The American Dream on Cape Cod: Dead Labor, Dead Soil, Dead Trees

Here’s a meditation on waste, excess, and the American Dream I posted exactly a year ago.  It seems apropos again, as we leave the beaches behind and get ready to go back to work.


Cape Cod is a vacation resort, pure and simple, which illustrates the perverse recreational maxim of modernity: Those whom the gods would elevate they first lay waste.  Build a desert, in other words, and they will come, thinking it’s a beach: OBX, LBI, CC, you’ve seen those coded egg-shaped bumper stickers, they all designate places that could appeal only to 19th century fishermen, 20th century developers, and bourgeois individuals who vacation on wastelands like the Outer Banks, Long Beach Island, and Cape Cod.

Like “weekend,” that word, “vacation,” wasn’t in common American usage until the early 20th century, when white-collar and working-class folks got in their cars and vacated the town centers, heading for territory at the margin of urban-industrial life.  The suburbs and the trailer parks and The Mall were already waiting for them on the outskirts of the city.  Their resorts came later, along with the National Parks.

Now we all take vacations if we can.  Unless we’re intent on the edification of the Grand Tour—unless we watch public television and love art museums—we systematically plan on going to places where there’s nothing to do except lay about, get bored, and ask ourselves, what were we thinking?  On these occasions, my mind turns to food and sex, because there are no scheduled constraints on bodily urges—there’s no work.  So the question becomes, enervation or fornication?  Or, what are we eating next?  Reading and writing, even thinking, are pleasant diversions from these vacational choices, but diversions they are.

Still, the Cape is worth thinking about.  You could say it’s the beginning and the end of the American Dream, because it’s where the Pilgrims landed—they got as far as Truro in exploring places to establish a permanent settlement, before they decided on Plymouth—and, three centuries later, it’s where we go to escape the Protestant work ethic.  Or you could say that the pastoral urge—remove me from this blight, restore me to the rustic simplicity of the past—has no temporal location.  Hesiod the precocious writer first acted on it 2600 years ago, so there’s nothing particularly modern or American about this desire for a retreat from the grinding demands of the metropolis.  Either way, though, the idea of America intervenes, because it’s always been the extremity of the bourgeois society Hesiod the yeoman farmer first conjured: it’s always been a kind of European Dream, a Frontier Thesis for western civilization.  “In the beginning,” as John Locke put it, “all the world was America.”


The Cape isn’t much to look at unless you’re parked on an ocean-side beach like Head of the Meadow in Truro, and then you’re looking away, watching the ocean.  It’s all scrub pines and scrawny maples and the voracious ground cover that 19th-century inhabitants called “false heather” or “poverty grass” (Hudsonia Tormentosa, but according to the USDA they still call it “poverty grass” in Iowa, probably due to the stringent linguistic standards set by the Writers Workshop).  From Eastham to Provincetown, you’re always crowded by trees, always enclosed by these crabbed woods, no matter what path you’re walking or which state highway you’re driving.  But that is a miracle in itself.

For like most places on the eastern seaboard, this place was stripped of trees by sailors from European fishing fleets, by anxious English settlers, and then by restless farmers, who treated them as so much firewood or impediments to planting.  On Cape Cod, according to the local lore collected and delightfully distilled in Shebnah Rich’s Truro-Cape Cod (1883), until the very early 19th century the remaining trees—by that time, these stood in cultivated “wood lots”—were oaks, not pines and maples.  So when you look at what appears to be a vast pine barren of the kind that covers the entire southern half of New Jersey, you’re actually seeing the results of human purpose in rehabilitating a treeless sand dune, a man-made desert.  “Cover the barren, sand-scarred hills, and the deep-sheltered valleys, with the ever-verdant, healthful pine,” Rich exhorted his fellow boosters in the very late 19th century, and somebody listened, because the smell and the sound of pine trees still surround your every other sensation.

Now when the wind blows hard you won’t hear the fluted slow motion of oak leaves or the speckled, papery flutter of the maples, instead you’ll hear the constant whirring of pine needles, a stirring, breathing murmur like a church organ played with a heavy left hand, so even on a bright hot summer day trudging back from the beach you’ll think of winter, because you’ll remember that in January the other trees are silently moving their bare weathered limbs, and only the tall pines can still make any sound.

If that sounds a bit too romantic, let’s recall that Bill McKibben, who issues an urgent environmental jeremiad every few months, recently (and ruefully) discovered that there are now more trees in New England than in the 18th or 19th century, even more than grew in these parts when the Europeans invaded.  How did that happen?  Does Shebnah Rich have the answer?

Closer to home, let’s recall what Henry David Thoreau said about the outer Cape after patrolling it in 1849 for any signs of the beautiful or the sublime and coming up empty: “After arranging to lodge at the [Highland] light-house [in Truro, built 1794], we rambled across the Cape to the Bay, over a singularly bleak and barren-looking country.  . . . Above the sand, if the surface is subjected to agricultural tests, there is found to be a thin layer of soil gradually diminishing from Barnstable to Truro, where it ceases. . . . The barren aspect of the land would hardly be believed if described.”

I like the part about where the soil ceases, because that’s where I stayed, at the end of this earth, in Truro.  Thoreau was quite pointed about the emptiness of the terrain, and he understood that emptiness as the absence of the trees that might have stabilized the barren plain he surveyed: “The trees were, if possible, rarer than the houses, excepting apple-trees.”  Those rare trees were huddled against the scouring wind on the lee side of the dunes, like everything else he noticed out here on this pock-marked landscape—he described tiny orchards where the trees were three feet high, spreading to eight or nine feet wide, yielding stunted fruit in unpredictable spurts.


When Shebnah Rich came to write his intimate genealogy of Truro—his family settled here in the 17th-century, he was the third generation descendent of sailors and slavers—he paid repeated homage to Thoreau’s earlier account, Cape Cod, which was published in part by Putnam’s Monthly in 1855, and finally issued as a book in 1865.  This homage was a daring move for a town father, because Thoreau’s astonished emphasis on the sere waste of the outer Cape had offended its literate residents.  But Rich welcomed that emphasis as an argument for an influx of foreign capital, as if he were the publicist for an underdeveloped country rather than the governor of a Caribbean island overwhelmed by natural disaster.  In fact he went further than Thoreau in describing the environmental devastation produced by the heedless inhabitants of Truro, and he did so in words I read as a green language.  It’s not the buoyant romantic idiom Raymond Williams heard Wordsworth composing (in The Country and the City [1973]), and it can’t convey the serious dread of recent environmental locution: these sentences are the practical speech acts of a local booster.  They’re poetry all the same.

“We should not blame the proprietors for the desolation of the land, as we see they used every effort to protect the timber, but in vain.  The trees gone, and the cattle running at large, the light soil soon became disturbed, or if cultivated, soon exhausted.  The exposed position and the sweeping winds soon wrought the finish.  Nature is an exacting task-master; she demands an honest equivalent.  No bribes, no extortions, no corruptions are known in her court.  . . . The sand, once adrift from its fibrous moorings, moves with the high dry winds like driven snow, and in its wild freedom assumes a thousand shapes.  Now little wavelets like a summer lake; now a wild billowy sea.  On the right, a cone built with geometric precision; on the left, a giant’s grave, scooped out like the grave of Moses, without hands.  To-day, it may seem a desert plain; to-morrow, the home of the mound-builders.”  (217)

This wasteland beckoned because it was still as empty as Thoreau had found it in mid-19th century.  Rich actually compared it to a South Sea island opened to trade by whalers, hoping the analogy would convince investors and improve the habits of the locals.  “It is interesting to watch the simple development of commerce.  When our whalemen first visited the South Sea and Pacific Islands, the natives had nothing to sell and wanted nothing.  But these couriers-avants of civilization preceding the missionary, the great civilizer, by a shrewd use of a few trinkets, salt provision and old clothes, created a demand. . . .Not only commerce and civilization began, but the principles of supply and demand, the first principles of political economy have been established [as] laws far more practical than those laid down by Smith and Mill.” (267-68)

So too, on his own sandy “island,” would the principles of political economy be established insofar as commerce intruded from a world elsewhere, and made modern civilization available—but first, Rich insisted, repair the land, first mend the soil.  No wonder his other analogue was the defeated South, offered at the very moment a New South was rising from the ashes of the social suicide we call the Confederacy: “I have seen millions of acres in Mississippi and Alabama, once valuable cotton plantations, literally starved to death and turned out of doors.” (213)

Notice that word “literally.”  It sounds contemporary because even as it denies metaphorical distance or difference (“I mean, literally, man, I was, like, falling down stairs”), it personifies soil exhausted by slavery as a prodigal son denied his birthright, starved and sent in disgrace from his ancestral home.  Shebnah Rich had a right to this language: he took it personally because he had to.  He wrote about an underdeveloped place—Cape Cod—that couldn’t blame its poverty grass on the monoculture of King Cotton, but he wrote from a larger place—the rest of Massachusetts, just sixty miles away—that was the most industrialized of all the United States, the epitome of economic development in western civilization.  He understood the import and the irony of the juxtaposition, I think, because he also mentioned Ireland as another obvious habitat of poverty grass.

But Rich never asked, How did that happen?  He never asked, How can these opposite stages of development occupy the very same temporal moment?  He couldn’t because he was too educated, too familiar with Smith and Mill.  His simultaneous denial and embrace of metaphor is the deadly poetry of political economy, through which land and capital are endowed with life and listed, along with labor, as “factors of production”—and by which, meanwhile, the coincidence of great wealth and abject poverty is never understood in terms of causation, as moves in a zero-sum game.

In Book XI of The Wealth of Nations, Smith actually did treat this coincidence as causation, while explaining how a ”trading and manufacturing country” would inevitably impoverish those countries that had only raw materials to offer in exchange for machine-tooled commodities: “a country without trade and manufactures is generally obliged to purchase, at the expense of a great part of its rude produce, a very small part of the manufactured produce of other countries.”  So, in the long run, the exchange of equivalent value would create an asymmetry of wealth and power.

Marx was one of the very few readers who noticed Smith’s correlation, and who celebrated European imperialism anyway, as a spur to economic and thus social development on a global scale.  Careful reader that he was, Marx also followed Smith’s example in treating fixed capital as “dead labor”—as the congealed product of living labor.  In 1848, he announced that communism was haunting Europe; twenty years later, he saw the spectral figure of capital everywhere he looked, weighing like a nightmare on the brains of all the living.  And yet he found good reasons to hope.


Shebnah Rich’s family still dominates the landscape of Truro, and not just because his pine trees intrude on every space and all your senses.  If you walk through the cemeteries here—there are six in the township, and I know this because the Rich Family Association published a Guide to them—you’ll find that about 10 percent of the markers, mostly stark monoliths bleached white or still black, are engraved with his surname.  One whole quarter section of the Old North Cemetery off State Highway 6 was reserved just for Shebnah Rich’s family, although the Coans and the Paines and the Dyers have somehow made inroads on this domain, and his ancestors are everywhere you look in the Methodist Cemetery atop Castle Hill.

Indeed if you came to this end of the Cape with fresh eyes, no preconceptions, you’d have to conclude that the basic industries here are churches, cemeteries, and beaches: in other words, the recreation of life.  It wasn’t always so.  Once upon a time, there were fisheries and salt works, cattle fed on the hay grown in the marshes, truck farming for the growing populations of Provincetown and Barnstable.  Now there are only tourists like me, who go out of our way to attend the churches and visit the cemeteries and colonize the beaches.  The most strenuous and productive activity of the day is taking a walk or lighting the grill or vacuuming for sand, and each is a kind of foreplay.

But this is a comforting thought.  “For the construction of a church is not a profitable use of the available labor,” as Georges Bataille, the renegade existentialist and part-time pornographer, insisted in The Accursed Share (1967), “but rather its consumption, the destruction of its utility.”  The same goes for any cemetery.

So conceived, the sacred—the commemoration of the dead, who are never absent—always remains as an alternative to the profane for the same reason it remains as a rebuke to the parsimonious among us: intimacy, with oneself as with another, requires expenditure, loss, even sacrifice of both economic and emotional resources.  You can’t love yourself or your neighbor if you’re too intent on knowing God, too intent on the next life, as any number of Protestant divines insisted while objecting to the Catholic idea of “good works.”  Those Pilgrims were never as puritanical as they seemed.  Walt Whitman stood as heir apparent to their perversely secular legacy when he asked, “Why should I love God better than this day?”

So conceived, as the purposeful destruction of utility, the basic industries of Cape Cod are the perfect ending of the American Dream.  “All sands are here called ‘beaches,’” Thoreau observed, “whether they are waves of water or of air, that dash against them.”  And all roads lead to the Meeting House, where the monthly church picnics convene after services on the grounds of the adjacent cemetery, when the congregants are treading on hope, not sorrow, even if they pay attention to the pathetic inscriptions on these upright markers.


My Jewish girlfriend insisted we go to church on Sunday, July 31st, at the First Congregational Parish of Truro, founded 1709, moved to its present location in 1826.  So we did, we walked the half mile and found the remnants of Christianity we expected: a mere fourteen others in attendance, almost all women, median age of about 70, and three of these women were official participants in the off-key music of the service.  Still, the austerity of the interior design was shocking, even to me, who grew up Methodist and so could later take Lewis Mumford and Max Weber for granted on the severe visual styles of Protestantism: when it’s just you and the Lord, just the Word, adornment of any kind is not only unnecessary, it’s unseemly.  But the plain wooden crucifix above the altar—actually, it was just a raised platform with a simple rail—was so small, so minimal, that it was mesmerizing.

The sermon was also plain, small, and minimal, as delivered painstakingly by the Reverend Dr. Ronald Sloan, long since from Princeton Theological.  He could barely get himself off the pastor’s chair behind the pulpit, beneath that crucifix, and limped slowly to his thankless task (how would you like to lecture sixteen students from a raised platform?).  But there was recreation in it.

The text was Matthew 14: 13-21, the moment of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Reverend Sloan never got around to the content of this sermon, probably because the biblical grounding didn’t allow it, but I like to think that his reasons were more complicated and devious—it was July 31st, just before the two parties got together on a budget deal in Washington, when all sides were advocating savage cuts to “entitlements” as the condition of any “reasonable” discussion, and thus were disavowing the central principle of early Christianity, the criterion of need (“from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”).

Reverend Sloan reminded us that it’s easy to forget God, and your neighbor, in the midst of plenty.  He invoked starvation in East Africa, but he also wondered why so many children go hungry here in the United States.  He insisted that the real issue before us is the just distribution—his words—of this world’s goods, and, as illustration, he kept counting the loaves and fishes available to the host gathered by Matthew’s gospel before the doomed rabbi cast his spell.  “Jesus shows us there’s always enough,” the Reverend said, “if we know how to share.”

It was an almost empty church.  Still, the preacher’s weary voice carried beyond this space.  It was amplified by the song he chose from the Pilgrim Hymnal to close the service, # 436, “O God of Earth and Altar.”  I stood and sang the hymn like everybody else, an octave lower than normal so that nobody could hear me, but my voice broke anyway when we got to the verse that included these lines: “Our earthly rulers falter, Our people live and die/ The walls of gold entomb us, These swords of scorn divide.”

Just then, in a space so stripped of ornament that it could have served as a small business conference center, I understood the extravagance of the occasion.  I had stopped thinking about food and sex, being in church will tend to do that, but it occurred to me that the third fundamental reality which now obtruded—the constant presence of the dead—was no less destructive of utility than the others, and therefore no less important to the living.  Bataille was right about the insane excess of the sacred, I decided, so he was right about the implicit agenda of the cemeteries as well as the churches.  In this place, once a wasteland and now a vacation resort, they serve the same purpose as the beaches.




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2 responses to “The American Dream on Cape Cod: Dead Labor, Dead Soil, Dead Trees

  1. Great post. The quote from Smith is from Book IV, chapter IX, by the way. Never noticed that one before. Thanks.

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