Monday, August 15, 2011

Where past is present

This past Saturday evening I returned from an extended tour of the east coast visiting family from both sides of our marriage. The trip included a week spent on Nantucket Island, a place I've visited several times with my wife, but not for many years. This year I was struck again, as I always am, by how vivid the past feels as you walk around Nantucket. Or, said another way, you seem to walk at once in two different centuries: the 21st and the 19th. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick says this most eloquently in a film I recently saw about the island. Philbrick says--and I'm paraphrasing here--that on Nantucket ones feels that one is living an imaginary life that has somehow been given body. (The film, written and directed by Ric Burns, the brother of celebrated documentarian Ken Burns, is currently being shown at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.) There's an obvious reason why the past seems so present on the island--the place barely ever changes. In part this stasis is an accident of history, but in large measure it is due to design. I learned from Burns's film that Nantucket, for being such a small location, has a remarkable number of extant pre-civil war houses. These number in the hundreds. The reason being that after the civil war--when in so much of the country industries boomed, populations spread, and old buildings had to be scrapped to make room for new--Nantucket's economy went into a decades-long depression after the collapse of the whaling industry. There was little economic incentive to destroy the old houses; so they just sat there. And when Nantucket's economy revived via a new concentration on tourism, there was every incentive to repair and preserve these old houses.

But this is only part of the story. Just as important, if not more important, are the strict regulations that govern development on the island. A great deal of habitable space on Nantucket is owned by a public trust. This trust buys up land for the express purpose of making sure the land cannot be developed. With extremely few exceptions, no chain stores are allowed on the island. There are no traffic lights--anywhere. The cobblestone streets of Nantucket town center cannot and will not be replaced. Last but not least, any new constructions must be built to fit specific aesthetic standards, with the result being that at least 90% of homes on the island are of similar design and covered with wooden shingles that in the sea air quickly darken to the distinctive deep gray shade that one sees everywhere. In other words, any new building on Nantucket invariably looks old.

I realize that for some this must sound awfully claustrophobic, even socialistic, certainly in contrast with the wooly, no-holds-barred, slash-and-burn state of development in nearly every other part of the United States. But the beautiful result of these various regulations is immediately apparent, even before you step on the island. You can see it from the ferry as you approach. Except for the skyline of Manhattan, I can't think of a more distinctive and recognizable "city" view in America than that of Nantucket town center seen from a ferry in Nantucket Sound.

Finally too there is the fact that Nantucketers have never forgotten the famously vigorous and profitable years of the late 18th to mid 19th century, when the whaling industry reigned supreme on the island and Nantucketers ruled the whaling industry. Reminders of that maritime past are everywhere on Nantucket, not just in the Whaling Museum. It seems to ooze up through the fabric of the streets, through shingles of the houses, and even into the sand at your feet. (Perhaps it is no accident that Nantucket has been called, by various authors and ghost tour guides, "the most haunted place in America.") And given that one cannot escape the past on Nantucket; that at times one feels that one is literally walking through it--in an immediate, real way that places like colonial Williamsburg can only hope to mimic--it should come as no surprise that the island provides, at least for me, excellent stimlation for historical stories. I know of several histories of the island. And I know of one bestselling historical novel--Ahab's Wife--set there. But to date I am not aware of many historical short fictions set on Nantucket. (Suggestions anyone?) Years ago, on a weeklong visit, I started five or six separate short stories, eager to get my characters down and plots started before I left the island. Over the course of the following six or eight months, I finished, revised, and edited each of the stories, many of which subsequently found their way into publication. I loved, and still love, that little group of fictions, and tried to make them the second half of a collection of short stories that never found its way into print. On this last trip I decided that the failure of the collection was a good thing. Because the Nantucket stories--none of which were strictly historical but were certainly informed by history--never quite matched up with the stories in the first half of the collection. And I think now that a smarter choice would be to compose a group of historical stories set on Nantucket and then combine them with my earlier stories to create a full fictional treatment of the place--a mixture of past and present--fitting for an island where former centuries seem to breathe on you in every footstep and around every corner is another imagined life.


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