Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Henry Beston: The Outermost House

I had only in the past year heard of Henry Beston and his classic work The Outermost House.  This is actually my second reading of the book, which gives a clear indication of my feelings about the book.  I am not going to try to review the book, for that is beyond my skills.  Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the book and will read it again.  It's one of those rare books.

Beston had had a cabin built on Cape Cod, not far from the Atlantic shore of the peninsula.  In September of 1924 he went to the cabin, planning on spending only a few weeks there.   Instead he found himself reluctant to leave.  His two-week stay eventually lasted a full year, in which he took copious notes about the seasonal changes occurring there to the beach, the weather, and the birds, plants, and animals that were his neighbors.  The Outermost House is the result of that unplanned year on Cape Cod.

Instead of a review, I will simply post several quotations from the work so as to give you an idea of Beston's ideas and  writing skills. 

"We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.  Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion.  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 splendor and travail of the earth."

He seems to contradict the well-know assertion that "man is the measure of all things," supposedly made by the Greek philosopher Protagoras.  Moreover he also appears to question some of the more sympathetic views of the animal kingdom, especially that of St.  Francis of Assisi who fequently referred to our furred and feathered neighbors as brothers and sisters.  Beston simply states that they are "not brethren" nor are they "underlings." but a separate people with their own powers and abilities.

What do you think?   Is Beston right about our relationship with the other inhabitants who are "fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."

Or, is it legitimate to set humanity up as the measure of all things or even perhaps to see them as our brethren?



  1. Fred wrote:
    "Beston simply states that they are "not brethren" nor are they "underlings." but a separate people with their own powers and abilities."

    How does Beston then reconcile the idea of eating animal meat? Or is he a vegitarian?

  2. Cheryl,

    As far as I can tell, he is not an vegetarian. He speaks of predation among various species without any obvious hand wringing or bemoaning the fact. Animals eating animals, etc., is just part of life, so I guess that humans, are just one among many peoples, who eat other peoples on this planet.