- An Island Cabin
While Arthur Henry may be best known for his close connection to Theodore Dreiser, the recent edition of his 1902 work, An Island Cabin, makes a strong case that Henry is worthy of consideration in his own right. While his tale of a man attempting to escape "the grinding at the mill" of civilization by returning to nature is a familiar one, Henry's vivid depiction of life on a secluded island off the coast of Noank, Connecticut, offers an engaging spin on well-worn territory. While living and working alongside his companions, including a thinly-veiled (and quite difficult) Dreiser, Henry's narrator discovers the futility of his attempted escape and, in the process, "the world of men appeared . . . in a new light." His time on the Isle o' Quirk leads to the ultimate revelation that, regardless of one's sense of alienation in a hostile world, we are all united by a shared experience. He is uplifted by the realization that "there are, in the mass of contending men, multitudes of lonely, tender hearts patiently seeking in their darkness and storm for what will satisfy the longing of the world." He may close this tale with a return to civilization, but his is not a meek retreat back to the mainland. Instead, he returns to New York well-equipped with the "treasures" discovered on Quirk and an optimistic belief that a single man can find his way in an unforgiving world.
Henry's work is noteworthy on its own, but this edition stands out due to the inclusion of three sketches by Dreiser relating his own experiences in and around Noank ("A Doer of the Word," "The Village Feudists," and [End Page 102] "A Cripple Whose Energy Gives Inspiration"), as well as a highly-engaging publisher's afterword by Stephen Jones. As a long-time resident of this coastal community, Jones is able to use his love for and familiarity with Noank as a means of grounding Henry's work in rich, historical context. Acting as a local guide, the publisher escorts Dreiser and Henry scholars around the island in an attempt to recreate the idyllic experiences that fueled these two extraordinary writers. These attempts to reconnect come up short; but, in the inability to uncover Henry's Quirk, Jones explains how, not unlike the author, even on an island refuge one cannot escape civilization. For Henry, this was a revelation, but Jones and his companions appear deeply disappointed to find "the wakes of motorboats" where they hoped to find the inspiring beauty of a seemingly distant world.
Ultimately, Jones believes that this added historical context will allow us to see how the island was "a willful construct" for both Henry and Dreiser. Both men have become somewhat infamous around the town due to depictions of the community that many saw as unkind. For Jones, Noank is far from the "little, played-out fishing town" depicted by Dreiser in "A Doer of the World." His pride in Noank is clear and well-founded in both the history of the town and his tales of its colorful occupants. Yet what seems most noteworthy is his recognition that this examination of Henry's text and the experiences behind it profoundly altered his awareness of both Henry and the Noank community he thought he knew so well. After reading this welcome new edition, it seems likely that his readers will share in this new-found and long-overdue appreciation of this small town and the important literary figure forever linked to it. [End Page 103]
Michael Shaw teaches literature at Sacred Heart and Fairfield Universities. He is currently working on a dissertation at Fordham University that examines the connections between clothing and masculinity in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century American literature