A Brief Glimpse into Nantucket’s Literary History


“The air of Nantucket comes into your face and eyes as if it was glad to see you. The moon comes here as if it was at home, but there is no shade” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As an avid traveler (and reader!), one of my favorite pastimes is discovering the literary histories of each of the places I visit. This past weekend, I took an extended, snow-filled trip to Nantucket—a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, thirty miles out to sea—and spent some time looking into its rich literary history. Since Nantucket was first founded in the seventeenth century, she has been an artistic muse—a mystical, magical land with the power to impassion ingenious work. Using the gorgeous island as a setting or inspiration (or a combination of the two!), it seems that the beauty and mystery of this small island cannot be escaped. From Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, to a number of today’s writers, Nantucket certainly serves as a catalyst for brilliant creation.

While reading about Nantucket’s literary history, what struck me the most was the prevalence of works written about and set in Nantucket in the mid to late nineteenth century—a short period of time dubbed the “Nation of Nantucket” by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1847. The uniqueness and isolation of Nantucket evidently spoke to a number of writers who could not help but to draw inspiration from these very traits.

Edgar Allan Poe’s only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), is perhaps an interesting place to start. Following the adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, a young man from Nantucket who drunkenly sets out to sea, Poe uses Nantucket’s rich history of whaling expeditions as a vision for this far-fetched tale. Similarly, Herman Melville’s classic and renowned novel, Moby Dick (1851), uses the island and its whaling history as the backbone of his novel. As it turns out, Melville amazingly did not visit Nantucket until after the completion of his novel; rather he based his plot on everything he had read about Nantucket from afar—including Poe’ earlier work!

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It is also notable that, during this time, Nantucket’s library, the Athenaeum, brought a number of distinguished writers/activists to Nantucket to speak—some of which included: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Horace Greeley, Lucretia Mott, and Frederick Douglass.

These names—so familiar to us now—were not only at their prime during this time, but were also spending time on Nantucket! How fascinating is that?!



Today, the Athenaeum still invites distinguished writers and orators to speak on the island, and it also serves as a great place to curl up and read a good book… just like the eighty miles of untouched, pristine beaches (which also lend themselves to plenty of reading time!). Known for its fresh salt air, cobblestone roads and adorable seaside cottages adorned with roses, it is not difficult to see why Nantucket remains a muse for authors today. Best-selling authors, such as Nancy Thayer, Nathaniel Philbrick, and Elin Hilderbrand, each bring to life for readers the magic and enchantment that is Nantucket. Feel free to check out their websites: here (http://nancythayer.com/), here (http://nathanielphilbrick.com/), and here (http://www.elinhilderbrand.net/).

Nantucket-Sisters1    nath phil nan    elin-hilderbrand-the-matchmaker

If you are a lover of literature (or even just beautiful beaches), and have never been to Nantucket, I strongly suggest a visit. I certainly can’t think of a better place to read a maritime classic than this wonderful literary haven!

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