American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

SPARTINA (1989). Writer John Casey (1939- ) spent four years on tiny Fox Island in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, an experience on which his novel Spartina is based. But Casey, graduate of Harvard University, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, is not Dick Pierce, the fisherman-protagonist of this book.

Pierce digs for clams, sets lobster pots, and works aboard other men’s vessels while trying to earn enough money to complete the building of his own fishing boat, the Spartina-May. He is a native of southern Rhode Island who is left with only one acre after his family’s land was sold to pay his father’s hospital bills. Wracked with bitterness, Pierce resents the building of summer cottages on land formerly his and verbally attacks many of the summer people and pleasure sailors. The novel concerns not only the building of Pierce’s boat but also his affair with Elsie Buttrick, the manipulative daughter of summer people who has come back to Rhode Island to work as a Natural Resources officer, and his relationship with his oft-ignored and sullen wife, May Pierce.

Casey planned Spartina, the winner of the 1989 National Book Award, as part of a projected “Rhode Island trilogy,” to consist of two novels and a collection of nine short stories. The novel evokes Rhode Island in the days when Galilee, Rhode Island, was a major fishing port, and people made their living from the sea. Although published in 1989, it depicts Rhode Island more as Casey experienced it when he first moved to Fox Island in 1968. The major metaphor of the novel is spartina, the “smart grass,” which, according to Casey, closes itself against the salt of the salt marshes but allows in the water. By the end of the novel, Pierce likens himself to spartina, shutting himself against bitterness.

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards