Why Travel Writer Paul Theroux Visits Cape Cod Every Summer

May 10, 2019

At first glance it might seem surprising to find the roving travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux spending his summers on Cape Cod. Best known for unflinching accounts of extended, gritty journeys, Theroux helped redefine modern travel writing with his 1975 book, The Great Railway Bazaar, an account of his train journey across Europe and Asia.

A sharp counterpoint to much of the travel writing of the time, Theroux called it as he saw it, and if readers found him cranky or harshly critical, so be it. That didn’t stop them from buying his books, including novels such as The Mosquito Coast, by the millions. “I think the people who read my books and like them, and there are plenty of them, wouldn’t read me if I were merely a bad-tempered person,” Theroux told Salon.com.

Into his later years, Theroux has sought rigorous overland trips, such as a journey that took him across thousands of miles of rutted roads in Africa, recounted in 2002’s Dark Star Safari. So why does this itinerant scribe keep coming back to Cape Cod? There’s fresh air, sand and sea (he’s an avid kayaker), and, of course, history (it’s where the Pilgrims landed in 1620), but most of all it’s become his home. “What a writer needs most is solitude, monotony, routine, security, encouragement and happiness—and, for me, sunshine and the comforts of home,” he tells me. “All my life I have worked to create an ideal place to live and work in, a happy house in a pleasant place.”

Theroux, who turned 74 in April, and his extended family gather on the Cape each summer; he lives with his wife Sheila on Oahu during the winter months. He wouldn’t compare his family to the Kennedys, who famously shared a compound on the Cape in Hyannis Port, but there are some similarities. Like the Kennedys, the Theroux clan has more than one shining light: Paul is the brother of authors Alexander Theroux and Peter Theroux, and his sons Louis and Marcel are successful writers as well.

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When I interviewed Theroux in February, the family was preparing to celebrate the 104th birthday of his mother, Anne Theroux. But she died less than a week shy of that birthday, in Brewster on Cape Cod. “My mother’s extreme longevity has kept the family together,” he tells me just before she passed. “We are still children, still siblings.” After she died, Theroux says: “The fact that she was with us for so long makes it all the harder to contemplate her passing.”

Paul Theroux says he’s been able to travel roughly for months on end because of the sense of place, of belonging, he’s found at his home, located near Sandwich on the Upper Cape, quite close to the residences of other family members. In an essay in Sunrise with Seamonsters, Theroux writes that were it not for the cozy contentment he finds on Cape Cod, “I think it would have been impossible for me to travel or stay away for any length of time.”

And in Fresh Air Fiend, he notes that the Cape has been a lodestone for him, its magnetic allure pulling him back into the fold after every extended journey. “It is my home, so it is in my dreams,” he writes, “a landscape of my unconscious mind, per- haps my mind’s only landscape.”

The writer Nicholas Delbanco, who lives part-time on Wellfleet, on the Cape’s wilder eastern side where the land juts north into the Atlantic, says that although his friend Theroux is a “high-profile” author, he doesn’t seek attention or the perks of fame. “That’s congenial to the New England sensibility and Cape Cod in particular,” says Delbanco, author of the recently released novel, The Years. “For New Englanders, that sense of rootedness is crucial. And for a guy who has spent so much of his life wandering, it’s no surprise that he would also have a place where the roots go deep.”

Naturally, Theroux isn’t the first writer to find solace on the Cape, which he calls “this handle-shaped piece of geography, swinging from the crankcase of the Bay State.” With its golden beaches, windswept shorelines, whitewashed clapboard houses, spirit-lifting vistas and promise of solitude, the hooked peninsula has long been a summertime getaway for artists, writers and others who seek to escape the hubbub and frenetic pace of urban life.

Since the formation of the Provincetown Players in 1915, the first theater company devoted to producing original works by American playwrights, the Cape has opened its arms to writers, establishing a tradition of appreciation for the arts. Among those who have spent time on the Cape over the years: Henry David Thoreau, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and poet Mary Oliver.

But perhaps none of these writers has been as intrepid as Theroux. Known locally for paddling his kayak around the Cape, he has embarked on potentially treacherous solo journeys to the nearby islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. The naturalist Edward Hoagland recalled that Theroux used to paddle from Hyannis Port to the Martha’s Vineyard home of author William Styron and pull up his kayak on Styron’s beachfront yard.

Theroux said the potential dangers of paddling around the Cape tuned his senses to hazards while traveling abroad. “This complex landscape has taught me ways of measuring the world of risk,” he writes in “The True Size of Cape Cod,” an essay in Fresh Air Fiend. “But the word ‘landscape’ presents a problem on the Cape. I find it hard to separate the land from the water, or the water from the winds.”

In our interview Theroux notes that the “Cape waters, and Nantucket Sound especially, can be dangerous in a small boat—even in a big boat, if we consider the currents at Woods Hole.” The ocean liner Queen Elizabeth II ran aground 10 miles west of Martha’s Vineyard in August 1992, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,800 passengers, according to the New York Times, and knocking the ship out of commission for a year.

“The real challenges are the tides,” Theroux says in our interview, “the strong winds and the shoals. … Understanding and overcoming these facts of nature is one of the satisfactions of being on the water.”

A decade ago, when I asked Theroux (for my collection of interviews with travel writers called A Sense of Place) why he spends summers on Cape Cod, he replied, “Is that a serious question?” I responded by saying I understood that the Cape is a lovely place but that the world is full of lovely places. Why migrate yearly to the Cape?

Theroux says he enjoys spending time near where he grew up (he spent his youth in Medford, a suburb of Boston), and that he loves the sunny weather and the quality of the ocean-reflected light on the Cape. “There is something magical about marine sunlight,” he says, then adds, “I also subscribe to the ancient Phoenician belief that a day spent on the sea is a day that is not deducted from your life.”

His love affair with the Cape began when he was a boy and his family vacationed there. “It would have been the late 1940s, because gasoline rationing was still in effect. The weeks we spent there bewitched me,” he says. “I longed to go back—and we did. As soon as I made some money I bought a house on the Cape (in the early 1970s) and have spent every summer there since. I work, paddle a kayak, row a boat, grow tomatoes and am visited by my children and grandchildren, nearly always in sunshine,” Theroux tells me. “This is bliss.”

Perhaps Theroux’s enjoyment of the good life on the Cape is enhanced by the rigors of the life he’s led. In 1963, after graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, he en- rolled in the Peace Corps and was assigned to work in Malawi as the country was gaining its independence.

After almost two years there, Theroux was discharged from the Peace Corps amid allegations he aided a coup. When asked about this, Theroux says he was simply taking the mother of Malawi’s ambassador, and her dinner service for 12, to Uganda. On the way back he was asked to deliver some money and a message, which, though he says he didn’t know it, was part of a plot to kill Malawi’s president.

From 1965 until 1968, Theroux taught at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, where he wrote his early novels, met his first wife, and introduced himself to the author who would become his mentor, V. S. Naipaul. Theroux and Naipaul later had a falling out, a tale recounted in Theroux’s 1998 memoir, Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

Theroux has traveled relentlessly and written prolifically into his seventies. His latest book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, about travels in the U.S. South, will be published this September.

But as far and wide as he’s ranged, he keeps coming back to the Cape. In his essay “Summertime on the Cape” in Sunrise with Seamonsters, Theroux says: “Most people go away for a vacation; I go home.” And that seems true for many perennial visitors—even if they haven’t grown up on or near the Cape, each time they come back they enjoy a sense of homecoming. Robert Finch, an author whose tales about the Cape are broadcast on the local public radio station, WCAI, and are collected in A Cape Cod Notebook, moved here in 1971 after spending his boyhood in New Jersey. “I grew up in a place where rivers were littered with broken glass and oil spills, and marshes were usually on fire,” he says. “So coming to the Cape was something I’d never experienced before—the beauty overwhelmed me.”

Theroux believes visitors can fully appreciate Cape Cod without spending the entire summer there. But he ad- vises vacationers to stay longer than a few days. “The only thing that matters on the Cape is that you stay a while,” he writes. “A week is not enough, two weeks are adequate, three are excellent, a month is perfect. This isn’t travel, remember; this is a vacation.”

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Spending extended time on the Cape gives visitors a sense of its rhythms and unusual attractions. Theroux has written that several towns on the Cape have auctions, and that the one in Sandwich run by the Sandwich Auction House (sandwichauction.com) since 1974, is among the best. “Inevitably, some of the items are junk, but just as many are valuable,” he writes, “and some are treasures.”

Theroux recognizes that part of the Cape’s appeal is the sense of revisiting the joys of childhood. “Ever since I was an ashen-faced tot, I have regarded the summer as a three-month period during which one swam, fished, read comic books, ate junk food and harmlessly misbehaved,” he writes in “Summertime.”

For him, summer begins when he crosses the Sagamore Bridge, which spans the Cape Cod Canal, and lands on the Cape. What happens when he crosses that bridge? “I feel happier, more content, younger, more hopeful,” he tells me. The appeal of this homecoming hasn’t dimmed for Theroux; if anything it has brightened. “Anyone who grows tired of Cape Cod needs his head examined,” he writes, “because for purely homely summer fun there is nowhere in the world that I know that can touch it.”

Theroux enjoys simple pleasures: picking wild blueberries, taking a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard (“full of interest and beauty spots”), or walking along the shoreline and gazing out at the ever-changing sea. He’s spoken over the years of his concern that the Cape would suffer from overdevelopment, but is pleased to see that much of the Cape has retained its essence. The National Seashore has preserved the eastern Cape and zoning restrictions have limited growth elsewhere.

“The National Seashore is a great thing, but what really does the trick is severe zoning restrictions,” Theroux tells me. “Look at Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket and you will not see a McDonald’s, Taco Bell, KFC or any other fast-food chain, but you will see many mom-and-pop burger places, run by locals. This is also true of Route 6A (on Cape Cod), the Cranberry Highway that runs from Sagamore Bridge along the North Side of the Cape: no honky-tonk. On the other side of the Cape, Route 28, there is unchecked development and fast food. There are salutary lessons all over the Cape.”

Even after decades of summers on the cape, Theroux keeps making new discoveries. Delbanco, the novelist, recalls that a couple of years ago he took Theroux to a house where Henry David Thoreau, best known for the 19th-century classic Walden Pond, stayed during a visit to the Cape in the 1850s. Theroux wrote the introduction to the 1987 edition of Thoreau’s book Cape Cod, but he’d never been to this privately owned home in the Wellfleet woods. “It was wonderful to watch him sniff his way around that particular structure,” Delbanco says. “He responded as might a pointer with a bird in the bush. You could see him take in everything about the house.” Delbanco adds that “witnessing Theroux’s attentiveness enhanced my appreciation of the writer’s noticing eye.”

When Henry David Thoreau wrote about Cape Cod in the 1850s, he said he came to the Cape to get a better view of the ocean. In his introduction to Cape Cod, Theroux says that the 19th-century writer’s “modest wish” gives the book its power. “Thoreau discovered that the only way to know the sea was to study it from the shore. He seems to raise beachcombing to a priesthood,” Theroux writes about this spit of land, the eastern- most place in the United States, excluding Maine.

“When at the end Thoreau says of the Cape, ‘A man may stand there and put all America behind him,’ he is expressing the yearning of Ishmael. In this trip more than any other, Thoreau discovered a sense of freedom. To him, Cape Cod was not a territory to be explored; it was a vantage point.”

More than 150 years later, Cape Cod remains a vantage point for one of the most accomplished travel writers of our time. It’s not just a place for Theroux to relax, recover and reconnect with his family. It’s a place of perspective for him, a safe harbor where he can gaze upon tempestuous seas, reflect upon his life and plot the journey ahead.