Observing Real America: A Beginners Guide to Nantucket

Author: Anonymous. She is an Australian anthropologist attempting to grapple with her cultural observations of the USA. This think-piece centres on her experiences while visiting Nantucket.

If my husband were not a travelling wine merchant, Nantucket would merely have remained a peculiarly pleasing name.  Early on during our time living in the United States, this changed when he was invited to work at the Nantucket Wine Festival. I learned that Nantucket is a small island, 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, shaped like a Chinese fortune cookie, or a crescent moon.

I’m unsure why I have chosen to begin this reflection of moving to America in Nantucket, because actually, we live in Oakland, California, on the other side of the continent. We first flew to New York and then travelled by train, car and ferry to get to Nantucket. Or rather, Nantucket was our final destination on this leg of the journey, a place to pause and contemplate, as the America of my youth in Australia crumbles into a new vision.

“Why do you hate America?”

On our first night at the Nantucket Wine Festival, some words pierce a blur of conversation: “Why do you hate America?” They seem to come from nowhere, as though programmed by some unseen overlord to be uttered at that instant. The speaker, a man I don’t know, seems as surprised as I am by his words, but then continues his accusatory tirade. He had asked me what I think of America, and when I answered, honestly if pretentiously, that I have little more than a vague conception of what America means, he became angry.

Our conversation then switches to guns; he is a devotee of the Second Amendment, and by extension, the National Rifle Association. He also hates the government, and all protesters. I top up his wine, but our conversation is making him irate, and soon he signals to his wife, a timid looking woman sitting on her own, that they will leave. “Honey, we’re going. I’m getting an Uber.”

I suddenly feel awkward, and self-conscious in the room, so I wander outside into the courtyard, where a luxuriant swimming pool glows, deserted in a light drizzle. It is a drizzle I know well, more sea than rain. I have tasted it many times during my childhood on the wild southern coast of Australia. This Nantucket property is close to the shore, separated only by a blur of scrubby marshland.

I go back inside, refreshed. A friendly man from New Jersey commiserates. Seasoned Americans are used to this sort of person, they run into them from time to time. It’s unusual for someone like this to be here, though, at this branded event in a liberal enclave of Massachusetts. One could laugh or shrug it off. I cannot.

All of these encounters are breathing life into America for me, so I cling to them, like the wife of a seafarer who gazes day by day, from the widow walks, the small platforms that crown Nantucket’s houses. Houses painted the steel hues of sun trying to pierce through a storm. I imagine that this wife remembers exchanges with her seafaring husband months earlier. Perhaps she weaves her own new meanings into his words, finding comfort in hours of need.

The Class Journey of Lobster

On the third day, I wander around the old part of downtown Nantucket, a few blocks of cobblestone streets on a northwestern pocket of the island. I decide that the place has a theme park appeal, for those interested in observing the American elite on vacation. Every shop front is peppered with bespoke gifts, designer cufflinks, home décor, and cupcakes embossed with gold frosting. I wonder if the tanned, white-haired men who dart about in boat shoes are actors. It is late winter, and the place is at low occupancy; the houses available for rent charge exorbitant prices, making it out of reach to the 99% who can’t afford to own property here. There are a smattering of people about, though. Occasionally, I catch glimpses of steam rising from their jacuzzis, a snatch of music, or an SUV gliding by like a manta ray, the dark outline of passengers or golf clubs within.

I don’t find many people to talk to on the island, not that I try too hard. The inhabitants and the wine festival attendees are unapproachable and chiselled as statues, impenetrable as American politics itself. I don’t want to bother my husband, or the seasonal labourers, who are busy serving wine, making coffee, emptying trash cans, trimming hedges. So, I have no choice but to haunt the shopfronts and doorways. One restaurant is full of people lunching on lobster, which Nantucket is known for.

Lobster, I learn, was a food of the poor until the nineteenth century when it began its strange class journey right here in New England. The lobster shells and claws scattered about on tables that now exude a gluttonous distinction, were once the unsightly crumbs of the underprivileged. In a minimally furnished shop that turns out to be a hair salon, a woman with sleek dark hair who resembles Cher explains to me the benefits of dry shampoo, a powder that does the same thing, only you never have to wet your hair. Later that afternoon I hire a bicycle and cycle to the southern shore, where long lines of white caps roar beneath the wind.

I imagine summers here, well-heeled college students having bonfires on the beach, emerging triumphantly into adulthood, as one season’s Ralph Lauren catalogue rolls into the next. Strange, how such quaint outposts have only this century become refuges of the elite.

The Melville Society

The shadow of Moby Dick looms over Nantucket, though it is well known that Herman Melville had never actually visited Nantucket when he wrote it – that he based his story on the ill-fated voyage of the whaling ship Essex entirely on recounted interpretations. Melville marvelled at the strange sea hobbits, the Nantucketers, who from a deserted corner of the world, had set forth to conquer giants. The story has been analysed and explored from every angle – posthumously laden with meaning about American history and politics. There is even a Melville Society dedicated to its scholarship. Only after Moby Dick was published did Melville visit Nantucket, the place that inspired the story, and only the once.

On Nantucket, as in America more broadly, history beckons through a blur of nostalgia. For a newcomer, there is a lot to wade through. What if I had arrived here by boat, two hundred years ago? Would I have cause to concern myself over what America meant, or just the instinct to try and survive, to forge light and sustenance from nature? Back then, the streets at dusk might have been lit with the ghostly glow of lamps fuelled with whale oil, which used to light half the cities of the Old World.

From whence do our myths come, and how do they bear similarities across continents and generations? Anthropologists continue to speculate. Meanwhile, the scenes of contemporary odysseys – be they of tourists, scholars, spouses, or refugees; patterned according to taste, décor, algorithms, or despair – are most complete when we have never been, like unrequited loves.

America becomes more abstract the longer I am here, even as it fills steadily with words, feelings, and impressions that are real. For every man who unthinkingly accuses me of hating America, there are perhaps a thousand lobster rolls.

[Image by the author] 

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