Literary 'Sconset, the Benchleys, and John Steinbeck





Apart from brief visits by major American literary figures like Melville and Thoreau in the mid-nineteenth century; it was not until the 1920s that some undisputedly famous writers arrived in "Sconset. In the 1920s, socialist writer and organizer Frederick R. Howe founded the 'Sconset School of Opinion, which hosted scores of well-known writers and academics—from strictly literary to scientific, historical, and philosophical luminaries—and the village became a center of intellectual discourse, much to the chagrin of some neighbors.

Robert Benchley arrived on island coincidentally the same summer that the School of Opinion opened its doors. Humorist, drama critic for New York City newspapers, and somewhat reluctant movie star, his Hollywood appeal often kept him busy on the West Coast when he preferred spending summers in 'Sconset with his wife, Gertrude, and sons Robert Jr. and Nathaniel, who often rented Underhill cottages for the season. Nathaniel, author of the 1961 Cold War spoof The Off-Islanders — made into the film The Russians Are Coming! The Russians are Coming! — bought the north Huff house Flaggship, and the Benchleys became firmly ensconced in 'Sconset.

Benchley encouraged his friend John Steinbeck to spend a summer in 'Sconset, and he did in 1951, renting the north bluff house Foot Lights, situated just south of Sankaty Light. Steinbeck had a productive summer, writing most of East of Eden at his desk overlooking the Atlantic. Nathaniel's son Peter, continuing the literary tradition of the family, wrote the novel Jaws in 1974; it became the blockbuster movie of the summer of 1975, and still haunts swimmers.



Robert Benchley, 1931
Scan gift of Robert Benchley III


A digital exhibition by the Nantucket Historical Association