And then went down to the book: Gloria Steinem’s The Beach Book

Gloria Steinem’s The Beach Book (1963) is dedicated “To Ocean Beach Pier that was and to Paradise Island.” But Steinem wrote little of the book, an example the first piece of Chapter One, “The Suntan”: “How to Get One.” Most of the rest of the book is a collection of writing by others, pieces related, often distantly, to the beach. The book is a book-beachcomber’s collection of writing (and illustrations) about the beach, to be read when on the beach, or when contemplating the loss of a beach.

Steinem’s book assumes a beach culture of a leisure class, beach bums, those with time and ennui enough to carry their bag with lotion, beach towel, books and magazines, go-to-the-beach paraphernalia, and parasol, to set-up in the sand up from the water, people with time to kill until the ocean comes for them. Don’t go near the water alert: beach bums, not surf bums – there are no surfers in the book, alas. Though there is a black and white photo of President John F. Kennedy, from the Los Angeles Times News Bureau, on the beach in Santa Monica, surrounded by fans, soaking wet in swim trunks. But he doesn’t look like any kind of bum; he looks like a surfer, or an LA County Lifeguard.

The introduction to Steinem’s book, improbably, as he tells us, is written by John Kenneth Galbraith, who explains in some detail that he does not like the beach. In fact, the few times he’s been to the beach have been when he was ensconced in the “main attraction…an excellent hotel set well back from the sand.” Nevertheless, Galbraith appreciates “what makes the beach in our society…A beach is not a place but a state of mind.” Indeed, until the ocean intrudes – from The Beach Book book-comber collection:

“And the waters increased, and the waters prevailed” (“Noah and the Flood,” Genesis).

“It seemed to explode all round the ship with an overpowering concussion and a rush of great waters, as if an immense dam had been blown to windward. It destroyed at once the organized life of the ship by its scattering effect” (from Typhoon, by Joseph Conrad).

“The night had brought little relief from the heat, and at dawn a hot gust of wind blows across the colorless sea” (from “The Seventh Seal,” by Ingmar Bergman).

“They came ashore on Omaha Beach, the slogging, unglamorous men that no one envied” (from The Longest Day, by Cornelius Ryan).

“To keep from feeling guilty about spending so much time on a tan, it is advisable to read or think something while you lie there” (from The Beach Book, “The Suntan: How to Get One,” by Gloria Steinem).

“As soon as the crust was cool enough to retain water, it began to rain. The deluge is faintly described in Genesis, but instead of forty days and forty nights, it rained for more nearly forty centuries. It rained without letup and with the force of a tropical downpour. It rained until the clouds had dumped something like three hundred million cubic miles of water upon the bare rocks. (“The Birth of the Ocean,” from Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Seven Seas).

“Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? / I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. / I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think they will sing to me” (from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by T. S. Eliot).

Steinem does not use Ezra Pound in her book for the beach. But if she had, she might have drawn from both the first Canto and the older “The Seafarer.” In the first Canto we are already in the middle of something: “And then went down to the ship, / Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and / We set up mast and sail on that swart ship…Thus with stretched sail, we went over the sea till day’s end. / Sun to his slumber, shadows o’er all the ocean, / came we then to the bounds of deepest water….”

“Canto I” follows the older “The Seafarer,” who tells his own story, first person, of life at sea: “May I, for my own self, song’s truth reckon, / Journey’s jargon, how I in harsh days / Hardship endured oft. / Bitter breast-cares have I abided, / Known on my keel many a care’s hold, / And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent / Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship’s head / While she tossed close to cliffs.” He “shall have his sorrow for sea-fare.”

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