Walking with Thoreau on Cape Cod

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Corn Hill Beach, Truro, Massachusetts.
Corn Hill Beach, Truro, Massachusetts.

Most persons visit the seaside in warm weather…but I suspect fall is the best season…In October, when the landscape wears its autumnal tints,…that I am convinced is the best time to visit this shore…the thoughtful days begin, and we can walk anywhere with profit.—Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod  

Cape Cod offers a vivid and alluring picture of a special part of the world through the eyes of an iconoclast naturalist. Portions of this book were originally delivered as public lectures, and Thoreau is said to have delighted audiences with offbeat stories of village life and descriptions of local flora and fauna encountered during his time at the shore.

This work was compiled posthumously into a single narrative by the author's sister with the help of friend and fellow transcendentalist, Ellery Channing, who had accompanied Thoreau on two of several walking tours he made to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, from 1849 to 1857.

In the opening chapter, Thoreau cites the following reason for embarking on these trips:

Wishing to get a better view than I had yet had of the ocean, which, we are told, covers more than two thirds of the globe, but of which a man who lives a few miles inland may never see any trace, more than of another world, I made a visit to Cape Cod…

His account encompasses a wide range of human and natural phenomena from the grisly remains of a shipwreck to the everyday occupations of villagers, and from pictures of the wild, weathered terrain to digressions on life’s profound mysteries.

Cape Cod is an excellent nonfiction selection for upper-level high school students, especially those in AP English Language looking for alternatives to Thoreau’s Walden (1854) and his Journals (1837–1854). Students will get a generous dose of irony in the author's intermittently rapturous and realistic descriptions of an elemental way of life and an unforgiving seascape peppered with his special brand of folk wisdom and droll humor. See if your class agrees with those who have found these vignettes among Thoreau’s funniest, as noted in the Thoreau Reader.

Textual analysis

Select a passage or chapter from Cape Cod to determine how Thoreau created appropriate and effective textual structures. Here are a few questions to get students started in their analysis:

  • How is this text structured? Consider the principle order and organization of the chapters.
  • What choices in words and sentences does Thoreau make? Categorize their tone to describe the attitude he adopts at different points in making these observations.
  • How effective is Thoreau’s language? Consider the appeal these stories would have had for an audience in his own time, and if they might hold a similar appeal for contemporary readers.

[Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.6: Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text in which the rhetoric is particularly effective, analyzing how style and content contribute to the power, persuasiveness or beauty of the text.]

Comparative analysis

Thoreau’s closing passage of Cape Cod frames these coastal sojourns as a vantage point from which to step back and survey one’s position in life—a means to tap into a font of self-knowledge:

Here is the spring of springs, the waterfall of waterfalls. A storm in the fall or spring is the time to visit it; a light-house or a fisherman's hut the true hotel. A man may stand there and put all America behind him.

  • Have students consider why Cape Cod ends on this note. Then, if the class has studied Thoreau’s Walden, have them compare the ending from Cape Cod with the conclusion of Walden:

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Mark Twain was another master of American letters who was composing his own mid-19th century brand of travelogues in works such as The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Roughing It (1872), available from Mark Twain in His Times.  

  • Have students compare travel experiences in a section from one of Twain’s narratives and a chapter from Cape Cod.

[Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.9: Demonstrate knowledge of nineteenth century foundational works of American literature, including how two or more texts from the same period treat similar themes or topics.]

Cape Cod reflects Thoreau’s stated mission to “live deliberately” (Walden, chapter 2) and meet nature on its own terms that would become his trademark.

Additional Resources to Teach Cape Cod

The full text of Cape Cod is available from the Thoreau Reader, an online repository of Thoreau’s written works, and which includes a host of resources for Teaching Thoreau.

Mapping Thoreau County, supported by Mass Humanities, offers Thoreau’s own Cape Cod map and pictorial backstories of his travels through the Outer Cape: Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown.

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