Eric Dolin's New Book: Brilliant Beacons
No stranger to Nantucket, Eric Jay Dolin has spoken here in the past. His book Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America inspired Ric Burns to include him in his two-hour PBS documentary Into the Deep: America, Whaling and the World. Presenting the striking true story of the history of whaling in America, Into the Deep chronicles the adventure, the economics, and the environmental impact of whaling since its rise in the 17th century. Impressed by Eric Jay Dolin, Burns then included him in a film made for the Nantucket Whaling Museum. When you go to the museum, and you watch a video presentation on Nantucket, you will find Eric Jay Dolin is one of the prominent commenters. We are lucky to have him back on the Island, so grab a ticket because they will go fast.
America has had a long standing love affair with lighthouses, and I am no exception. When I first read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I fell in love with lighthouses. Throughout my childhood, whenever I went to the shore, the first thing I wanted to do was to go to the lighthouse, climb the stairs, and look out the narrow slit of a window at the ocean. I was therefore intrigued by best selling writer Eric Jay Dolin’s twelfth book Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse.
In this meticulously researched book, Dolin deals elegantly and skillfully with the dialectical relationship between the lighthouse and the economic, industrial, political, military, and social history of America. Exploring both the Romantic and the pragmatic history of the lighthouse, Dolin gives a picture of the girt and texture it took to build and operate the lighthouses without losing a sense of their esthetic and romantic dimensions.
While critics have called Brilliant Beacons a book that “vividly reframes American history,” it is much more than that. It is a beautifully woven tapestry of history, stories, poetry, pictures, art, humor, pathos, and analysis. The reader is looking through binoculars from both ends—seeing things up close and at a distance.
When I asked Dolin about his educational background, his early learning experiences, and the skills he had developed in order to write this extraordinary book, he explained that he had always loved the natural world, especially the ocean. Growing up near the coasts of New York and Connecticut, he spent his early years wandering the beaches, collecting seashells, and exploring tide pools. At Brown, Dolin concentrated on environmental policy, biology, and environmental studies. His Masters Degree from Yale was in environmental management, after which he entered at PhD program at MIT, where he focused on environmental policy and planning. His dissertation was focused on the role of the courts in the cleanup of Boston Harbor. Dolin recounts the story: "When my advisor read an early draft of my dissertation, which was long on history, but short on hypothesis-testing, he advised me to drop out of the program and become a writer. Although I decided to forge on, and finish the Ph.D. program, I took the writing suggestion to heart. For twelve years after leaving MIT, I worked fulltime in a great variety of jobs -- including at the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- but all the while I continued writing outside of work, managing to publish five books, which were added to the three books I had already written while in graduate school. Then, in 2007, I left my government job to become a fulltime writer, and I couldn't be happier about that decision, having written four more books since that momentous career change." .
Dolin sees himself as a his/storian—a story teller who tells about history. When he takes on lighthouses, he tells much of their history through the stories of those who built them and those who cared for them. He creates a world where lighthouses take center stage, and he examines them through their architecture, their technology, and the role they played in the story of our Nation. The lighthouse stands tall--a steady and an evolving beacon at the center of war, tragedy, hope, and progress.
While this book is a history, I would argue that much of it is poetry as well. Lines likes “As Hanna headed back toward the wreck, a prodigious wave lifted the Australia, hurling it closer to shore” (309) are so lovely and lyrical that, given line breaks, they could stand alone as a poem that evokes the mood and the movement of the ocean in their cadence and rhythm as well as in the images they portray. Dolin says “the poetry just happens” in the act of writing, but for the reader, the writing elevates this book from fact and analysis to art.
One of the great difficulties in writing a book of this size and scope is that, despite its 422 pages, it could not cover everything. While approximately 170 lighthouses are discussed in the book, more than 1,000 lighthouses were built in America, and nearly 700 are still standing today. On speaking tours, Dolin encounters people who are deeply disappointed that their lighthouse was not included. Nantucket lighthouses, however, were a part of this book. Erected in 1746, the Brant Point Lighthouse is the second oldest lighthouse in America. Guarding the island’s only harbor, “whose entrance was a mere three-quarters of a mile wide,” it was erected to guide whalers and other mariners into Nantucket’s only harbor. The Great Point Lighthouse, which sits on a thin spit of beach where the currents of the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket Sound meet, was built in 1784. Built in 1850, Sankaty Head Lighthouse was called the “rocket light” and the “blazing star” for its new and fine Fresnel lens. The waters off Sankaty Head were deemed “a fatal spot upon the coast of Massachusetts, where many a brave heart and many a gallant ship lie buried in one common grave.” This lighthouse changed things. As a result, it was so popular that “in 1856 the entryway to the lantern room had to be widened so that women sporting hoopskirts could climb up to see it.” Dolin notes that “Massachusetts that took the lead in building new lighthouses.”
The stories of the lighthouse keepers were one of the most fascinating aspects of the book for me. I was surprised at how many women were lighthouse keepers and how very courageous they were. Over 140 women were lighthouse keepers, and 240 women were assistant lighthouse keepers. Some of the best known women keepers were Ida Lewis, the keeper of the Lime Rock Lighthouse in Newport, Rhode Island, who saved eighteen lives, and Emily Fish, who worked at the Point Pinos Lighthouse in Pacific Grove, California, and was known as the “socialite keeper” because of the elaborate teas and elegant dinner parties she threw. She and her daughter Juliet, who became a keeper at the Angel Island Lighthouse in San Francisco Bay, were hardy women who ran the lighthouse with skill and rigor, and performed just as well aS their male counterparts. Katherine Walker, left a widow with two children, presided heroically over New York Harbor as keeper at Robbins Reef Lighthouse, where she described herself as “happy as a queen in her castle.” The job of lighthouse keeper gave women independence and acknowledged their strength and ability.
When asked which character he would most like to have dinner with, Dolin promptly said, “George Putnam, the first Commissioner of Lighthouses. He was a talented bureaucrat of sterling character who inspired his staff and accomplished great things, against all odds. The New York Times wrote, “He was one of those quiet, capable, hardworking chiefs of the permanent government service of whom the general public hears little, but to whom it owes much.” Dolin would love to talk to him about his vision, his struggles, and how he accomplished so much.
At one point during the writing process, Dolin’s daughter painted an amazing picture of a lighthouse to inspire her father. While writing is a “happy and joyful” pursuit for Dolin, there comes the point in every project, when a bit of inspiration is welcome. A writer, like her father, as well as a visual artist, she creates with both paint and words.
This book will inspire you to revisit the lighthouses you love, to explore new lighthouses, and to really understand their importance and history in our country. If you are initially daunted by the idea of over four hundred pages on lighthouses, don’t be. This book will hold your interest from the first word to the last.