Literary Tourism: Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard is the sort of place that everyone’s heard of but a lot of people don’t know that much about. The island, about a hundred square miles and only accessible by boat or plane, is famous for its mild weather, beautiful beaches, popularity with celebrities and presidents, and being the backdrop for the movie Jaws. But it also has a long history of being the chosen home or retreat of writers and artists. It has boasted residents like David Mamet, Judy Blume, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, to name a very few. It should be no surprise, then, that it is a fantastic place for some literary site-seeing.

The Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival

Marthas vineyard book festivalEvery summer Martha’s Vineyard booms from it’s modest year-round population of about 15,000 residents to as many as 120,000 people. One of the highlights of this busy season every year is the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. For one week, the town of Chilmark transforms into a hub of authors and book enthusiasts who come to celebrate newly published fiction and non-fiction for adults. Always free to attend, except for a modest ticket required for the headlining speaker, the Festival has a national reputation and has drawn speakers like Ta-Nehisi Coats, Richard Russo, Jennifer Tseng, and Diane Rehm.

Flying Horses Carousel

marthas vineyard flying horses

Flying Horses Carousel, Oak Bluffs, MA – photo courtesy of the MV Times 

Sitting just across the street from the beautiful Ocean View Park in Oak Bluffs is the Flying Horses Carousel. It is the oldest platform Carousel in the country, built for Coney Island in 1876 and moved to the island in 1884, where it has operated ever since. Why is any of that bookish? Well, with all the writers and artists on the island, it is no surprise that the carousel has been the inspiration for a number of children’s picture books, like Where Horses Fly by Jacqui Boulter and Sabrina Kuchta.

Gay Head Cliffs

martha's vineyard clay cliffs gay head aquinnahAt the tip of what locals call ‘up-island,’ you’ll find my favorite place on the Vineyard, the Gay Head Cliffs. This natural marvel is part of the island still owned by its original inhabitants, the Wampanoag Tribe. The cliffs are famous for the hues of red, black, and brown created naturally by the clay in the earth. If you are a fan of Geraldine Brooks, a resident of the island, you may have already seen the cliffs – they provide the ethereal backdrop for the cover of her book Caleb’s Crossing. The novel is drawn from a piece of history, as most of Brooks’s books are, about a real young man from Martha’s Vineyard who was the first Native American to graduate from Harvard College.

As wonderful as that literary connection is, I have to admit I am partial to the number of mysteries written by local authors, like Murder at a Vineyard Mansion by Philip R Craig, where the cliffs are more murder weapon than scenery.

Cottage City & Grand Illumination

martha's vineyard grand illumination night

Grand Illumination, 2015

Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, also known as The Gingerbread Houses or Cottage City, is an amazing place to visit no matter the reason. Founded in 1835, Cottage City began as a place for large religious gatherings of up to 12,000 people. Eventually, the circle of tents became a circle of small, cheap cottages with steep roofs and open front porches. Today, the cottages are known for their quirky colors and themes (my favorite is the Wizard of Oz cottage) and the ‘gingerbread’ lattices and moldings of the porches.  The cottage Shel Silverstein occupied in his final years is considered modest, with traditional shingles and bright yellow porch and trim.

Make your visit in August and you can see the big event of the summer, Grand Illumination Night. On this one night, all the cottages line their porches with paper lanterns and hundreds of islanders and visitors crowd the center Tabernacle for an old fashioned ‘community sing’ until sundown. Then the lanterns are lit and all other forms of light are extinguished. The effect is almost impossible to describe. The great Alice Hoffman used this beautiful event as a centerpiece for her 1987 novel Illumination Night.

Where the Books Are

edgartown books bookstore martha's vineyard

Edgartown Books, Edgartown, MA – photo courtesy of Vineyard Gazette

Once you see all these inspiring places, you’ll certainly want a new book or seven to occupy your vacation. The island boasts six independent libraries, from the one-room Aquinnah Library to the Vineyard Haven Library (where the Teen Room was donated by Judy Blume).

There are also two wonderful independent bookstores. Bunch of Grapes was the favorite of William Styron (Sophie’s Choice) and Edgartown Books makes a cameo appearance in We Were Liars by E. Lockhart. I recommend picking up some local reads you’ll only find here, like The Vineyard We Knew by Kevin Parham – a memoir that touches on the fascinating relationship between the island and African-American history.

I could go on and on about the literary past of Martha’s Vineyard – from Jackie O’s insistence that Dorothy West let her publish The Wedding, to the rumors that Nathaniel Hawthorn had an affair with an island girl that inspired The Scarlet Letter. But instead, I’ll quit while I’m ahead, and hope you come see it for yourself.