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Prof. Blair Presents “The Literature of Sandy Hook”

Stanley Blair, Ph.D., associate professor of English, recently presented “The Literature of Sandy Hook” at the Middletown Township Historical Society. Blair was introduced by Monmouth County historian Randall Gabrielan.

According to Blair, few authors have been born or have lived on Sandy Hook, part of Middletown Township, but many visitors have written about it. During the presentation, he mentioned some recent literary works before moving on to his more historical “top 10” list, drawn from a previous graduate course he taught. Among Blair’s students in attendance was sophomore English/secondary education major Drew Burnett, who remarked, “The discussion of literature was interesting because he decided to do it in a top ten list rather than broadly summarize the literature!”

Blair’s top 10 list started with an 1898 poem by Thomas Fleming Day, a 1791 poem by Poet of the American Revolution Philip Freneau, two 1869 poems by Atlantic Highlands poet George Arnold, and three 1893 poems by William Lawrence Chittenden from Texas. Middletown native Henry Morford published an 1859 poem that indicated how for many years Sandy Hook was sometimes a peninsula and sometimes an island, separated from the mainland by now-closed Shrewsbury Inlet.

Jaquelin Deitrick’s 1930 “Parade Ground” is a coming-of-age novel, and was the favorite of Gianna Olsen, a junior communication major, because Deitrick was “the odd one out, having lived on Sandy Hook compared to the other authors mentioned. I loved that the novel depicts the real Fort Hancock through its fictional base, Fort Jonathan Wayde. That is such a cool connection the author created.”

In 1879, Long Branch florist George Houghton wrote about Sandy Hook in a poem as well as in an illustrated essay in Scribner’s Magazine. Between 1878 and 1881, poet Walt Whitman repeatedly visited the area and wrote several prose passages about Sandy Hook in his 1882 book “Specimen Days,” as well as an 1885 poetic sequence titled, “Fancies at Navesink,” later incorporated into his famous book “Leaves of Grass.”

In James Fenimore Cooper’s 1830 novel “The Water-Witch,” a brigantine by that name traverses Shrewsbury Inlet to smuggle European goods into the British Province of New Jersey. As shown in an 1879 Harper’s Magazine article by Miss F. E. Fryatt, interest in Cooper’s novel persisted for decades. Residents named a northeastern section of Middletown Township, a fashionable club there, and three streets, Water Witch, Barberie, and Sea Drift Avenues, after Cooper’s novel and two of its characters.

The final author, a surprise to the audience, was Frank R. Stockton. Based on historical works that recounted Penelope Stout’s family folklore, in 1896 Stockton published a short story about her, which starts with a Native American attack on Dutch shipwreck survivors on Sandy Hook and later moves to Middletown Village, where peace is negotiated. Stockton’s 1879 best-selling novel “Rudder Grange” is the name of a fictional couple’s canal boat that they converted into their home. Blair showed that, like the novel’s fictional couple, the Stocktons had published a book on home improvement. The novel’s word play includes the fictional “Scoldsbury River” as the real Shrewsbury River, and a nearby fictional hotel named “Ginx’s” as the real Jenkinson’s Hotel. This and other textual evidence, as well as an 1879 magazine illustration of “A ‘Rudder Grange’ on Sandy Hook,” all suggest the novel’s setting as locally inspired.

Blair’s approach to “Rudder Grange” was persuasive for junior biology major Julia Rice: “This has given me a real appreciation for literature. I have seen the relevance to everyday current life in books from centuries prior. By building the case with the Stocktons writing a home improvement book, to the geography of the town in the time period, it is quite baffling that Blair is able to put all the pieces together and so clearly paint a picture of world-building, the strings that tie everything together. Bravo!” Burnett also started thinking about applying a similar approach to his home area: “This now has me interested in what literature includes Hazlet or Lincroft in them, and how they are portrayed or what stories are told in those kinds of settings.”

The presentation was followed by a lively question and answer period. Middletown Township Historical Society President Thomas Valenti said, “Dr. Blair’s breadth of knowledge continues to impress. He is one of our most engaging speakers, and his presentation on the literature of Sandy Hook did not disappoint. The research he conducted that led him to lesser known texts is commendable, appreciated, and important.”