Chapter 2: On the Edge
Existing in the liminal space where the eastern edge of America meets the Atlantic, Provincetown has remained throughout its history a haven for outsiders fleeing poverty and persecution.
The Puritans, warned by King James I that he would "make them conform, or...harry them out of the land," made their first North American landing in Provincetown Harbor. They found little game to hunt and few fields to till in these sandy lands, and after five weeks the Mayflower hauled anchor and sailed twenty miles west across Cape Cod Bay to land at Plymouth.
If they had stayed, Provincetown would have been a very different place. The Puritans, having found a haven for their own beliefs, were not of a mind to tolerate others. Colonists were forbidden to drink, smoke, play cards, or engage in "profane dancing." The disincentives were most effective: cropping ears, slitting noses, branding hands, putting sticks through tongues.
Still, sin survived, including, according to the records, buggery, bestiality, and incest. The History of the Plimouth Plantation relates the case of a teenage boy who was convicted of buggery with "a cow, two goats, five sheep, two calves, and a turkey." The boy was forced to watch as, one by one, the objects of his amorous dalliances were slaughtered and thrown in the pit. When the Puritans were done with the animals, they bestowed the same fate on the boy.
While the righteous of Plymouth were exacting cruel punishments on its errant citizenry, Provincetown, annexed by the Plymouth Colony in 1630, was becoming a haven for the lawless. The inhospitable terrain and distance from the mother colony made it a locus of transgression, where outlaws, deviants, and Indians could mingle freely in pursuit of those vices the Puritans proscribed.
Some attempts were made to make the town respectable. After 1670, the "Provincelands" were set aside as a fishing preserve for the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and fishing shacks began to appear on the area beaches. The town was incorporated in 1727, but its development was interrupted by the Revolution, which emptied the town of the more respectable residents and left it once more in the hands of the marginalized elements of society: smugglers; outlaw colonists; castaways; intrepid, profit-hungry fishermen; drinkers; and roving Indians.
The town had no government, no schools, and no families. The rectitudinous souls of nearby Truro were moved to petition the General Court in Plymouth to clarify the legal status of the Cape tip "in order that we may know how to deal with certain individuals there"; the rest of Cape Cod held to a similar view.
Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America (1835), spoke of the inherent tension or perhaps hypocrisy in the New England character, which cherished the principle of liberty but accepted all manner of social injustice and draconian punishments at the hands of their governing bodies. Provincetown, in its status as an outlaw society, stepped outside of this pious and contradictory state of affairs. A "sinner" was punished on the mainland; in Provincetown, a "sinner" walked free. The town has, over the centuries, continued to value liberty over law.
Twenty-five years after the American Revolution, Provincetown had grown to over two thousand citizens with the local economy revolving around fishing, just as it would for the next two hundred years. It was a makeshift affair, one observer noted: "Houses, saltworks and curiously built hovels, for uses unknown, are mixed up together. It would seem that God of the infidels, which they call chance, had a hand in this mysterious jumble." During the first U.S. census, which occurred in 1790, no one came to Provincetown, its populace apparently unworthy of being counted.
There was no road in the town, in large part because there was no road to the town. Provincetown was a virtual island. Everything was connected by a maze of sand footpaths, and, if you couldn't go by foot, you went by water.
Nevertheless, Plymouth was still attempting to keep the little community under control. The General Court served notice on the town to show why it was without a minister as "required by law" and donated money for the creation of a church, which was built in 1793. Public bars were banned in 1810, and the locals responded by distilling bootleg liquor and smuggling whiskey ashore from packets and fishing vessels. Private drinking clubs, called "tea rooms," flourished, ignored by the county sheriff, who, in what would become a Provincetown tradition, chose to look the other way.
In the first half of the nineteenth century, Provincetown changed from a one-horse town to a thriving community with fifty-five piers stretching along the town's two-and-a-half-mile waterfront and seventy-eight saltworks, producing almost fifty thousand bushels of salt annually for the burgeoning trade in salt fish, mainly cod and mackerel. The town's fleet consisted of fifty-six whaling ships and hundreds of Grand Bankers and Georges Bank fishing schooners. Sometimes, over seven hundred vessels would crowd the harbor, and packets ferried among Boston, New York, and Cape towns, carrying fish out and coming back with supplies.
Fortunes were being made as fleets of whaling vessels took the four-year voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic after whale oil, bone, and ambergris. The typical course for a Cape whaler was to head south to the Hatteras grounds, then on to the Azores and Madeira. From there it was just a short sail to the coastal waters of Africa and then, on advice from slaver ships returning to Rhode Island, tracking their prey clear to the "bottom of the chart." Contemporary records show that one twenty-five-month trip of the brigantine Viola produced two thousand barrels of sperm oil and seventy-five pounds of "first chop" ambergris worth together $47,000. Another voyage, that of the Bowhead, even at the turn of the century when the whaling industry had started to falter, earned its skipper $115,000.
Newly rich captains and local businessmen with shares in the whalers built magisterial homes three- and four-story Queen Anne houses of white clapboard up and down the town's "Front Street," many with the classic widow's walk. It was Provincetown's golden age.
By the 1880s, Provincetown residents enjoyed the highest per capita income in all of Massachusetts, but changes in the economy led to a slow, persistent decline. The huge catches of mackerel and cod had begun to dwindle, as had the demand for salted fish. Kerosene, discovered in 1859 and a better fuel for lamps, cut the demand for whale oil. By the late 1890s Provincetown's large fleet of schooners had shrunk to a mere fifty or sixty vessels. As their ranks grew thinner, the coopers and riggers, sail-lofts and ship-chandlers that stretched along the beach from one end of town to the other began to disappear. Even the wharves had begun to fall into disrepair, and many were finished off by the furious Portland gale of 1898.
Over the following thirty years, the Cape's once-great economy collapsed. Neighboring Truro, which for so long had outstripped Provincetown as a center of boatbuilding, became little more than a sleepy village, its once thriving boatyards abandoned. Wellfleet's whale fleet ceased to exist. The population on the Cape dropped from 36,000 to 27,000.
It wasn't until 1930 that Provincetown began to recover, its economy fueled by an influx of tourists. Having arrived at land's end, they could turn their back on the rest of the world, just as Henry David Thoreau had done almost a hundred years earlier. Arriving in 1849, for the first of his four journeys to Provincetown, Thoreau stood on one of the back beaches, looking out to sea, and summed up the attraction of Provincetown: "One may stand here and put all of America behind him."
Copyright © 2002 by Peter Manso
Chapter 6: A Brief Art History
When people in Provincetown talk of change, they naturally fall back on the metaphor of waves, with the first wave being the Indians; the second, the outcast elements of mainstream Colonial society; and the next the Portuguese fishermen, who began arriving in the 1860s and eventually pushed out the Yankees.
But it was the wave that washed over Provincetown at the end of the nineteenth century that made the town a symbol of artistic liberty and sexual license.
The man first responsible for drawing the artists to the end of the Cape was Charles Webster Hawthorne. In 1899 Hawthorne opened his Cape Cod School of Art, offering students from around the country a chance to paint the Cape's soft, luminous light while staying in the inexpensive boardinghouses and renting studios for as little as fifty dollars per year.
Not every student who came found Provincetown a paradise. "It is none too easy to paint outdoors under the very best circumstances, but when the painting is done on the beach in the full summer sun, the sand reflecting every fierce heat ray into your eyes, when the famous Cape Cod mosquitos are biting at every exposed inch of anatomy and when hordes of little Portuguese children are playing tag in and out of the clustered easels and when an occasional gust blows picture, easel and all, flat on the sand, the whole thing becomes a nightmare," wrote a frustrated student in a collection put together by Hawthorne's widow.
By 1915 as many as ninety students had enrolled to learn Hawthorne's style of impressionist painting en plein air. Edwin Dickinson, Ross Moffett, George Yater, Henry Hensche, and Philip Malicoat were among those who spent summers painting in Provincetown. The principal style of the day was landscape painting, but modernism, which had announced itself at the controversial New York Armory Show of 1913, soon elbowed its way in.
Although a man named E. Ambrose Webster, who had become enamored of modernism in his student days in Paris, opened his Summer School of Painting in 1900, it wasn't until the Provincetown Art Association was formed in 1914 that the struggle began between the two groups. On one side were the traditionalists like Hawthorne, George Elmer Browne, and John Whorf; on the other, modernist crusaders such as Webster and Charles Demuth, whose style of "precisionism" produced a semi-abstract treatment of urban scenes. The struggle would last well into the 1950s, adding to the ferment that made Provincetown a vital summer community.
During what the artist Marsden Hartley called the "Great Summer of 1916," the town's cultural life reached a kind of critical mass. Because of the war, many who might have gone to Paris to paint headed for Provincetown. There were now six art schools, and joining the painters were a group of free-thinking, free-living bohemian writers and journalists who settled in for the summer in the East End of town: Susan Glaspell, who was later to win a Pulitzer Prize for her novel based on the life of Emily Dickinson; George Cram "Jig" Cook, philosopher turned farmer, turned writer, turned carpenter and prop-maker; journalist Hutchins Hapgood, who had trained under Lincoln Steffens and, like Jig Cook, had studied philosophy and believed that the theater should be an "ideal community," and Neith Boyce, Hapgood's wife, a short-story writer and playwright; and painter Marsden Hartley, and John Reed and Louise Bryant. Calling themselves the Provincetown Players, they were destined to become one of the most influential groups in the history of American theater.
With the help of one of its members, Mary Heaton Vorse, the group produced plays at an old fish shack at the end of Lewis Wharf the summer before. Then, in 1916, they discovered a struggling young playwright by the name of Eugene O'Neill, and in late July the Provincetown Players produced O'Neill's Bound East for Cardiff on their small, crudely built stage. O'Neill's premiere was a defining moment in the history of American theater, and it was also a turning point for O'Neill himself, who lived in Provincetown for the next nine years, solidifying a career that was to culminate with the Nobel Prize in 1936. (Unfortunately for those who crave real estate with a pedigree, the Peaked Hill Lifesaving Station, which had been bought by James O'Neill and given to his son, Eugene, as a wedding present, fell into the sea in 1931.)
By all contemporary accounts, never before in America had so many creative people been thrown together in one small place. The Boston Sunday Globe dubbed Provincetown the "Biggest Art Colony in the World," noting, "the thing that staggers visitors these days is the art students mostly women with their easels set up at nearly every house corner and street corner, on wharfs, in old boats, in lifts, in yards, along the beach, anywhere and everywhere you go painters, painters, painters."
Acting as matriarch of this burgeoning art scene was Mabel Dodge, a banking heiress who traveled the town's narrow streets reclining on the red leather seats of her huge chauffeur-driven Pierce Arrow. Famous for her salon in Greenwich Village, Dodge, who numbered John Reed among her past lovers, was fiercely possessive of her position and entered into a rivalry with Mary Heaton Vorse for control of Provincetown's East End. For Vorse, the salon-happy Dodge was a rich poseur, "a women of shallow curiosities." For Dodge, Vorse's Lewis Wharf theater was nothing more than "a barn on the shore."
It was not long before novelists Sinclair Lewis and John Dos Passos stepped into the maelstrom of these warring coteries, as did the critic Edmund Wilson. The radical Emma Goldman, suffragist Margaret Sanger, and Max Eastman, the editor of Masses, the most important anarchistic English-language magazine of the era, also joined the scene. The energy and argument in the East End was barely containable. Women's rights, Freud, Buddhism, automatic writing, the neo-Grecian dance of Isadora Duncan, the injustice of monopolies and cartels, Gurdjieff, free love, all were the talk of the day.
And, of course, traditional painting versus modernism.
The fight between the two schools continued during the twenties, when the Provincetown Painting Classes of Ross Moffett and Heinrich Pfeiffer attracted such illustrious students as Jack Tworkov, the abstract expressionist. Attaching themselves to the other side were the sculptor Chaim Gross and Raphael and Moses Soyer, who arrived in Provincetown to study with Charles Hawthorne and managed to live on ten cents a day by sleeping on the dunes. By this time, Hawthorne and his allies Richard Miller and Frederick Waugh had taken over the Provincetown Art Association, and they made sure that few modernists were included in the exhibitions.
In 1926 the feud between modernists and conservatives hit a new high when conservatives managed to sneak a hoax "modernist" painting called Hence the Pyramids into the Summer Modernist Show, begrudgingly put on at the Art Association. It proved to the conservatives that anything could pass for modern art.
(The trick was tried again in the sixties. As the story is told, someone got a house painter, who was painting the interior walls of the Art Association, to set up a piece of Masonite and throw paint and paint rags at it, then submit it as an entry for the next juried show. When it was accepted, the traditionalists approached Hans Hofmann and triumphantly announced the hoax. Hofmann shrugged. "I don' care," he said in his heavy Bavarian accent. "Iz an int'resteeng peece of verk.")
Hence the Pyramids caused great embarrassment in modernist circles, but something good came of the hoax: The next year was the first full modernist exhibit at the Art Association. Not until 1937 was there a combined show, but even then, nonrepresentational works were confined to the small upstairs balcony area, while the huge, well-lit main gallery was reserved for the traditionalists.
The 1930s marked a changing of the guard. Hawthorne died in 1930, and although Henry Hensche held up the conservative side with his Cape School of Art, where he taught for more than fifty-five years, Hans Hofmann arrived and opened his Summer School of Art at Hawthorne's old studio on Miller Hill. Hofmann would divide his time between New York and Provincetown for the next thirty years.
Like the rest of the country, Provincetown was hit hard by the war. Both artists and fishermen left to fight overseas or work in defense factories. The membership of the Art Association dropped to its lowest levels since 1915, and they printed no catalogs between 1941 and 1946. But creative people were still drawn to Provincetown.
Tennessee Williams was in town during the summer of 1944, as was Marlon Brando and Brando's buddy the comedian Wally Cox. Williams, who was living with the painter Fritz Bultman and his wife, finishing The Glass Menagerie, had his own particular way of supporting the war. The Bultmans finally threw him out for bringing home too many young sailors. Jean Bultman recalled that "Tenn was part of a gay circle, but everybody knew."
Many of the gays the Bultmans knew were far less flamboyant than the men today. But Tennessee was "all over town," much as he had been ever since his first visit in 1940. His everyday vocabulary included "auntie," "butch," "cruise," "flaming belles," and the overly used "queen." His carryings-on, and what they say about the essential traditions of Provincetown, leap off the pages of his Letters to Donald Windham, 1940-1965:
July ?, 1944
(That is a navy term of endearment which I have just picked up.) I have just returned from a most extraordinary all night party on Captain Jack's Wharf....To begin somewhere, if not at the beginning, a couple of willowy, rather pretty Jewish-looking intellectual belles have opened a salon on the wharf, which for sheer chi-chi tops anything of the sort I have yet run into. One of them, to complete the definition, was a fellow student of Fritz' at the Bauhaus and assists Norman Bel Geddes at the Modern Museum...but tonight they had somehow come into possession of an immense creamy-fleshed blond sailor directly out of Melville...Well, everyone finally departed but the four of us. One of the belles was unbuttoning the sailor's pants and the other mine we were all on one enormous inner-spring mattress on the floor. Then all at once things started to happen! The sailor extends his arm, I extend mine. In one dervish whirl both belles are thrown clean out of the charmed circle which from then on consists solely and frenziedly of Tennessee and the navy!
In that same year Jackson Pollock arrived with his wife, Lee Krasner, before moving on to Long Island, and Adolph Gottlieb visited for what would turn out to be the first of more than a dozen summers. Surrealists Roberto Matta, Arshile Gorky, and Max Ernst arrived, though Ernst was soon forced to leave because he was classified as an "enemy alien." Karl Knaths also settled in and soon found himself in the company of the great patron Peggy Guggenheim, who visited with her love interest, the French surrealist Jean Arp. William Baziotes, Robert Motherwell, and Helen Frankenthaler all made journeys from New York.
By the war's end there could be no question that Provincetown had become a center for international art.
Copyright © 2002 by Peter Manso