Cover image for Land's end : a walk through Provincetown
Land's end : a walk through Provincetown
Cunningham, Michael, 1952-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Crown Publishers [2002]

Physical Description:
175 pages : illustrations, map ; 21 cm
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F74.P96 C86 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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In this celebration of one of Americas oldest towns (incorporated in 1720), Michael Cunningham, author of the best-selling, Pulitzer Prize&--winning The Hours , brings us Provincetown, one of the most idiosyncratic and extraordinary towns in the United States, perched on the sandy tip at the end of Cape Cod.

Provincetown, eccentric, physically remote, and heartbreakingly beautiful, has been amenable and intriguing to outsiders for as long as it has existed. "It is the only small town I know of where those who live unconventionally seem to outnumber those who live within the prescribed bounds of home and licensed marriage, respectable job, and biological children," says Cunningham. "It is one of the places in the world you can disappear into. It is the Morocco of North America, the New Orleans of the north."

He first came to the place more than twenty years ago, falling in love with the haunted beauty of its seascape and the rambunctious charm of its denizens. Although Provincetown is primarily known as a summer mecca of stunning beaches, quirky shops, and wild nightlife, as well as a popular destination for gay men and lesbians, it is also a place of deep and enduring history, artistic and otherwise. Few towns have attracted such an impressive array of artists and writers&--from Tennessee Williams to Eugene ONeill, Mark Rothko to Robert Motherwell&--who, like Cunningham, were attracted to this finger of land because it was . . . different, nonjudgmental, the perfect place to escape to; to be rescued, healed, reborn, or simply to live
in peace. As we follow Cunningham on his various excursions through Provincetown and its surrounding landscape, we are drawn into its history, its mysteries, its peculiarities&--places you wont read about in any conventional travel guide.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Notes

Michael Cunningham was born November 6, 1952 in Cincinnati, Ohio and grew up in Pasadena, California. He received a B.A. in English literature from Stanford University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa.

Cunningham is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993 and a Whiting Writers' Award in 1995. In 1999, he received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for his novel, The Hours, which was later made into an Oscar-winning 2002 movie of the same name starring Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore.

Cunningham taught at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts and in the creative writing M.F.A. program at Brooklyn College. He is a senior lecturer of creative writing at Yale University.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Artists and writers tend to gather in places that not only inspire and nurture their creativity but also accept their bohemian ways. Three new books celebrate the legacy of three American arts meccas where artistic expression, erotic passion both homosexual and heterosexual, eccentricity, and everything else that defines bohemianism have flourished in a fertile synergy that has continually transformed American art and literature. Greenwich Village was Bohemia central during the modern era, a magnet for painters, poets, and poseurs, and Wetzsteon, longtime editor and drama critic for the Village Voice, succeeds brilliantly in distilling its unique brew of "bohemian tomfoolery," radical politics, revolutionary art, the elite, and the threadbare. Cued to the contradictions of bohemia ("starving" artists who eschewed all bourgeois notions were actually supported by family, or patrons, and maniacally ambitious), and skilled in social, aesthetic, and psychological analysis, Wetzsteon, who, sadly, died before seeing his magnum opus in print, deftly and indelibly portrays a galaxy of Village luminaries, focusing as much on their complicated, often bi-and homosexual love lives as on their enduring accomplishments. He writes with deep understanding and zest of the fiery feminists Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, the brightly burning Edna St. Vincent Millay, and the kooky Baroness Elsa and Joe Gould as well as Willa Cather, Hart Crane, Djuana Barnes, Dawn Powell, Jackson Pollock--and many more. The end result is a piquant evocation of the spirit and mythology of Greenwich Village, which is as much a state of mind as it is a vital place with a phenomenal history. The southeastern end of Long Island is ravishingly beautiful and close enough to New York City to draw on its cultural ferment, and consequently the now fabled Hamptons have long been a destination for artists and writers. The art colony's lively history is neatly summarized in Hamptons Bohemia, a scrapbooklike volume that combines pleasing visuals with concise but informative commentary by art historian Harrison and American literature expert Denne. The illustrations embrace a pleasing mix of photographs of famous folks in bathing suits and a spectrum of artworks that mark the progression from the landscape paintings of Childe Hassam to the abstract expressionistic works of Willem de Kooning. The literary range is just as remarkable, spanning the work of Samson Occom, considered the "`father' of modern Native American literature," Ring Lardner, and E. L. Doctorow. Harrison and Denne define the Hamptons not as a playground for the rich but as landmarks in the history of American arts and letters. Clinging to a sandbar at the very tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown is also a haven for the artistic and unconventional, but it's a wilder and more demanding place than the tidy Hamptons. Cunningham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Hours (1998), first came to the small, sandy town with its astonishingly liquid and moody light 20 years ago, and he fell in love with this mercurial "eccentrics' sanctuary," where the bustle of summer gives way dramatically to the brooding silence of winter. In the first of what promises to be a penetrating series in which writers write about place, Cunningham, whose prose has never been more gorgeously poetic, and whose fascination with the peculiarities of our species inspires tender and funny riffs on Provincetown's thriving gay and lesbian communities, presents an enchanting history and walking tour of his beloved home, charting, along the way, its powerful and diverse artistic legacy, which includes the work of Edward Hopper, Eugene O'Neill, Norman Mailer, and Mary Oliver. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Cunningham (The Hours) takes the reader on a leisurely, idiosyncratic tour of the fabled town at the tip of Cape Cod. He makes the rounds of his favorite haunts, from the beaches, marshes and dunes to businesses like the halfheartedly modernized Adams Pharmacy, which has a soda fountain from the 1940s; the Marine Specialties store, a repository of the overlooked, the lost, the surplus, the irregular, the no-longer-needed, and the outmoded; and the Atlantic House, a bar that is sexy in a damp, well-used way. The fish and whales that live in the ocean around the town have a place in his excursion, as do the dogs, cats, skunks, opossums and occasional coyotes that wander the streets. People interest him most, however the old-timer who sits in his yard, shouting, Hello hello hello, to everyone who passes by; the disheveled man who walks the main street night and day; and the more famous eccentrics, the refugees, rebels, and visionaries who have been coming to the town for nearly 400 years. There is also a large gay population, and Cunningham is especially fascinated by this community's flamboyant individuals, who add color even to the local A&P. His quirky guide, part of the Crown Journeys series, presents a very personal view of Provincetown, but at the same time it manages to convey the peculiar, inscrutable intensity characterizing the love so many people have for the place. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



PROLOGUE There is a short interval on clear summer evenings in Provincetown, after the sun has set, when the sky is deep blue but the hulls of the boats in the harbor retain a last vestige of light that is visible nowhere else. They become briefly phosphorescent in a dim blue world. Last summer as I stood on the beach of the harbor, watching the boats, I found a coffee cup in the shallows. It's not unusual to find bits of crockery on this beach (Provincetown's harbor, being shaped like an enormous ladle, catches much of what the tides stir landward from the waters that surround Cape Cod), but a whole cup is rare. It was not, I'm sorry to say, the perfect little white china cup that poetry demands. It was in fact a cheap thing, made in the seventies I suppose, a graceless shallow oval, plastic (hence its practical but unflattering ability to survive intact), covered with garish orange and yellow daisies; the official flowers of the insistent, high-gloss optimism I remember from my adolescence, as talk of revolution dimmed and we all started, simply, to dance. It wasn't much of a cup, though it would outlast many of humankind's more vulnerable attempts to embody the notion of hope in everyday objects. It had gotten onto the beach in one piece, while its lovelier counterparts, concoctions of clay and powdered bone, white as moons, lay in fragments on the ocean floor. This cup contained a prim little clamshell, pewter-colored, with a tiny flourish of violet at its broken hinge, and a scattering of iridescent, mica-ish grit, like tea leaves, at its shallow bottom. I held it up, as if I expected to drink from it, as the boats put out their light. LAND'S END Provincetown stands on a finger of land at the tip of Cape Cod, the barb at the hook's end, a fragile and low-lying geological assertion that was once knitted together by the roots of trees. Most of the trees, however, were felled by early settlers, and now, with the forests gone, the land on which Provincetown is built is essentially a sandbar, tenuously connected to the mainland, continually reconfigured by the actions of tides. When Thoreau went there in the mid-1800s, he called it "a filmy sliver of land lying flat on the ocean, a mere reflection of a sand-bar on the haze above." It has not changed much since then, at least not when seen from a distance. Built as it is at the very end of the Cape, which unfurls like a genie's shoe from the coastline of Massachusetts, it follows the curve of a long, lazy spiral and looks not out to sea but in, toward the thicker arm of the Cape. The distant lights you see at night across the bay are the neighboring towns of Truro, Wellfleet, and Eastham. If you stand on the beach on the harbor side, the ocean proper is behind you. If you turned around, walked diagonally through town and across the dunes to the other side, and sailed east, you'd dock eventually in Lisbon. By land, the only way back from Provincetown is the way you've come. It is by no means inaccessible, but neither is it particularly easy to reach. In the 1700s storms or changes in currents sometimes washed away the single road that connected Provincetown to the rest of Cape Cod, and during those times it was reachable only by boat. Even when the weather and the ocean permitted, carriages that negotiated the sandy road often got stuck and sometimes capsized into the surf. Provincetown is now more firmly and reliably attached. You can drive there. It's almost exactly two hours from both Boston and Providence, if you don't hit traffic, though in summer that's unlikely. You can fly over from Boston, twenty-five minutes across the bay, and if you're lucky you might see whales breaching from the plane. In summer, from mid-May to Columbus Day, a ferry sails twice a day from Boston. Provincetown is by nature a destination. It is the land's end; it is not en route to anywhere else. One of its charms is the fact that those who go there have made some effort to do so. Provincetown is three miles long and just slightly more than two blocks wide. Two streets run its entire length from east to west: Commercial, a narrow one-way street where almost all the businesses are, and Bradford, a more utilitarian two-way street a block north of Commercial. Residential roads, some of them barely one car wide, run at right angles on a semiregular grid between Commercial and Bradford streets and then, north of Bradford, meander out into dunes or modest hollows of surviving forest, as the terrain dictates. Although the town has been there since before 1720 (the year it was incorporated) and has survived any number of disastrous storms, it is still possible that a major hurricane, if it hit head-on, would simply sweep everything away, since Provincetown has no bedrock, no firm purchase of any kind. It is a city of sand, more or less the way Arctic settlements are cities of ice. A visitor in 1808 wrote to friends in England that the sand was "so light that it drifts about the houses...similar to snow in a driving storm. There were no hard surfaces; upon stepping from the houses the foot sinks in the sand." Thoreau noted some forty years later, "The sand is the great enemy here.... There was a schoolhouse filled with sand up to the tops of the desks." The sand has, by now, been domesticated, and Provincetown floats on layers of asphalt, pavement, and brick. Still, any house with a garden has had its soil brought in from elsewhere. Some of the older houses produce their offerings of grass and flowers from earth brought over as ballast in the holds of ships in the 1800s--it is soil that originated in Europe, Asia, or South America. On stormy days gusts of sand still blow through the streets. "There could be no other town like it. If you were sensitive to crowds, you might expire in summer from human propinquity. On the other hand, if you were unable to endure loneliness, the vessel of your person could fill with dread during the long winter. Martha's Vineyard, not fifty miles to the south and west, had lived through the upsurge of mountains and their erosion, through the rise and fall of oceans, the life and death of great forests and swamps. Dinosaurs had passed over Martha's Vineyard, and their bones were compacted into the bedrock. Glaciers had come and gone, sucking the island to the north, pushing it like a ferry to the south again. Martha's Vineyard had fossil deposits one million centuries old. The northern reach of Cape Cod, however, on which my house sat, the land I inhabited--that long curving spit of shrub and dune that curves in upon itself in a spiral at the tip of the Cape--had only been formed by wind and sea over the last ten thousand years. That cannot amount to more than a night of geological time. "Perhaps this is why Provincetown is so beautiful. Conceived at night (for one would swear it was created in the course of one dark storm) its sand flats still glistened in the dawn with the moist primeval innocence of land exposing itself to the sun for the first time. Decade after decade, artists came to paint the light of Provincetown, and comparisons were made to the lagoons of Venice and the marshes of Holland, but then the summer ended and most of the painters left, and the long dingy undergarment of the gray New England winter, gray as the spirit of my mood, came down to visit. One remembered then that the land was only ten thousand years old, and one's ghosts had no roots. We did not have old Martha's Vineyard's fossil remains to subdue each spirit, no, there was nothing to domicile our specters who careened with the wind down the two long streets of our town which curved together around the bay like two spinsters on their promenade to church." --Norman Mailer, from Tough Guys Don't Dance THE SEASONS In high summer, Provincetown's tourist population is incalculable. In winter it shrinks to just more than 3,800 souls. I find it spectacular in all weathers, but for people looking for a conventional week or two at the beach, it is reliably sunny only in July, August, and early September, and even then days or weeks of rain can blow in from the Atlantic. In summer the days are warm and occasionally hot, the nights almost always cool. In winter it usually snows. Because the town is surrounded by ocean, it never gets as bone-chillingly cold as it does in Boston, twenty-seven miles across the bay. I grew up in southern California, where the fact that January closely resembles June is generally reckoned a good thing, and a part of my coming of age seems to have involved the development of a low-grade horror of mild weather that pleasantly duplicates itself day after day after day. Provincetown satisfies my appetite for volatility. A curtain of cold rain may sweep through the middle of a sunny summer afternoon, leaving a cooler, clearer version of the same sunshine in its wake. In February a few days of brilliant clarity and relative warmth are not unknown. There are, according to my own private record-keeping, two annual periods of equipoise. There is deep winter, during which a great Arctic curve of frigid quiet obtains. The sky goes as brightly, blankly white as the screen of the drive-in movie theater in Wellfleet. The town is immersed in a low incandescence, as if the light fell not only down from the sky but up from the brown and gray earth as well--from the winter lawns and the silent facades of houses, from the bare branches of trees and the blue-gray bay and the dull pewter of the streets. The air is utterly still; colors are almost violently bright. We who are there then tend to walk the streets carefully, respectfully, as if we feared waking someone. To whatever extent beauty resides in permanence, this is Provincetown at its most beautiful--it seems, in its winter slumber, to be revealed in its actual state, without its jewelry or feathers, like a white marble queen; a woman who, in life, may have been irritable and erratic, prone to sulks, too easily cheered by velvets and brocades; now asleep forever in a cathedral close, her eyes peacefully shut, her face arranged in an expression of mournful bemusement as the living flit by with their cameras and candles, their little prayers. Then there is the heart of summer, which occurs sometime on or before the middle of August. Provincetown is far north, nearer to Nova Scotia than it is to Florida--fall comes early there. By Labor Day some of the leaves are already showing hints of red and yellow at their edges. But during the second week of August (sometimes earlier, sometimes later), there is a deep blue bowl of perfect days, noisier than winter but possessed of a similar underlying silence; a similar sense that the world is and will always be just this way--calm and warm, bleached with brightness, its contrasts subdued by a shimmer that makes it difficult to determine precisely where the ocean ends and the sky begins. One August afternoon several years ago I was reading on a pier and felt, suddenly, that I was in the middle of an enormous clock and that it was, at that moment, precisely noon; that I was present for the exact middle of the vernal year. A minute before it had still been rising summer; a minute later summer's decline would start, though nothing would appear to have changed. I love these periods of stillness, look forward to them, though the weather is most wonderful, to me, in late spring and early fall. May and June in Provincetown tend to mists and fogs, and the town is as greenly muted as a village in the Scottish highlands. The foghorn blows all day as well as all night. The town has opened for the summer--stores and restaurants are lit, the single surviving movie theater is back in business--but few tourists have arrived yet. The town is made up, for these weeks, almost entirely of its year-round and its full-time summer population, the people who work in the stores and restaurants, and they walk on Commercial Street through the mist exclaiming over one another, inquiring about how the winter went, full of a buoyancy that will erode steadily away until it reaches the point of exhaustion and exasperation that arrives on or near Labor Day weekend. But for now, during these weeks, there's all that sex and dancing ahead; there's all that money to be made. Hundreds of thousands of strangers are on their way--anyone could fall in love. There's a low spark, a hazy green glow, all the more potent for the drizzle that pervades. At this time of year you might stroll down Commercial Street after midnight, when the streetlamps illuminate little more than circles of fog, and find yourself entirely alone save for the foraging skunks; a man named Butchy, who wears a blue motorcycle helmet and a chest-length beard, and wanders the streets at night with a black plastic trash bag full of something; and another man in a blond wig and a silver lamé dress, walking unaccompanied twenty paces ahead, singing "Loving You" like a crackpot Lorelei, still trying to lure sailors to their deaths though she's no longer what she was. Excerpted from Land's End: A Walk in Provincetown by Michael Cunningham All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.