Literature and Life, by William Dean Howells

Summer Isles of Eden

It may be all an illusion of the map, where the Summer Islands glimmer a small and solitary little group of dots and wrinkles, remote from continental shores, with a straight line descending southeastwardly upon them, to show how sharp and swift the ship’s course is, but they seem so far and alien from my wonted place that it is as if I had slid down a steepy slant from the home-planet to a group of asteroids nebulous somewhere in middle space, and were resting there, still vibrant from the rush of the meteoric fall. There were, of course, facts and incidents contrary to such a theory: a steamer starting from New York in the raw March morning, and lurching and twisting through two days of diagonal seas, with people aboard dining and undining, and talking and smoking and cocktailing and hot-scotching and beef-teaing; but when the ship came in sight of the islands, and they began to lift their cedared slopes from the turquoise waters, and to explain their drifted snows as the white walls and white roofs of houses, then the waking sense became the dreaming sense, and the sweet impossibility of that drop through air became the sole reality.


Everything here, indeed, is so strange that you placidly accept whatever offers itself as the simplest and naturalest fact. Those low hills, that climb, with their tough, dark cedars, from the summer sea to the summer sky, might have drifted down across the Gulf Stream from the coast of Maine; but when, upon closer inspection, you find them skirted with palms and bananas, and hedged with oleanders, you merely wonder that you had never noticed these growths in Maine before, where you were so familiar with the cedars. The hotel itself, which has brought the Green Mountains with it, in every detail, from the dormer-windowed mansard-roof, and the white-painted, green-shuttered walls, to the neat, school-mistressly waitresses in the dining-room, has a clump of palmettos beside it, swaying and sighing in the tropic breeze, and you know that when it migrates back to the New England hill-country, at the end of the season, you shall find it with the palmettos still before its veranda, and equally at home, somewhere in the Vermont or New Hampshire July. There will be the same American groups looking out over them, and rocking and smoking, though, alas! not so many smoking as rocking.

But where, in that translation, would be the gold braided red or blue jackets of the British army and navy which lend their lustre and color here to the veranda groups? Where should one get the house walls of whitewashed stone and the garden walls which everywhere glow in the sun, and belt in little spaces full of roses and lilies? These things must come from some other association, and in the case of him who here confesses, the lustrous uniforms and the glowing walls rise from waters as far away in time as in space, and a long-ago apparition of Venetian Junes haunts the coral shore. (They are beginning to say the shore is not coral; but no matter.) To be sure, the white roofs are not accounted for in this visionary presence; and if one may not relate them to the snowfalls of home winters, then one must frankly own them absolutely tropical, together with the green-pillared and green-latticed galleries. They at least suggest the tropical scenery of Prue and I as one remembers seeing it through Titbottom’s spectacles; and yet, if one supplies roofs of brown-red tiles, it is all Venetian enough, with the lagoon-like expanses that lend themselves to the fond effect. It is so Venetian, indeed, that it wants but a few silent gondolas and noisy gondoliers, in place of the dark, taciturn oarsmen of the clumsy native boats, to complete the coming and going illusion; and there is no good reason why the rough little isles that fill the bay should not call themselves respectively San Giorgio and San Clemente, and Sant’ Elena and San Lazzaro: they probably have no other names!


These summer isles of Eden have this advantage over the scriptural Eden, that apparently it was not woman and her seed who were expelled, when once she set foot here, but the serpent and his seed: women now abound in the Summer Islands, and there is not a snake anywhere to be found. There are some tortoises and a great many frogs in their season, but no other reptiles. The frogs are fabled of a note so deep and hoarse that its vibration almost springs the environing mines of dynamite, though it has never yet done so; the tortoises grow to a great size and a patriarchal age, and are fond of Boston brown bread and baked beans, if their preferences may be judged from those of a colossal specimen in the care of an American family living on the islands. The observer who contributes this fact to science is able to report the case of a parrot-fish, on the same premises, so exactly like a large brown and purple cockatoo that, seeing such a cockatoo later on dry land, it was with a sense of something like cruelty in its exile from its native waters. The angel-fish he thinks not so much like angels; they are of a transparent purity of substance, and a cherubic innocence of expression, but they terminate in two tails, which somehow will not lend themselves to the resemblance.

Certainly the angel-fish is not so well named as the parrot-fish; it might better be called the ghostfish, it is so like a moonbeam in the pools it haunts, and of such a convertible quality with the iridescent vegetable growths about it. All things here are of a weird convertibility to the alien perception, and the richest and rarest facts of nature lavish themselves in humble association with the commonest and most familiar. You drive through long stretches of wayside willows, and realize only now and then that these willows are thick clumps of oleanders; and through them you can catch glimpses of banana-orchards, which look like dishevelled patches of gigantic cornstalks. The fields of Easter lilies do not quite live up to their photographs; they are presently suffering from a mysterious blight, and their flowers are not frequent enough to lend them that sculpturesque effect near to, which they wear as far off as New York. The potato-fields, on the other hand, are of a tender delicacy of coloring which compensates for the lilies’ lack, and the palms give no just cause for complaint, unless because they are not nearly enough to characterize the landscape, which in spite of their presence remains so northern in aspect. They were much whipped and torn by a late hurricane, which afflicted all the vegetation of the islands, and some of the royal palms were blown down. Where these are yet standing, as four or five of them are in a famous avenue now quite one-sided, they are of a majesty befitting that of any king who could pass by them: no sovereign except Philip of Macedon in his least judicial moments could pass between them.

The century-plant, which here does not require pampering under glass, but boldly takes its place out doors with the other trees of the garden, employs much less than a hundred years to bring itself to bloom. It often flowers twice or thrice in that space of time, and ought to take away the reproach of the inhabitants for a want of industry and enterprise: a century-plant at least could do no more in any air, and it merits praise for its activity in the breath of these languorous seas. One such must be in bloom at this very writing, in the garden of a house which this very writer marked for his own on his first drive ashore from the steamer to the hotel, when he bestowed in its dim, unknown interior one of the many multiples of himself which are now pretty well dispersed among the pleasant places of the earth. It fills the night with a heavy heliotropean sweetness, and on the herb beneath, in the effulgence of the waxing moon, the multiple which has spiritually expropriated the legal owners stretches itself in an interminable reverie, and hears Youth come laughing back to it on the waters kissing the adjacent shore, where other white houses (which also it inhabits) bathe their snowy underpinning. In this dream the multiple drives home from the balls of either hotel with the young girls in the little victorias which must pass its sojourn; and, being but a vision itself, fore casts the shapes of flirtation which shall night-long gild the visions of their sleep with the flash of military and naval uniforms. Of course the multiple has been at the dance too (with a shadowy heartache for the dances of forty years ago), and knows enough not to confuse the uniforms.


In whatever way you walk, at whatever hour, the birds are sweetly calling in the way-side oleanders and the wild sage-bushes and the cedar-tops. They are mostly cat-birds, quite like our own; and bluebirds, but of a deeper blue than ours, and redbirds of as liquid a note, but not so varied, as that of the redbirds of our woods. How came they all here, seven hundred miles from any larger land? Some think, on the stronger wings of tempests, for it is not within the knowledge of men that men brought them. Men did, indeed, bring the pestilent sparrows which swarm about their habitations here, and beat away the gentler and lovelier birds with a ferocity unknown in the human occupation of the islands. Still, the sparrows have by no means conquered, and in the wilder places the catbird makes common cause with the bluebird and the redbird, and holds its own against them. The little ground-doves mimic in miniature the form and markings and the gait and mild behavior of our turtle-doves, but perhaps not their melancholy cooing. Nature has nowhere anything prettier than these exquisite creatures, unless it be the long-tailed white gulls which sail over the emerald shallows of the landlocked seas, and take the green upon their translucent bodies as they trail their meteoric splendor against the midday sky. Full twenty-four inches they measure from the beak to the tip of the single pen that protracts them a foot beyond their real bulk; but it is said their tempers are shorter than they, and they attack fiercely anything they suspect of too intimate a curiosity concerning their nests.

They are probably the only short-tempered things in the Summer Islands, where time is so long that if you lose your patience you easily find it again. Sweetness, if not light, seems to be the prevailing human quality, and a good share of it belongs to such of the natives as are in no wise light. Our poor brethren of a different pigment are in the large majority, and they have been seventy years out of slavery, with the full enjoyment of all their civil rights, without lifting themselves from their old inferiority. They do the hard work, in their own easy way, and possibly do not find life the burden they make it for the white man, whom here, as in our own country, they load up with the conundrum which their existence involves for him. They are not very gay, and do not rise to a joke with that flashing eagerness which they show for it at home. If you have them against a background of banana-stems, or low palms, or feathery canes, nothing could be more acceptably characteristic of the air and sky; nor are they out of place on the box of the little victorias, where visitors of the more inquisitive sex put them to constant question. Such visitors spare no islander of any color. Once, in the pretty Public Garden which the multiple had claimed for its private property, three unmerciful American women suddenly descended from the heavens and began to question the multiple’s gardener, who was peacefully digging at the rate of a spadeful every five minutes. Presently he sat down on his wheelbarrow, and then shifted, without relief, from one handle of it to the other. Then he rose and braced himself desperately against the tool-house, where, when his tormentors drifted away, he seemed to the soft eye of pity pinned to the wall by their cruel interrogations, whose barbed points were buried in the stucco behind him, and whose feathered shafts stuck out half a yard before his breast.

Whether he was black or not, pity could not see, but probably he was. At least the garrison of the islands is all black, being a Jamaican regiment of that color; and when one of the warriors comes down the white street, with his swagger-stick in his hand, and flaming in scarlet and gold upon the ground of his own blackness, it is as if a gigantic oriole were coming towards you, or a mighty tulip. These gorgeous creatures seem so much readier than the natives to laugh, that you wish to test them with a joke. But it might fail. The Summer Islands are a British colony, and the joke does not flourish so luxuriantly, here as some other things.

To be sure, one of the native fruits seems a sort of joke when you hear it first named, and when you are offered a ‘loquat’, if you are of a frivolous mind you search your mind for the connection with ‘loquor’ which it seems to intimate. Failing in this, you taste the fruit, and then, if it is not perfectly ripe, you are as far from loquaciousness as if you had bitten a green persimmon. But if it is ripe, it is delicious, and may be consumed indefinitely. It is the only native fruit which one can wish to eat at all, with an unpractised palate, though it is claimed that with experience a relish may come for the pawpaws. These break out in clusters of the size of oranges at the top of a thick pole, which may have some leaves or may not, and ripen as they fancy in the indefinite summer. They are of the color and flavor of a very insipid little muskmelon which has grown too near a patch of squashes.

One may learn to like this pawpaw, yes, but one must study hard. It is best when plucked by a young islander of Italian blood whose father orders him up the bare pole in the sunny Sunday morning air to oblige the signori, and then with a pawpaw in either hand stands talking with them about the two bad years there have been in Bermuda, and the probability of his doing better in Nuova York. He has not imagined our winter, however, and he shrinks from its boldly pictured rigors, and lets the signori go with a sigh, and a bunch of pink and crimson roses.

The roses are here, budding and blooming in the quiet bewilderment which attends the flowers and plants from the temperate zone in this latitude, and which in the case of the strawberries offered with cream and cake at another public garden expresses itself in a confusion of red, ripe fruit and white blossoms on the same stem. They are a pleasure to the nose and eye rather than the palate, as happens with so many growths of the tropics, if indeed the Summer Islands are tropical, which some plausibly deny; though why should not strawberries, fresh picked from the plant in mid-March, enjoy the right to be indifferent sweet?


What remains? The events of the Summer Islands are few, and none out of the order of athletics between teams of the army and navy, and what may be called societetics, have happened in the past enchanted fortnight. But far better things than events have happened: sunshine and rain of such like quality that one could not grumble at either, and gales, now from the south and now from the north, with the languor of the one and the vigor of the other in them. There were drives upon drives that were always to somewhere, but would have been delightful the same if they had been mere goings and comings, past the white houses overlooking little lawns through the umbrage of their palm-trees. The lawns professed to be of grass, but were really mats of close little herbs which were not grass; but which, where the sparse cattle were grazing them, seemed to satisfy their inexacting stomachs. They are never very green, and in fact the landscape often has an air of exhaustion and pause which it wears with us in late August; and why not, after all its interminable, innumerable summers? Everywhere in the gentle hollows which the coral hills (if they are coral) sink into are the patches of potatoes and lilies and onions drawing their geometrical lines across the brown-red, weedless soil; and in very sheltered spots are banana-orchards which are never so snugly sheltered there but their broad leaves are whipped to shreds. The white road winds between gray walls crumbling in an amiable disintegration, but held together against ruin by a network of maidenhair ferns and creepers of unknown name, and overhung by trees where the cactus climbs and hangs in spiky links, or if another sort, pierces them with speary stems as tall and straight as the stalks of the neighboring bamboo. The loquat-trees cluster—like quinces in the garden closes, and show their pale golden, plum-shaped fruit.

For the most part the road runs by still inland waters, but sometimes it climbs to the high downs beside the open sea, grotesque with wind-worn and wave-worn rocks, and beautiful with opalescent beaches, and the black legs of the negro children paddling in the tints of the prostrate rainbow.

All this seems probable and natural enough at the writing; but how will it be when one has turned one’s back upon it? Will it not lapse into the gross fable of travellers, and be as the things which the liars who swap them cannot themselves believe? What will be said to you when you tell that in the Summer Islands one has but to saw a hole in his back yard and take out a house of soft, creamy sandstone and set it up and go to living in it? What, when you relate that among the northern and southern evergreens there are deciduous trees which, in a clime where there is no fall or spring, simply drop their leaves when they are tired of keeping them on, and put out others when they feel like it? What, when you pretend that in the absence of serpents there are centipedes a span long, and spiders the bigness of bats, and mosquitoes that sweetly sing in the drowsing ear, but bite not; or that there are swamps but no streams, and in the marshes stand mangrove-trees whose branches grow downward into the ooze, as if they wished to get back into the earth and pull in after them the holes they emerged from?

These every-day facts seem not only incredible to the liar himself, even in their presence, but when you begin the ascent of that steep slant back to New York you foresee that they will become impossible. As impossible as the summit of the slant now appears to the sense which shudderingly figures it a Bermuda pawpaw-tree seven hundred miles high, and fruiting icicles and snowballs in the March air!

Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09