Orion on the Dunes:

A Biography of Henry Beston

A masterful portrait of an essential and unexamined American writer.

When war broke out in Europe in 1914, a twenty-six-year-old Harvard writing instructor named Henry Sheahan volunteered with the American Field Service in France. After serving as an ambulance driver on the western front (and witnessing the horrific battle of Verdun), Sheahan, now going by the pen name Henry Beston, began to write children’s stories (his fairy tales were immensely popular with the children of his Harvard classmate and close friend Theodore Roosevelt). In September of 1926, Beston spent a two-week vacation in a Cape Cod shack he’d built high on an isolated stretch of dunes overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. As he later wrote, “the fortnight ending, I lingered on, and as the year lengthened into autumn, the beauty and mystery of this earth and outer sea so possessed and held me that I could not go.” The resulting book, The Outermost House, is universally considered a classic of American nature writing, frequently compared to the works of Henry David Thoreau and John Burroughs. In his later books, Beston explored the ways that the modern industrial era was endangering the vital connection between humankind and the natural world, and he is now recognized as a key transitional figure in the twentieth century’s fascination with ecology and nature and as an avatar of the conservation movement.

In Orion on the Dunes, the first biography of Beston, scholar Daniel Payne–granted unrestricted access to the writer’s archives and drawing on interviews with friends and family–has crafted a scrupulously researched narrative; one presenting a masterful portrait that traces the intellectual growth and tumultuous life of a vital American writer whose work and thought have exerted a tremendous pull on poets, naturalists, and novelists alike. This is the backstory to a life at once hidden and transparent that is here finally revealed.

This involving and illuminating portrait, rooted in Payne’s unprecedented access to private archives, vastly deepens our appreciation for Beston’s profundity, prescience, and artistry. —Booklist, starred review

An engaging and incisive biography of Beston, illuminating the life and philosophy of one of our preeminent nature writers. —The Wall Street Journal

As it was in his life, “Outermost House” is at the heart of this story, but Payne’s great service is what else he has to tell us about Henry Beston…Thanks to Daniel Payne, Henry Beston’s light is shining stronger.—The Barnstable Patriot

Daniel G. Payne, a professor of English at SUNY College, Oneonta, teaches creative writing, screenwriting, non-fiction, and American literature. His books include Voices in the Wilderness: American Nature Writing and Environmental Politics (1996); The Palgrave Environmental Reader (2005); Writing the Land: John Burroughs and His Legacy (2008); and Why Read Thoreau’s Walden? (2013).