Sometimes I worry that I am forgetting how to read. Or maybe not forgetting, exactly, but with so many of the words I see on a daily basis packaged into bite-size headlines and tidbits, I find myself focused on small pieces of content rather than longer reads. And it’s harder than it used to be to to sit down and read a few chapters without being distracted by my phone. However, I’m a firm believer that the best way to learn – or to relearn – is to do. Summer in Rhode Island should be a time to stop stressing about the follow-unfollow game, smell the beach roses, and read a damn book.
And if that book happened to also be set in Newport? Well, for me, that’s a bonus. I love reading place-based literature because it makes the story come to life – you feel as if you’re living inside that same environment, even if you’re coming along five or a hundred years later. Newport not only has a rich history, but also a wealth of literary connections, from the quintessential Edith Wharton and creepy H.P. Lovecraft to the master of satire and slaughterhouses, Kurt Vonnegut. Below are five fictional books (plus a non-fiction bonus) with a Newport connection that top my list.
1.The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
The most obvious inclusion on this list is The Age of Innocence, which won Edith Wharton a Pulitzer Prize in 1921 – the very first ever awarded to a woman. The novel centers on a soon-to-be-wed couple from New England high society in 1914, when rigid social rules and expectations mirrored those of upper-class England (think Downton Abbey). Enter a young, wild cousin of the bride testing all the limits of these prim and proper socialites, and the story develops as people question their decisions and way of life.
In “The Age of Innocence,” Wharton, who was born in 1862 into just this kind of wealthy family, hearkens back to her nostalgia for a magical and different America before World War I. However, she was also well read, well traveled, and no stranger to how the other half lived. The characters in the fairy tale of the upper class become gradually aware of their privilege and its limitations, as Wharton also cautiously satirizes the lives of these socialites and the wealthy in general.
2. The Call of Cthulhu, by H.P. Lovecraft
Only one book on this list takes the reader from Rhode Island to the South Pacific and back again, and has been inspired by or inspiration to the likes of Lord Tennyson, The Avengers, and Metallica. Today, H.P. Lovecraft is known as a protector and proponent of the weird in literature, and he brought a lot of dark, spooky images and critiques on society to his science fiction. (Although, let’s be real, he wasn’t so progressive on the issues of antisemitism and racial equality in real life.)
One of his most enduring characters and haunting stories comes from the short fiction piece The Call of Cthulhu. After the narrator’s uncle – a famed archaeology professor – is murdered in Newport, he begins going through his uncle’s papers and uncovers a series of coincidences and mysteries that seem to revolve around a strange sea creature and its cultlike worshippers. The story is dark and intriguing and weird and wonderful, and brings to mind a seafaring Indiana Jones trying to uncover one of the world’s most gruesome mysteries.
3. The Minister’s Wooing, by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe is best known for her writing in support of equality and anti-slavery, and she continued on that theme with this novel set in Newport. For me, the most fascinating aspect of this work is that it takes place in the first half of the 19th century, before the mansions of Bellevue Avenue were built and before Newport acquired its reputation as the home of America’s Gilded Age castles. Back when the book was written, in 1859, our city was a prosperous and well respected fishing port with no massive “cottages” in sight.
Despite its age, many themes in “The Minister’s Wooing” – unrequited love and the pressures of living in a
fishbowl small community among them – feel relevant today. Likewise, many of the characters are easy to relate to, including the disappearing sailor; meddling Frenchman; member of the help turned friend and confidant; barmaid with a heart of gold; and (my personal favorite) the well meaning town busybody, Miss Prissy Diamond. Some parts of the fictional story are even set in the real life First Congregational Church (now known as the United Congregational Church) on Spring Street.
4. The Ivory Tower, by Henry James
If Mad Men taught me anything, it was the perverse joy of watching miserable people try to be better people, usually in vain. Henry James obviously didn’t have the Drapers in mind when he wrote The Ivory Tower, but this tale of a wealthy, dying couple and the bitterness and greed that erupts around them is an apt critique of one percenters from any age. The story, which is set in Newport, has succeeded as one of James’s most praised novels. (As an added bonus, you get a primer in plutocracy, too.) It’s a sad and biting love story about the rich in Newport’s Gilded Age.
5. The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
“The town was Newport, Rhode Island, U.S.A., Earth, Solar System, Milky Way…” is how Kurt Vonnegut puts our city in perspective. Vonnegut is a personal hero of mine and a fantastic science fiction writer, and I was pleased and surprised to know that he’d set one of his later novels in a Newport mansion (and also in the farthest reaches of outer space). The story follows young billionaire Malachi Constant (whose name, we are informed, means “faithful messenger”) after he receives a message from a holographic man and his dog and becomes embroiled in an interplanetary war. Should you check out here thinking that sci-fi is not your thing, I urge you to reconsider.
Sirens of Titan is a poignant and hilarious look at modern life and the people who live it. Characters here are at once endangered by looming interstellar war and menial death by overexposure to the cold Indiana winter while waiting for an overdue bus, which is how one alien hero dies. I like Vonnegut – and Malachi, too – most of all for reminding me that “the universe is an awfully big place, and there is room enough for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.”
Bonus book: Trees of Newport, by Richard Champlin
If you’re not sure if you’d be into a nonfiction book about trees, think of this guide as a fascinating local nature podcast that you can read. Just imagine! It has all of the fascinating facts you can relay to your friends on your next outdoor excursion, and comes in a short and handy book form. Trees of Newport is actually one of my favorite books to come out of Rhode Island, partially because it’s so beautifully illustrated, and partially because it’s so applicable to daily life – you can look out the window or grab an iced coffee and walk along the streets and see exactly the flora you just read about shading the avenues.
Here, you’ll learn how to identify types of trees common to Newport and where to find them. It’s also studded with tree wisdom (how do cedars grow in spirals?), dendro-poetry, histories and origin stories, and the knowledge of how different species have been used over time (shipbuilders preferred to make masts out of pitch pine, for example). Newport hosts an incredible array of specimens, many of which were collected by “tree hunters” from across the globe during the Gilded Age. Plus, “Trees of Newport” is the perfect companion as you explore the island in search of literary hot spots. Now, put down your phone and get reading and exploring.
All illustrations by Pia Charlotta Peterson, www.piacharlottapeterson.com