The Outermost House by Henry Beston: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod

Cover image Henry Beston’s The Outermost House is something of an American nature classic, an account of the year he spent living on a beach near Eastham, Massachusetts not far from the very tip of Cape Cod in the 1920s. This new edition comes with charming illustrations by Pete Smith who also designed its beautiful jacket.

An ambulance driver in World War One, Beston was a writer of fairy tales who decided to build himself a two-room summer house on the five acres of beach he bought in 1925, making sure to include a fireplace and an oil-fired stove. At the end of what was to be a two-week stay in September 1927, he decided to live in Fo’castle for a year, observing the rhythms of nature in this remote often harsh yet beautiful place. Apart from weekly tramps to the local stores for fresh supplies, occasionally helped by friends, and nightly calls by the coast guards as part of their patrols, Beston had little contact with other people but never felt lonely. From marvelling at the glorious night sky, with none of the light pollution that most of us hardly notice obscuring his view, to having his feet tickled by a shoal of fish on a nocturnal walk through the sea, to watching the comings and goings of migratory birds, Beston had much to occupy his year which ends fittingly with a night spent sleeping, albeit rather fitfully, under the stars

The Outermost House comes with an introduction by Philip Hoare which neatly sketches in details of Beston’s life, adding Hoare’s own description of the beach on which Fo’castle stood for a decade after Beston died until it was washed away by a storm in 1978. Beston’s reverence for nature and its importance to humanity is clear from the outset. Although there’s no mention of religion, there’s something of the spiritual about his attitude which resonates throughout the book.

Nature is a part of our humanity, and without some awareness and experience of that divine mystery man ceases to be man

Beston writes lyrically about the world around him, his awe at the land and seascape’s grandeur clear from the outset.

Solitary and elemental, unsullied and remote, visited and possessed by the outer sea, these sands might be the end or the beginning of the world  

The language and cadence of his writing transports you to Cape Cod with its crashing breakers, bird cries and shifting sand dunes. The book is studded with gorgeous word pictures, lovely descriptions which are a product of writerly skill and keen observation.

Silvery grey-green all summer long, in autumn it puts on gold and russet-golden colourings of singular delicacy and beauty

One of the most effective passages is Beston’s description of the sound of the sea, the constant yet changing soundtrack of his year

I listen to the rushes and the bursts, the tramplings, and the long, intermingled thunderings, never wearying of the sonorous and universal sound  

I fell in love with this timeless, beautiful book, as you can probably tell. Impossible to read it, without thinking of climate change. There were man-made hazards in Beston’s day – he describes futile attempts to rescue birds from oil-spillages – but such incidents seem almost trivial given what we now know. Beston ends his book with the exhortation:

Do no dishonor to the earth lest you dishonor the spirit of man  

Relevant then, and even more so now.

24 thoughts on “The Outermost House by Henry Beston: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod”

  1. Have you read any of May Sarton’s journals? She lived what was often a very solitary life on the coast further north in Maine and your quotes put me in mind of some of her descriptions of the land and seascape that surrounded her home.

  2. How serendipitous to see your review today! I just submitted my TLS review of this book on Monday. It’s a lovely rediscovery, isn’t it? His words on the proper relationship between people and nature still seem apt. I also noted the mystical and poetic language, and found Hoare’s introduction very illuminating on the context of Beston’s life.

    1. That is a coicidence! I often feel those introductions are superfluous but Hoare really did add something, not least his own obvious love for the book. And thanks for your additional comment about Sarton’s journals. I’ll check them out.

  3. I could sit and listen to the sea for hours. Not too keen on the idea though of a moonlight paddle where I couldn’t see what was nibbling at my toes. It might be something that wants more than a nibble…

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