List Of Contents | Contents of Confessions of a Summer Colonist, by Howells
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[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the
file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an
entire meal of them.  D.W.]

LITERATURE AND LIFE--The Confessions of a Summer Colonist

by William Dean Howells


The season is ending in the little summer settlement on the Down East
coast where I have been passing the last three months, and with each
loath day the sense of its peculiar charm grows more poignant.
A prescience of the homesickness I shall feel for it when I go already
begins to torment me, and I find myself wishing to imagine some form of
words which shall keep a likeness of it at least through the winter; some
shadowy semblance which I may turn to hereafter if any chance or change
should destroy or transform it, or, what is more likely, if I should
never come back to it.  Perhaps others in the distant future may turn to
it for a glimpse of our actual life in one of its most characteristic
phases; I am sure that in the distant present there are many millions of
our own inlanders to whom it would be altogether strange.


In a certain sort fragile is written all over our colony; as far as the
visible body of it is concerned it is inexpressibly perishable; a fire
and a high wind could sweep it all away; and one of the most American of
all American things is the least fitted among them to survive from the
present to the future, and impart to it the significance of what may soon
be a "portion and parcel" of our extremely forgetful past.

It is also in a supremely transitional moment: one might say that last
year it was not quite what it is now, and next year it may be altogether
different.  In fact, our summer colony is in that happy hour when the
rudeness of the first summer conditions has been left far behind, and
vulgar luxury has not yet cumbrously succeeded to a sort of sylvan

The type of its simple and sufficing hospitalities is the seven-o'clock
supper.  Every one, in hotel or in cottage, dines between one and two,
and no less scrupulously sups at seven, unless it is a few extremists who
sup at half-past seven.  At this function, which is our chief social
event, it is 'de rigueur' for the men not to dress, and they come in any
sort of sack or jacket or cutaway, letting the ladies make up the pomps
which they forego.  From this fact may be inferred the informality of the
men's day-time attire; and the same note is sounded in the whole range of
the cottage life, so that once a visitor from the world outside, who had
been exasperated beyond endurance by the absence of form among us (if
such an effect could be from a cause so negative), burst out with the
reproach, "Oh, you make a fetish of your informality!"

"Fetish" is, perhaps, rather too strong a word, but I should not mind
saying that informality was the tutelary genius of the place.  American
men are everywhere impatient of form.  It burdens and bothers them, and
they like to throw it off whenever they can.  We may not be so very
democratic at heart as we seem, but we are impatient of ceremonies that
separate us when it is our business or our pleasure to get at one
another; and it is part of our splendor to ignore the ceremonies, as we
do the expenses.  We have all the decent grades of riches and poverty in
our colony, but our informality is not more the treasure of the humble
than of the great.  In the nature of things it cannot last, however, and
the only question is how long it will last.  I think, myself, until some
one imagines giving an eight-o'clock dinner; then all the informalities
will go, and the whole train of evils which such a dinner connotes will
rush in.


The cottages themselves are of several sorts, and some still exist in the
earlier stages of mutation from the fishermen's and farmers' houses which
formed their germ.  But these are now mostly let as lodgings to bachelors
and other single or semi-detached folks who go for their meals to the
neighboring hotels or boarding-houses.  The hotels are each the centre of
this sort of centripetal life, as well as the homes of their own scores
or hundreds of inmates.  A single boarding-house gathers about it half a
dozen dependent cottages which it cares for, and feeds at its table; and
even where the cottages have kitchens and all the housekeeping
facilities, their inmates sometimes prefer to dine at the hotels.
By far the greater number of cottagers, however, keep house, bringing
their service with them from the cities, and settling in their summer
homes for three or four or five months.

The houses conform more or less to one type: a picturesque structure of
colonial pattern, shingled to the ground, and stained or left to take a
weather-stain of grayish brown, with cavernous verandas, and dormer-
windowed roofs covering ten or twelve rooms.  Within they are, if not
elaborately finished, elaborately fitted up, with a constant regard to
health in the plumbing and drainage.  The water is brought in a system of
pipes from a lake five miles away, and as it is only for summer use the
pipes are not buried from the frost, but wander along the surface,
through the ferns and brambles of the tough little sea-side knolls on
which the cottages are perched, and climb the old tumbling stone walls of
the original pastures before diving into the cemented basements.

Most of the cottages are owned by their occupants, and furnished by them;
the rest, not less attractive and hardly less tastefully furnished,
belong to natives, who have caught on to the architectural and domestic
preferences of the summer people, and have built them to let.  The
rugosities of the stony pasture land end in a wooded point seaward, and
curve east and north in a succession of beaches.  It is on the point, and
mainly short of its wooded extremity, that the cottages of our settlement
are dropped, as near the ocean as may be, and with as little order as
birds' nests in the grass, among the sweet-fern, laurel, bay, wild
raspberries, and dog-roses, which it is the ideal to leave as untouched
as possible.  Wheel-worn lanes that twist about among the hollows find
the cottages from the highway, but foot-paths approach one cottage from
another, and people walk rather than drive to each other's doors.
From the deep-bosomed, well-sheltered little harbor the tides swim
inland, half a score of winding miles, up the channel of a river which
without them would be a trickling rivulet.  An irregular line of cottages
follows the shore a little way, and then leaves the river to the
schooners and barges which navigate it as far as the oldest pile-built
wooden bridge in New England, and these in their turn abandon it to the
fleets of row-boats and canoes in which summer youth of both sexes
explore it to its source over depths as clear as glass, past wooded
headlands and low, rush-bordered meadows, through reaches and openings of
pastoral fields, and under the shadow of dreaming groves.

If there is anything lovelier than the scenery of this gentle river I do
not know it; and I doubt if the sky is purer and bluer in paradise.  This
seems to be the consensus, tacit or explicit, of the youth who visit it,
and employ the landscape for their picnics and their water parties from
the beginning to the end of summer.

The river is very much used for sunsets by the cottagers who live on it,
and who claim a superiority through them to the cottagers on the point.
An impartial mind obliges me to say that the sunsets are all good in our
colony; there is no place from which they are bad; and yet for a certain
tragical sunset, where the dying day bleeds slowly into the channel till
it is filled from shore to shore with red as far as the eye can reach,
the river is unmatched.

For my own purposes, it is not less acceptable, however, when the fog has
come in from the sea like a visible reverie, and blurred the whole valley
with its whiteness.  I find that particularly good to look at from the
trolley-car which visits and revisits the river before finally leaving
it, with a sort of desperation, and hiding its passion with a sudden
plunge into the woods.


The old fishing and seafaring village, which has now almost lost the
recollection of its first estate in its absorption with the care of the
summer colony, was sparsely dropped along the highway bordering the
harbor, and the shores of the river, where the piles of the time-worn
wharves are still rotting.  A few houses of the past remain, but the type
of the summer cottage has impressed itself upon all the later building,
and the native is passing architecturally, if not personally, into
abeyance.  He takes the situation philosophically, and in the season he
caters to the summer colony not only as the landlord of the rented
cottages, and the keeper of the hotels and boarding-houses, but as
livery-stableman, grocer, butcher, marketman, apothecary, and doctor;
there is not one foreign accent in any of these callings.  If the native
is a farmer, he devotes himself to vegetables, poultry, eggs, and fruit
for the summer folks, and brings these supplies to their doors; his
children appear with flowers; and there are many proofs that he has
accurately sized the cottagers up in their tastes and fancies as well as
their needs.  I doubt if we have sized him up so well, or if our somewhat
conventionalized ideal of him is perfectly representative.  He is,
perhaps, more complex than he seems; he is certainly much more self-
sufficing than might have been expected.  The summer folks are the
material from which his prosperity is wrought, but he is not dependent,
and is very far from submissive.  As in all right conditions, it is here
the employer who asks for work, not the employee; and the work must be
respectfully asked for.  There are many fables to this effect, as, for
instance, that of the lady who said to a summer visitor, critical of the
week's wash she had brought home, "I'll wash you and I'll iron you, but I
won't take none of your jaw."  A primitive independence is the keynote of
the native character, and it suffers no infringement, but rather boasts
itself.  "We're independent here, I tell you," said the friendly person
who consented to take off the wire door.  "I was down Bangor way doin' a
piece of work, and a fellow come along, and says he, 'I want you should
hurry up on that job.' 'Hello!' says I, 'I guess I'll pull out.'  Well,
we calculate to do our work," he added, with an accent which sufficiently
implied that their consciences needed no bossing in the performance.

The native compliance with any summer-visiting request is commonly in
some such form as, "Well, I don't know but what I can," or, "I guess
there ain't anything to hinder me."  This compliance is so rarely, if
ever, carried to the point of domestic service that it may fairly be said
that all the domestic service, at least of the cottagers, is imported.
The natives will wait at the hotel tables; they will come in "to
accommodate"; but they will not "live out."  I was one day witness of the
extreme failure of a friend whose city cook had suddenly abandoned him,
and who applied to a friendly farmer's wife in the vain hope that she
might help him to some one who would help his family out in their strait.
"Why, there ain't a girl in the Hollow that lives out!  Why, if you was
sick abed, I don't know as I know anybody 't you could git to set up with
you."  The natives will not live out because they cannot keep their self-
respect in the conditions of domestic service.  Some people laugh at this
self-respect, but most summer folks like it, as I own I do.

In our partly mythical estimate of the native and his relation to us, he
is imagined as holding a kind of carnival when we leave him at the end of
the season, and it is believed that he likes us to go early.  We have had
his good offices at a fair price all summer, but as it draws to a close
they are rendered more and more fitfully.  From some, perhaps flattered,
reports of the happiness of the natives at the departure of the
sojourners, I have pictured them dancing a sort of farandole, and
stretching with linked hands from the farthest summer cottage up the
river to the last on the wooded point.  It is certain that they get
tired, and I could not blame them if they were glad to be rid of their
guests, and to go back to their own social life.  This includes church
festivals of divers kinds, lectures and shows, sleigh-rides, theatricals,
and reading-clubs, and a plentiful use of books from the excellently
chosen free village library.  They say frankly that the summer folks have
no idea how pleasant it is when they are gone, and I am sure that the
gayeties to which we leave them must be more tolerable than those which
we go back to in the city.  It may be, however, that I am too confident,
and that their gayeties are only different.  I should really like to know
just what the entertainments are which are given in a building devoted to
them in a country neighborhood three or four miles from the village.  It
was once a church, but is now used solely for social amusements.


The amusements of the summer colony I have already hinted at.  Besides
suppers, there are also teas, of larger scope, both afternoon and
evening.  There are hops every week at the two largest hotels, which are
practically free to all; and the bathing-beach is, of course, a supreme
attraction.  The bath-houses, which are very clean and well equipped,
are not very cheap, either for the season or for a single bath, and there
is a pretty pavilion at the edge of the sands.  This is always full of
gossiping spectators of the hardy adventurers who brave tides too remote
from the Gulf Stream to be ever much warmer than sixty or sixty-five
degrees.  The bathers are mostly young people, who have the courage of
their pretty bathing-costumes or the inextinguishable ardor of their
years.  If it is not rather serious business with them all, still I
admire the fortitude with which some of them remain in fifteen minutes.
Beyond our colony, which calls itself the Port, there is a far more
populous watering-place, east of the Point, known as the Beach, which is
the resort of people several grades of gentility lower than ours: so
many, in fact, that we never can speak of the Beach without averting our
faces, or, at the best, with a tolerant smile.  It is really a succession
of beaches, all much longer and, I am bound to say, more beautiful than
ours, lined with rows of the humbler sort of summer cottages known as
shells, and with many hotels of corresponding degree.  The cottages may
be hired by the week or month at about two dollars a day, and they are
supposed to be taken by inland people of little social importance.  Very
likely this is true; but they seemed to be very nice, quiet people, and I
commonly saw the ladies reading, on their verandas, books and magazines,
while the gentlemen sprayed the dusty road before them with the garden
hose.  The place had also for me an agreeable alien suggestion, and in
passing the long row of cottages I was slightly reminded of Scheveningen.

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