In June of 1961, National Geographic published an article by William P. E. Graves, then a summer resident of Chilmark and a member of the magazine’s editorial staff. The article with pictures was entitled “Old Whaling Days Still Flavor Life on Sea-swept Martha’s Vineyard.
Read today, Mr. Graves’s relaxed and wide ranging exploration of the prelapsarian Vineyard is plainly heartbreaking. June 1961 was, at least in memory, a halcyon moment nationally. The Korean War was over, an attractive young president had won a tough election, defeating a man who reminded voters of difficult decades they were eager to forget. There wasn’t a hint of the turmoil that lay ahead. On the Vineyard, the perfect tranquility and free, bright pleasures of summer reflected the happy mood of the country at large and magnified it.
In 2018, the Vineyard of 1961 is barely remembered, although some attitudes, common then, persist, but attenuated by time passing and by deaths.
Mr. Graves told the story of a fifth grade student in an island school who had written a summary examination of the life of Julius Caesar. “In the first place,” the child wrote, “Julius Caesar was an off-islander.” Perhaps taking his lead from the young essayist, Mr. Graves explained what was required to be a Vineyarder: You must be “a fisherman, a carpenter, or a boat builder; but a lighthouse keeper, a stonemason, or a wharfinger would do very well. So would a schoolteacher, an oceanographer, an editor, or a doctor with a talent for separating fish hooks from fingers.”
All these rules have been repealed in the nearly six decades since the National Geographic published its critical analysis of us. They were probably at great risk even then.
“Above all,” Mr. Graves wrote, “you must never admit that neighboring Cape Cod or Nantucket Island can compare with Martha’s Vineyard – only an off-islander would believe that.”
Funnily, as the Vineyard of 1961, simply itself, grew and was smothered and irredeemably complicated as the years passed, we liked to exalt its new, raucous self as an updated summer retreat, and we called it “special.” But, it has become not so “special,” not essentially different from the Cape or Nantucket, so we have trotted out “precious,” ignoring the word’s historic implications, to hype Vineyard amenities so attractive to visitors who happily add themselves to the growing crowds they have become.
Photographs accompany Mr. Graves’s article. State Beach on a hazy summer afternoon, but there are no Keep Off signs, no snow fencing, no rope barriers, and just a few bathers. The Gay Head cliffs and the beaches below attracted amateur anthropologists. Nude clay bathers gathered at the cliffs then, but alas, no more. Summer visitors bowled on Ocean Park, raced their Wianno Seniors (apparently a forgivable import from the Crosby boatyard in Osterville) off Edgartown, cooked over driftwood fires on the beaches, tended small dairy and beef herds that sustained ordinary islanders, and hankered after a glimpse of the actress Katharine Cornell, the “first lady of off-islanders” and the Vineyard’s celebrity-in-chief at the time.
She is gone now, a “precious” memory, as are Donald Poole the lobsterman, Wampanoag harpooner Amos Smalley, Vineyard Gazette editors Henry and Betty Hough, and fence viewer Oscar Flanders of Chilmark who reported “nary a call” for his conflict resolution services in his forty-three year tenure. Images of each of these were featured in Mr. Graves’s article. Their Vineyard lives seemed so modest and secure. And, it appears that Mr. Graves thought no effort at all, certainly nothing urgent, would be required to safeguard this favored realm. There was not a word to suggest that overwhelming change loomed, and that one day the summer idyll of 1961 would be all but unremembered.
Mr. Graves visited Donald Poole, the lobsterman and father of Everett Poole, Menemsha seafood baron and Chilmark town moderator. Donald Poole stood surrounded by lobster pots and buoys, which would keep him busy fixing up during the coming winter.
“Good luck in America,” Poole said, “Have to get over there sometime myself and see what the place is like.”
But, really, there would be no need to make the voyage. A few years later, America came to visit, liked what it saw, and stayed.