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

Henry Beston

Book cover

A lovely book. Oddly enough, I first learned of it because of “Battlestar Galactica”–the title of one of the episodes of the reboot series, “Islanded In A Stream Of Stars,” is taken from this book.

The obvious comparison for TOH is “Walden,” also a book about living in isolation for a year and appreciating nature. For better or for worse, Beston is a lot less explicitly philosophical about the whole thing than Thoreau was in his book. He talks very little about why he wanted to live in his Cape Cod beach shack–to some extent I feel like he assumed it would be self-evident to the reader. He also doesn’t draw much of anything in the way of explicit conclusions from the experience. Instead, the book is a fairly straightforward, if poetic, chronicle of his year on “the great beach,” focusing especially on his experience of the sea and of animals. I won’t say that it’s better or worse than “Walden”; I’m glad both of them exist.

The other closest reference I can think of, again maybe oddly, is the “Piper At The Gates Of Dawn” chapter of “The Wind In The Willows.” Like that chapter, TOH is unmistakably pagan. Beston has a reverent perspective toward nature but, surprisingly for a New England book from the early 20th century, not a hint of “God’s wonderful creation” or anything like that. As the introduction to my copy suggested, there is a fair amount of the book that could reasonably be characterized as sun worship–no mystification or personification, but just a recognition of the way that all life (that we ever encounter) is driven by this unique force. The spirit Pan also plays this role for Kenneth Grahame–an atavistic connection to the countryside and nature in a land that has mostly moved on.

There are not a lot of people in the book, but Beston is great at writing about them too. Shipwrecks play a very important role in the life of the great beach (it surprised me that this was so even in the late 1920s, though I guess the Titanic was only 15 years earlier). One of my favorite parts of the book is Beston’s description of how, after a wreck, people would show up on the beach to quietly take away anything useful that could be salvaged. It’s clear from his description how the people both recognize that this is nothing to be proud of, and a little grim, but are also not about to let anything go to waste.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars