Robert Lowell called it “This field of Quakers with their unstoned graves” and in the morning light the swelling field where thousands of them lie, unmarked, holds only two or three stones placed, according to the historical marker, by members of breakaway sects the Quakers called Heretical Friends.
There don’t seem to be any heretical friends, at first glance, on this beautiful overcrowded Nantucket where I am spending a few days with my family at the end of my long August trip. Everyone is white, everyone is blond, everyone is walking or riding bikes—well, not quite, but that’s my general impression—everyone lives in perfect shingle houses set in glorious gardens; there is no trouble here, no war, no bad children. To the beach, where the only real problem is what kind of sandwich to take; to the surfboards, the boogie boards, and all the other entertainments of well-off white people on what sometimes seems an endless vacation.
Then comes the Quaker graveyard with its stern, silent reminder. Nearby the stones of the colonial graveyard—this island was settled in the early 17th century—face west, to my surprise. Waiting for an assured resurrection, bones were supposed to face east, toward the rising sun. Perhaps salvation is so certain here you can turn your back on it; perhaps a gentler view of mortality prevailed although the ordeals of whaling would seem to call for the stern admonition I’ve seen on old slate gravestones in inland New England towns, usually topped with the carving of a skull:
When this you see, remember me.
As I am now you soon will be.Like Ernest Hemingway’s mother, gifted women are all around us in Nantucket.
This island has provided a temporary resting place for several writers, Herman Melville not among them; he gathered the plot for Moby Dick from the first-hand account of one of the survivors of the wreck of the Essex—“stove by a whale”—given to Melville on his only whaling trip by the survivor’s son. The event provides the plot as well for In The Heart of the Sea, the excellent account that to my mind far outshines Moby Dick, one of those literary icons raised up by critics who never stop to wonder why it is impossible to read.
In The Heart of the Sea describes how the wives of Nantucket ran the town during their husbands’ three-year absences on whaling ships; they made use of an object called a “He’s-At-Home” for purposes easy to imagine. Their prominence in the 18th and 19th centuries makes it even harder to understand the island’s contemporary neglect of the women who have starred its history.
Ernest Hemingway was eleven when he stayed here for six summer weeks with his mother, a gifted soprano who gave up her career to marry; she had engagements to sing with the choirs of the many churches on the island. Ernest spent time on the wharfs talking to fishermen and even hitching a ride on a fishing boat, which provided the material for his novel, written many years later, The Old Man and The Sea—perhaps another icon although not so hard to read. It is seldom noticed that mothers with careers free their sons for adventure; instead, Grace Hall-Hemingway is remembered by some, on small evidence, as a tyrant. The Mary Carpenter song by that title probably is still more easily recognized.
The town of Nantucket burned to the ground in 1840 but was quickly rebuilt; the Atheneum with its white columns replaced the burned library and became the site of Frederick Douglass’ first speech on his life as a slave; he had escaped to freedom three years earlier.
Nantucket prided itself on its early Quaker tradition of abolition; the story of the whale-stove Essex, which sailed out of Nantucket Harbor, was not much repeated because the four African-American sailors were the first to die in the whaleboats the crew put out from the wreck. Only five survived 93 days in the open Pacific, largely because they ate their dead companions. Why the African-Americans died first has never been explained.
The island is the site of the Maria Mitchell Association, named for the Nantucket-born astronomer who was the first woman to be officially awarded that title. The Maria Mitchell Association here has an observatory and claims on its website to support her legacy, but it is not clear how since its programming seems largely aimed at explaining sea life to children. However, a newly discovered asteroid, number 1455, was named “Mitchella” in her honor.
Like Hemingway’s mother, gifted women are all around us; the eighteenth-century lighthouse keeper, Ida Lewis, whose house I glimpsed as we passed through Newport, is probably not the only woman who kept those early essential coastal lights fired up even during the long cold winter nights of the past century.
Lucretia Mott was born here; she is one of the two founders of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, the first step in our long struggle to achieve the vote. There is, according to the map, a lane here named for her, but since many streets and lanes have no signposts, I was unable to find it on my walk this morning. I was glad to remember that in my soon to be released biography of Doris Duke, her purchase of a bust of Lucretia Mott, which seems to have disappeared—it is certainly no longer at DD’s house in Newport, Rough Point, which has now been stripped of nearly all mention of its fascinating owner: even the room devoted to her philanthropy has been dismantled, leading a visitor to conclude that he never knew anyone to possess so many chairs.
An explanation for these curious historical omissions on Nantucket was provided by a barn turned into a studio and summer home by two mid-century painter sisters from Philadelphia. It is certainly the most interesting house on the island, and shows an imaginative daring and sense of humor foreign to both The Oldest House—as grim as its 1702 period—and the grandiose whale captains’ houses on Main Street, several of which look like Louisiana mansions (the island’s connection to the slave trade has, far as I know, never been explored).
The sisters came every summer to paint, and several rather murky oils hang in the beautiful high-ceiling studio they created in their barn. They were viewed with great suspicion by their neighbors, who peered at them over their garden fence; one self-appointed architectural snuck into their house and examined before proclaiming to one and all, “Once a pigpen, always a pigpen.” This sealed the sisters’ fate and during the many years they persisted in coming for the summer, they were ostracized by the rest of Nantucket.
What was their crime?
They were not married, lived independently on their own fortunes, and devoted their lives to their art.
I wonder if even today this bunch of attributes brings down the social hatchet.
By the end of the Eighteenth Century, the era of the Quakers with their belief in simplicity, peace and social justice had been replaced by the wealth of whaleship owners, and that in turn has been replaced by the wealth of summer vacation home-owners, who wield so much power here that an attempt to build affordable housing for the many young workers in cafes and stores was foiled when an anonymous millionaire purchased the land.
It seems to me that wherever large sums of money have accumulated, the young suffer; and so do women.