had traveled to some far-away corner of the earth and returned prosperous, to spend the rest of his days as an autocrat among his own people. He had met strange peoples, he had been trusted with a ship, and, as in the days I write of there were no instantaneous means of talking across the oceans, he was shrewd at bargaining, and, being one of the owners of the ship, lost no chance to bring home a cargo that would bring rich returns. In other words, he was a shrewd trader as well as a sailing master. The same dignified bearing that he used in his trade followed him on land, and, though jovial in manner, he was developed in dignity and character.

"The other type of captain was more popular with the youngsters. He may have been as shrewd, and possibly made as much money, but he was filled with a greater sense of humor, and took life as a pastime. Men of this description would gather round the stove and tell wonderful stories, though all sea captains talk 'shop' when they are together.

" Then, too, there were what are termed the 'longshore captains.' These men were mostly engaged in fishing, or in trading with coast towns and cities. They were necessarily more limited in their views, for they spent more time ashore, often working a good-sized garden, fishing when the spirit moved, and running a schooner to New York or Boston if the chance came.                                               

"Of all the sea captains, however, those that I knew best were those who were actually sailing in the '70's and '8o's —and who were largely engaged in carrying oranges and lemons from Mediterranean ports. These men were really the last of our sailing captains. I have one friend in particular, who was in the fruit trade, and his stories of how they crowded sail and took every risk to bring in their cargoes are many and thrilling to those who love the sea. Fruit, of course, is highly perishable, and while it might be a valuable cargo one day, a week later it would be worthless, therefore, the sea races and adventures. But the steamship drove out these men, and not until the start of the European war did there seem any possibility of our getting back our great sailing merchant marine.

"The old captain was a picturesque character, and I wrote of him—the man who had sailed the seven seas. In drawing the type, I did not choose one man—the various captains that have figured in my books are entirely fictitious —for it seemed to me that it was hard to find one man who could fulfill all the characteristics of one fictional character. My captains are composites of many men, as I feel that it is hardly fair to accurately describe a living man, when writing fiction.

"Physically, all of the sea captains of the Cape have had certain characteristics in common. One man might have been large in stature, another small, but both had muscles of steel, were men of quick action when asserting the physical side of their calling. Mentally, they differed as all men differ. There are those who were shrewd, almost to meanness, while others were of a more open hearted nature. There were, men of the Cape who had peculiarities which their picturesque surroundings intensified. Some of them might almost have been called 'queer.'

"Take these particular characteristics added to the real worth of the man, and you have the types I have been able to portray. In my search for material, I may have seen, or heard of, three different men, each having some particular characteristic that made them unusual—love for an odd pet, a routine existence ashore that resembled the day's work at sea, or a custom, such as making a monthly pilgrimage to the wharf where he first set sail. These three hobbies of three men could be blended into the picture of one man. All my captains are decidedly composite drawings.

"The same is true with the other characters of my books. My Cape women are generally true to type—big hearted, motherly women who love the sea. My other characters, with the exception of the Portuguese, who I occasionally mention as Cape dwellers, are obviously drawn from the city types one sees in everyday life.

"After having studied the man, it is not difficult to imagine what he would do in certain society. In 'Cap'n Warren's Wards' I took my Cape Codder to the city and showed that his high sense of what was right and wrong, and his saving sense of humor, were as much in evidence in one place as in another. In other words, a good man is the same everywhere. And in 'Kent Knowles,' I took my hero to England, and the contrast made the story a revelation of the Cape Cod type."

After all, under the closest examination, the Cape Cod type that Mr. Lincoln has portrayed to the delight of thousands of readers is not entirely dissimilar to the other New England types.

"They come from the same English stock," Mr. Lincoln explained, "and originally followed the same line of thought as their friends and relatives they left behind, when they drew apart from the Plymouth settlement near Boston, and built new homes on the Cape. The vital difference is in what has happened to them since the building of the merchant marine. While in the inland villages of New England,one finds types who still live with grim puritanical viewpoints on the world at large, the men and women of the Cape had been in touch with the world and received from experiences a broadening influence. With this influence came a sense of cheer, and these two splendid attributes, added to the very high sense of morality in the broadest sense of the word, made a race of men and women of quality and worth.

" But very unfortunately the merchant marine died away till even the majority of fishing done about the Cape is in the hands of the Portuguese who emigrated to the Cape some fifty years ago. With the passing of the sailing ship, the fellows who, in their early teens, would have gone to sea, kept on studying a few years longer, and then went to Boston. The cry of the Cape is the cry of all the rest of the country districts. The young people have gone—because the cities and larger towns offered them good wages and a life that was free from the monotony of the small farms.

" Whether the type of old sea captain that I have portrayed in my stories is gone forever, is a question. Certainly each summer I find that the ranks have perceptibly thinned. The longshore captain is still there, many of the men who are not any older than myself, but their viewpoint is not that of a man who sailed his square rigged ship out one morning with China as his destination. Since the beginning of the war, the square rigged ship has made its appearance again, and the sailing vessel has become a valuable property. Will it keep up ? Time only can answer that question. One thing is certain, however, if the United States is to have another set of men as were represented by the Sea Captains (and I am not limiting this remark to the men in any set locality) of the days of the clipper ship, they will have to be bred."

Perhaps Mr. Lincoln has unconsciously put himself into his books—most writers do—and being of seafaring stock, with the smell of the brine in his nostrils, the creator of "Cap'n Eri " is a Cape Codder who has put into his books the adventures he might have had on the Seven Seas.