The Outermost House: A Year of Life On The Great Beach of Cape Cod

by Henry Beston

Paperback, 2003

Call number




Holt Paperbacks (2003), Edition: Reprint, 256 pages


Chronicles the four seasons on a Cape Cod beach. Includes an interview with the author's biographer, Daniel G. Payne.

Media reviews

Even though millions loved Beston's little house, they, like him, realized it was merely a material possession and nature was just taking its course when the ocean consumed the "Fo'castle" in 1978. The Outermost House is not just about a day or even a year at the beach. Even though the House and the dunes are gone, the spirit of what Beston tried to convey lives on.

User reviews

LibraryThing member owenre
I returned to read this book after a long time, perhaps 20 years. How happy I am to reread it now that I have lived in the Northeast and have spent so many pleasant weekends at the coast. While I could not go often to Cape Cod, I did spend many weekends north of Westerly Rhode Island and the birds and quality of light that Beston writes about were very similar.
But the book. It is short, short and evocative and simple. What a very nice read when the reader needs to surround themselves with the sense of place and only the sense of place. There is no plot and not much of a message, rather this is a long prose love song to the Cape in all weathers. Why not spend a couple hours wandering about Cape Cod in 1949 when there were not so many people and the surfmen walked in the dark of night to watch for ships in trouble?
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LibraryThing member michaelm42071
Beston describes a year he spent in a house he had built for him on the dunes above the beach in the middle of the forearm of Cape Cod, near Eastham and the Nauset Coast Guard Station. He calls the house the Fo’castle, and he goes there in September to spend a couple of weeks, but ends up staying a year. He begins with the beach itself, and then describes the autumn birds migrating through. He spends a chapter on waves and surf. In a chapter called “Night on the Great Beach,” Beston suggests it was not primitive peoples who were afraid of night and the dark, but we. “With lights and ever more lights, we drive the holiness and beauty of night back to the forests and the sea; the little villages, the crossroads even, will have none of it.” And he says “civilization is full of people . . . who have never even seen night,” an amazing observation for a time when there were still dark skies to be found all over the northeast. In this chapter he also describes sand fleas eating phosphorescent protozoa or bacteria on the beach and becoming completely luminous, then dying from the infection.
He has some memorable passages, such as this one describing flocks of sandpipers in flight:

No aspect of nature on this beach is more mysterious to me than the flights of these shorebird constellations. The constellation forms, as I have hinted, in an instant of time, and in that same instant develops its own will. Birds which have been feeding yards away from each other, each one individually busy for his individual body’s sake, suddenly fuse into this new volition and, flying, rise as one, coast as one, tilt their dozen bodies as one, and as one wheel off on the course which the new group will has determined. There is no such thing, I may add, as a lead bird or guide.

The sight makes him think about how very different animals are from our experience as human beings:

We need another and wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. . . . We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

This reminded me of Montaigne in “The Defense of Raymond Sebond.”
Though he does some surprisingly inventive things with language (“luke-cold” by analogy with lukewarm, “a scatter of houses”), his style is deceptively simple; for example, he says of the spring migration of geese that he hears but cannot see overhead, “a river of life was flowing that night across the sky.” The new color that appears on the dunes in spring “is a tint of palest olive . . . born of the mingling of pale sand, blanched grass, and new grass spears of a certain eager green.” The urgency of spring makes him think of life’s plenitude: “I began to reflect on Nature’s eagerness to sow life everywhere, to fill the planet with it, to crowd with it the earth, the air, and the seas.”
Beston gives the scientific names of the birds and insects he mentions, and sometimes these have changed since his time: the Barn Swallow for him was Hirundo erythrogastra, the red-belllied swalllow; now he’s Hirundo rustica, the country swallow. The Bank Swallow is Riparia riparia, doubly of the riverbank. The Common Tern, by the way, is Sterna hirundo, the swallow tern. The Tree Swallow used to be Iridoprocne bicolor, reminding us of the myth of Procne and Philomela, but now is Tachycineta bicolor, a two-colored fast mover.
Beston describes the night patrols and the surfmen of the coastal stations. In one chapter he takes a walk across the width of the Cape. The penultimate chapter, “The Year at High Tide,” covers the summer months and ends with the birds once again starting south, and with a short section on a swimmer Beston sees—as if he’s signaling a return to the human world, though he has had daily and nightly contacts with the coast guard station staff. At the end of the book—and the night between August and September—he sleeps outside and sees Orion rising at dawn.
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LibraryThing member henrique.maia
The world happens everyday, everywhere. We're often forgetful whence we came and we easily dismiss that seemingly distant background which is always there – nature.

Henry Beston is the willing witness of a year round experience in the sands of Cape Cod beach. Humbled by the very spectacle of change, the author becomes one of us, and through him we see, listen, feel, smell and become united with the majesty of a world thriving with life. We follow the old rhythm of the earth as it follows the Sun, and before us nature shines: glorious, beautiful, generous, bountiful. And as it happens, we see it unfolding, as it should be, as it always does, bewildering with an elemental and transcendental beauty. This is what makes this book a masterpiece. Nature becomes the main character of a novel without narrative, where people are but silhouettes in that greater background where everything happens, everyday, everywhere.… (more)
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
Henry Beston built a two room house on Coast Guard Beach on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Originally the house was designed to be a summer getaway cabin but after two weeks Beston decided to see what it would be like to spend a year on the beach. During that time he wrote a memoir of the experience, recording everything he saw, heard, smelled, touched and experienced. As a result he published The Outermost House which became a best seller. Along the lines of Thoreau, Beston was enamored with living the simple life and experiencing nature in it most raw form. There were many times I found myself agreeing with Beston or being envious of his adventure. Even the storms that blew up the beach produced fascinating fodder for Beston's book.… (more)
LibraryThing member EdGoldberg
Harry Beston built a two room house on a sand dune in Cape Cod (Easton) and lived there for a year. No so easy, since it was 1926. This book, apparently an impetus for instituting the National Seashore Beaches (of which I am extremely thankful) is a discription of the flora and fauna of the area. Not the story of his life for the year, which I would have preferred.… (more)
LibraryThing member drausche
very interesting; great discriptions of nature; at times it's difficult to realize that Beston wrote this book back in the 1920's -- especially during references to "living in a world with too many lights" (not an exact quote). I gave the book to my 87 yr old aunt to read at the same time & she was throughly enjoying it too!… (more)
LibraryThing member ParadisePorch
In 1925 Beston spent a year living in a simple two-room home on the outer arm of Cape Cod, facing the wide Atlantic Ocean. This book is a series of essays documenting the seasons there.

Beston believed that poetry had as much to do with his observations as science did, and his prose is “burnished, polished sentences, richly metaphoric and musical, that beg to be read aloud.” (Robert Finch, Introduction)

This is a book to be read in small doses and savoured. It’s everything I had hoped Walden would be, but wasn’t. Highly recommended. 5 stars.

Read this if: you love lyrical descriptions of creation’s beauty; or you want a glimpse of a vanished Cape Cod.
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LibraryThing member mhanlon
This was a really beautiful meditation on living for a year on top of a dune on Cape Cod. If you don't like birds, or the Cape, or the constant sound of the surf, pounding Nauset Beach's (or any beach's, I suppose) shores, you probably shouldn't read this book.
If you *love* birds you'll probably own a copy or two of this book and will have stayed at Henry Beston's now long-destroyed Fo'castle, which perished in the Blizzard of '78, which apparently hated birds.… (more)
LibraryThing member Jannes
Not a huge fan of nautre writing, me, but this one had me hooked - at least for most part. There is an earnest passion in the writing that is hard to be indifferent to, and some passages, like the ones about the sound of the sea for instance, is simply magical.

It is also surprisingly dramatic, with its descriptions of the harsh conditions on and around Cape Cod, storms, shipwrecks and all.… (more)
LibraryThing member bell7
Henry Beston went to Cape Cod and meant to stay in the house he had built for two weeks. He ended up staying for a year, and the journals he kept while he was there were the basis for this classic published in 1928.

Beston describes the natural world with poetry, writing about its beauty and its raw power, and ruminating on how mankind has separated from really participating in the natural world. Reading it so soon after Walden, it was hard not to compare the two books in my head and be lulled by the quietness of this one into almost monotony. Beston gives a different sort of wake up call, and though I didn't have the connection to Cape Cod, I did find a few gems of quotes in it. Mostly the monotony came from reading too many nature books in close quarters and having to finish it on a specific date for book club.… (more)
LibraryThing member DonnaMarieMerritt
First published in 1928, the beauty of the language is timeless. Who knew someone could describe the sand and sea in so many ways? Beston's book is a poetic gift and left me with an even greater appreciation of the Cape and our natural world in general.

"Touch the earth, love the earth, honour the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places."

(Personally, I recommend skipping the introduction by Robert Flinch. Seems to me he's in love with his own writing. Go back and read it at the end if you like.)
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LibraryThing member m.belljackson
Henry Beston's amazing recounting of his year on the outermost banks of Cape Cod is a revelation of nature in all its forces.

It is a classic in the tradition of Thoreau and would be beloved by Emerson.

As a companion to a seasonal gardening book, like THE GARDENER'S YEAR by Karel Capek,
it would provide contrasts and expand our inland views.
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LibraryThing member dasam
It is wonderful to ready good writing that celebrates the natural world without romanticizing it. Beston describes the ocean and its waves with a clarity of understanding and expression I have seldom read. His connection with the natural world and especially with birds reveals the wonders there while neither refusing to see the violence inherent nor impose a human ethic on that living way.… (more)
LibraryThing member amerynth
I'm really not a fan of the beach in general, but Henry Beston's "The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod" made me long for a little home on the dunes.

The book, written in the 1920's focuses on the natural world found on the Cape where Beston lived for a year to watch the change of seasons. I liked this almost as much as Thoreau's "Walden."

There are lots of descriptions of birds and the landscape, which are beautifully written.
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