Sharon L Dean Professor_ Department of English and Communications

					Sharon L. Dean
Professor, Department of English and Communications
Rivier College
Nashua, NH 03060
sdean@rivier.edu

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.

				
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