Sharon L. Dean Professor, Department of English and Communications Rivier College Nashua, NH 03060 firstname.lastname@example.org Thaxter, Celia. Among the Isles of Shoals. Boston: JR Osgood,1873. Rpt. Hanover: Univ. Press of New England, 2003. Birth: June 29, 1835, Portsmouth, NH Death: August 25, 1894, Appledore Island In the twenty-first century, Celia Thaxter's name has become as recognizable as it was in the nineteenth, particularly in the state of New Hampshire. Information on her is readily available in biographies and critical essays; a web site devoted to her includes a time-line of her life and links to articles on such topics as her writing, her painting, her interest in spiritualism and her connection to the Isles of Shoals; and several performances have been developed around her life and work. Garden enthusiasts recognize her for her island garden, which she celebrated in a book published just before her death in 1894. If art historians do not recognize her watercolors and china paintings, they recognize Childe Hassam's paintings of her in her garden, many of which were reproduced as illustrations for Thaxter's An Island Garden (1894). Even fans of contemporary fiction may recognize Thaxter's connection to the Smuttynose murders popularized in Anita Shreve's The Weight of Water. These brutal axe murders of Karen Christensen and Anethe Christensen, wives of Norwegian brothers who were part of the fishing community on Smuttynose, happened on March 6, 1873, the same year that Thaxter published her tribute to her beloved islands in Among the Isles of Shoals. Just five days after the murders in a letter to Elizabeth Pierce, she described the awfulness of the murders and the account given to her by Karen's sister, Maren Hontvet, who had witnessed the murders and barely escaped with her own life. Thaxter wrote more formally about them in "A Memorable Murder," an article for the May 1875 issue of the Atlantic Monthly where she again recalled the murders and the conviction and hanging of fisherman Louis Wagner, whom she had called a "Prussian devil" in her letter to Pierce. Conspiracy theories being what they are, despite the eyewitness account and Wagner's own confession, speculations for an alternative murderer abound. Some suspect the eyewitness Maren Hontvek; others, her husband John or a stranger from a mysterious schooner docked off-shore during the night. Still others speculate that the perpetrator was Thaxter's son Karl, who had been partially crippled and perhaps brain damaged during his birth in 1852 on Appledore Island, though biographer Norma Mandel suggests that he may have been afflicted with cerebral palsy. The intrigue surrounding the murders has spawned not only The Weight of Water, but also a ballad by Portsmouth songwriter John Perrault, an unfinished film begun in 1952 by Louis de Rochemont, and a famous New Hampshire beer. Despite her reporting on them, the Smuttynose murders provide little access to Thaxter's life and work. Born at 48 Daniel Street in Portsmouth in 1835, the only daughter of Thomas and Eliza Rymes Laighton, Celia spent many of her childhood winters on White Island where her father took a job as lighthouse keeper in 1839. That year Thomas and his brother also bought Smuttynose, Hog, and Malaga islands. The family moved permanently to Hog Island, which they renamed Appledore, in 1847. Here Thomas partnered with Levi Thaxter to open a hotel that became a summer gathering place for artists and writers, visited during the course of Celia's lifetime by writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell; by Celia's lifelong friends Sarah Orne Jewett, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Annie Fields, wife of publisher and editor James T. Fields; by artists William Morris Hunt and Childe Hassam; and by various musicians, physicians, and ministers. Levi Thaxter was eleven years older than Celia and continued to depend on his well-connected family for financial support, yet she married him in 1851 when she was just sixteen. Their lives were filled with social and family obligations, with Celia's conflicts between living on the mainland or the islands, and with the difficulty of raising the impaired Karl and their two other sons, John, born in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1854 and Roland, born in Newtonville in 1858. When Levi Thaxter sold his share of Appledore House in 1858 to Celia's father, he bought a small cottage on the island that became known as Thaxter cottage. Celia spent increasing amounts of time there, even leaving the children on the mainland with Levi and an Irish nurse. After the Civil War as Levi's health deteriorated, Celia stayed more and more on Appledore with Karl while Levi traveled to Florida. Though they never publicly separated, they spent much of their lives apart until Levi's death in 1884. By this time, Celia had become well-known for her poetry and non-fiction about island life, had begun to paint, and had devoted much of her energy to her garden. Thaxter published her celebration of island life, Among the Isle of Shoals, at a time when she was increasingly committed to living on Appledore Island. Part history, part travel narrative, part memoir, the book provides as much insight on post-Civil War cultural traditions as it does on Thaxter's personal life. Thaxter traces the history of the islands to the early days of British colonization, naming John Smith, who mapped them, as their European discoverer in 1614. Her accounts of British and Welsh fishermen who populated the islands function as nostalgia for a simpler time when tough clergy kept the islanders God-fearing men and women. These were clergy like the seventeenth century's Rev. John Brock of whom Cotton Mather wrote, "He dwells as near Heaven as any man upon earth" (43). What Thaxter does not mention is that the islands also served as a holding pen for men like Thomas Morton, who sold alcohol and guns to the Indians near Plimouth Colony and whom the first Pilgrims shipped back to England via Star Island. Although Thaxter does not bury the darker historical side of the islands, mentioning for example the legend that the pirate Blackbeard honeymooned there, she de-emphasizes the drunkenness of the residents, both European and Indian, in favor of how they were finally brought into God's fold by various ministers and teachers in the nineteenth century. Thaxter contributes to the improvement of the islands by celebrating them for the tourists who will travel to her father's hotel or enjoy their atmosphere by reading about them. At the same time, she regrets the loss of the "picturesque" village as new settlers have "swept away nearly all the old houses, which have been replaced by smart new buildings, painted white with green blinds, and with modern improvements" (55). As much of her life as she lived on the islands, she writes as one separate from the majority of the inhabitants, whom she often describes as objects of the picturesque landscape. They are people with noticeable accents and vulgar but quaint vocabularies or crones like the woman she celebrates in her poem "A Woman of the Island" with her "hollow eyes like pits/and her mouth like a sunken cave" (67). They are people filled with superstition, who believe in the ghosts of the "evil-minded" Babb family or hear the voice of a woman "wrapped closely in a dark sea-cloak" pronouncing that "'He will come again'" (170, 178). Thaxter was both one with and different from these tough island inhabitants. Even as she was like "the people along the coast [who] rather look down upon the Shoalers as being beyond the bounds of civilization" (78), she became so connected with the landscape that engendered their superstitions that she embraced spiritualism, a movement that was rampant in post Civil War America. Thaxter worked with medium Rose Darrah, who contacted her to say that the deceased William Morris Hunt delivered a message that Celia's dead mother wanted to contact her. Thaxter, Annie Fields, and Sarah Orne Jewett all participated in sessions with Darrah and all eventually came to believe her a fraud. Thaxter, however, maintained a similar spiritual interest by following a quasi-religious system called Theosophy, which fit with her understanding of the importance of nature and her belief in an afterlife and in reincarnation. Despite her stories about ghostly figures, when Thaxter wrote Among the Isles of Shoals, she was writing in a realistic rather than a spiritual mode. When she describes the habits of the fishermen of the Isles of Shoals, she is working within the local color tradition. Unlike the local colorists, however, she does not develop any character into a fictional, rounded individual as does Sarah Orne Jewett in The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). A more appropriate tradition to connect to Among the Isles of Shoals is that of the travel narrative. From the mid-nineteenth century on, the number of these multiplied because the steamship and the railroad gave more people access to travel and allowed for wide distribution of the narratives writers published in magazines and books. Numbers vary, but the numbers from pre to post Civil War tripled and approached 2000 by the end of the century. Many of these narratives document travel to Europe, especially Italy, but others reminded people of the splendor of their own country and served as a way of reunifying the nation after the Civil War around a recognition that America's landscapes rivaled the cathedrals and palaces of Europe. So popular was the genre that Appletons' publishing house launched a subscription series called Picturesque America in 1870 that appeared twice monthly and that readers could also purchase as a bound coffee table volume. The series ran for two years and eventually produced a two-thousand page, two volume collection that weighed in at twenty pounds. Thaxter's close friend John Greenleaf Whittier and others who visited Appledore House were among the 100,000 subscribers. The subtitle of Picturesque America illustrates how a portion of Thaxter's book could have been excerpted in the series had it continued publication in 1873: A Delineation by Pen and Pencil of the Mountains, Rivers, Lakes, Forests, Water-falls, Shores, Cañons, Valleys, Cities, and Other Picturesque Features. Thaxter's book exhibits many of the characteristics of these travel narratives: an overview of the island's history, an account of its people, and, most significantly, a detailed description of its physical geography. In addition, her voice as an outside observer even though she lived on the islands would have been consistent with the voice of the travel narrative. Thaxter's connection to this wider tradition is also echoed in her reference to Melville's "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" in her first paragraph. Melville's narrative is hardly the "[delightful]" one that Thaxter makes it out to be. Although she wishes to place the "desolate" Isles of Shoals in the context of Melville's Galapagos islands, his is a far darker meditation on the human condition (7). Nevertheless, the reference allows Thaxter to remind her audience that they need not travel far to find enchantment and that she will lead them to it. Although it fits within the tradition of travel writing, Among the Isles of Shoals might also be called an anti-travel narrative in the tradition of Susan Fenimore Cooper and Henry David Thoreau. Four years before Thoreau published Walden (1854), James Fenimore Cooper's daughter Susan published Rural Hours (1850), a season by season account of the environment around her home in Cooperstown, New York, a book that went through nine editions. Where Susan Cooper preferred a "middle" landscape, believing that "the hand of man generally improved a landscape" ("A Dissolving View," 1852), Thoreau preferred the wilder land around Walden Pond. But even Thoreau lived only a mile from Concord center, to which he wore a path from his cabin in the woods. Isolated on the Isles of Shoals, especially in winter, Thaxter observes in her postage stamp of rock and sea a grander landscape than those of Cooperstown and Walden Pond. Her descriptions are more akin to the sublime than the beautiful or the picturesque. These were terms that artist Thomas Cole defined in his 1836 "Essay on American Scenery": the sublime emphasized the turbulent, the dark, the drama and fear of nature whereas the beautiful emphasized the smooth and harmonious and the picturesque emphasized the irregular and rough, but still pleasurable rather than fearful. Although the subject matter of the sublime generally features the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire or the even more rugged Yosemite peaks, Thaxter's turbulent ocean fits the sublime tradition at the same time that her depiction of the islands' inhabitants insists upon their picturesqueness. Her ocean is the site of dreadful storms and shipwrecks, a place where even the spring weather "has a fashion of leaping back into mid-winter . . . [when] all at once comes half a hurricane from the northwest, charged with the breath of all the remaining snow-heaps on the far mountain ranges,--a 'white-sea roarin' wind' that takes you back to January" (158-59). But settle the wind does and Thaxter's Isles of Shoals shift from the sublime to the beautiful softness of spring. The visual quality of Among the Isles of Shoals stunningly illustrates the devotion Thaxter had to painting, which she began in earnest the year after the book was published. But her visual eye is also informed by the two major sciences of the nineteenth century: geology and botany. Post-Darwinian geologists argued about whether the earth had been hit by sudden, cataclysmic change (catastrophism) or by gradual change (uniformitarianism, which won the day), but either way, they agreed that the landscape of the United States was older than that of Europe, a knowledge that informed the promotion of the American sublime to help generate national identity and pride. It is, therefore, fitting that Thaxter opens with a description of the geology that distinguishes the nine different Isles of Shoals. "Each island," she explains, "has its peculiar characteristics, . . . and no two are alike, though all are of the same coarse granite, mixed with masses and seams of quartz and felspar and gneiss and mica-slate, and interspersed with dikes of trap running in all directions" (17). Even more than geology, Thaxter knew the botany of the island. Women of her generation studied botany in school with as many as 82% of the female academies offering botany in their curriculum. These women knew the scientific names of flowers, classified various plants, collected specimens in herbariums, and, when the professionalization of the science moved men into university jobs, exchanged letters and samples with these professionals. The nineteenth-century's understanding of soil science, greenhouse technology, and hybridization could have led her to develop an exotic garden like those of many a robber baron or those of Edith Wharton at The Mount in Lenox, Massachusetts. Instead, she treasures the natural, if spartan, soil of Appledore Island and the benefits of sunshine and salt air to cultivate a garden drawn from the plants whose names she had learned in childhood. Where Thaxter looked to the earth for her gardens, she looked to the skies for her descriptions of the constellations and of the birds of the islands. The weather, the sky, the constellations "make [her] world" (99) on the islands where she has no access to theaters or galleries and where in the winter islanders are so cut off from the mainland that they only occasionally receive mail. She is especially attentive to the island birds: those who fly into the lighthouse, that "destroyer of birds" that once took the lives of three-hundred and seventy five (110); the ducks, the geese, the great blue heron, and even the occasional eagle; the snowy owl who can eat a rat and leave only skin and skeleton in a "compact bundle" (108); the loon with its "long, wild, melancholy cry before a storm" (113). Thaxter's love for birds led her to become an active member of the Audubon Society and to write for the 1887 Audubon Magazine an article titled "Woman's Heartlessness" that opposed the use of bird feathers for hat decorations. With her celebration of the history, the people, and the landscape of the Isles of Shoals, Thaxter clearly articulates her love for this place where she lived and wrote. "Ever I long to speak these things that made life so sweet, to speak the wind, the cloud, the bird's flight, the sea's murmur," she writes of these islands that New Hampshire, somewhat erroneously claims as its own (141). Only Star, Lunging, Seavy, and White fall within New Hampshire boundaries. Because Maine contains Appledore, Smuttynose, Duck, Malaga, and Cedar, it can claim Thaxter as a Maine writer. So, too, can Massachusetts, given the extended times during her marriage that she lived in that state. Thaxter was a daughter of all three states as well as a citizen of a United States that was learning to treasure its rocks and boulders, its oceans and waterways, its flowers and birds. Perhaps it is Thaxter's birthplace in Portsmouth that gives New Hampshire a special claim to her or perhaps it is the granite rocks rising out of the Atlantic from which on a clear day she could see Mounts Madison and Jefferson and Washington. Whoever claims her, Celia Thaxter reminds us of the wildness of one American place and of our obligations to be responsible stewards of our local, our national, and our global environments. Questions for discussion: 1. Thaxter clearly feels drawn to the landscapes of the Isles of Shoals. Have you ever taken the ferry to Star Island or to visit Thaxter's gardens on Appledore? Do you find them as attractive as she does? 2. What kind of landscape most attracts you? What does this say about your personality? 3. Does Thaxter admire, respect, condescend to the islanders? How do you describe her attitude toward them? Is she an outsider or an insider? 4. Study the poem "A Woman of Star Island." What is Thaxter's attitude toward the woman? What is yours? 5. If you are using a text with illustrations, describe how the illustrations relate to the text. 6. Why are people so fascinated with the Smuttynose murders? Why do they offer different versions from the one Thaxter presented? 7. Thaxter talks about the accents and language of the Shoalers. Are we losing our New Hampshire accents? Does this matter? References and suggestions for further reading: Cole, Thomas. "Essay on American Scenery" American Monthly Magazine 1 (Jan. 1836): 1-12. Rpt. in Thomas Cole: The Collected Essays and Prose Sketches, ed. Marshall Tymn, 3-19. St. Paul, Minn.: John Colet Press, 1980. Cooper, Susan Fenimore. "A Dissolving View" in Susan Fenimore Cooper: Essays on Nature and Landscape. Ed. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens, Georgia: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1998. _____. Rural Hours. Ed. Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson. Athens, Georgia: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1998. Feintuch, Burt and David H. Watters, eds. The Encyclopedia of New England. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2005. Jewett, Sarah Orne. A Country of the Pointed Firs. New York: Dover, 1994. Mandel, Norma H. Beyond the Garden Gate: The Life of Celia Laighton Thaxter. Hanover: Univ. Press of New England, 2004. Melville, Herman. "The Encantadas" in Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor and Selected Tales. Ed. Robert Milder. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1997: 107-163. Older, Julia. The Island Queen: Celia Thaxter of the Isles of Shoals. Hancock, New Hampshire: Appledore Books, 1994. _____. This Desired Place: The Isles of Shoals. Hancock, New Hampshire: Appledore Books, 2007. Stephan, Sharon Paiva. One Woman's Work: The Visual Art of Celia Laighton Thaxter. Portsmouth, N.H.: Peter E. Randall, 2001. Thaxter, Celia. An Island Garden (1894). Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1988. _____. Sandpiper: The Life and Letters of Celia Thaxter. Written and ed. Rosamond Thaxter. Francestown, N.H.: Marshall Jones Co., 1963. _____. Celia Thaxter: Selected Writings and Anthology. ed. Julia Older. Hancock, New Hampshire: Appledore Books, 1998 Thoreau, Henry David. Walden in Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Walden, Maine Woods, Cape Cod. Ed. Robert F. Sayre. New York: Library of America, 1985. Vallier, Jane E. Poet on Demand: The Life, Letters and Works of Celia Thaxter. Camden, Maine: Down East Books/Peter Randall, 1982. <www.seacoastnh.com/celia/life.html>: This website includes Thaxter's "A Memorable Murder" and her letter about the Smuttynose murder to Elizabeth Pierce as well as biographical material, poems, and images of her paintings.