‘Martha's Vineyard: A History’

Tom Dresser’s eighth Island history read covers the epic and the everyday.

Tom Dresser's "Martha's Vineyard: A History" is the eighth book in his Island history series.

Martha’s Vineyard: A History, by Thomas Dresser, The History Press; $21.99. Available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, Secret Garden, and other local shops and libraries.

Tom Dresser published his eighth Island history book, Martha’s Vineyard: A History, earlier this month. On the face of it, we might ask whether this tiny place needs another history book.

The reality is that this Island has seen quite a few comings and goings over the past five millennia, and no one who possesses an old Island family name has recorded them all — or even correctly — as observed recently.

Mr. Dresser posed that very point last week to a community discussion group at Howes House in West Tisbury, where he previewed the book.

In response, a doyenne of the Island mused that “one historical record claims that my great-grandfather produced no issue. If that were true, I would not be sitting here today, and my sister and I would be very [offended].” Howls of laughter ensued.

There is an aspect about the retelling of a past in which we have a stake that absorbs us, a persistent notion that we don’t understand it well enough. We are not satisfied that we know it. For example, some 50,000 books and pamphlets have been written since the American Civil War began in 1861. More are on the presses. Likely, we will not ever stop trying to understand the injustices around that one.

Our Island history is decidedly less macabre, but with more than 5,000 years of indigenous history, and 400 years of European pratfalls and progress, there’s plenty more to be learned about the land on which we tread.

Mr. Dresser has made the telling of Island history his literary sweet spot. He’s written, often with collaborators, about its peoples, its wars, its women, and its music. Mr. Dresser notes that the Island has a bounty of written histories, citing the work done over the past 100 years by historians and archivists such as Charles Banks, Henry Norton, and Arthur Railton.

In a foreword to Martha’s Vineyard: A History, acclaimed historical novelist and Island resident John Hough Jr. writes that Mr. Dresser has become the Island’s resident historian, with “an eye admirably suited to social history, which is what Tom’s fast-multiplying books really are.”

His Island history series, which he began in 2007, is also approachable, written with style and whimsy by an author who does the legwork, but doesn’t take himself too seriously. In the preface to Martha’s Vineyard: A History, Mr. Dresser writes that the book serves as an introduction to Martha’s Vineyard for tourists and first-time visitors.

“It serves as a confirmation for wash-ashores, people not born here but confident that they know their way around. And this book may serve as a subject of discussion and derision for native Islanders, who know how it really happened,” he writes.

Martha’s Vineyard: A History summarizes early Island history, but the focus of its 170 pages is 20th century Island life. The book covers epic moments in Island history, including hurricanes, the filming of Jaws, the death and potential rebirth of the heath hen, presidential travel (more than you thought), the withering of McDonald’s franchises on the Vineyard, and the flourishing of the Island Cup football rivalry between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard into national prominence.

Part of its charm is in the minutiae of its history. Take the Moon Cusser Café, for example, a trendy ’60s coffeehouse on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs that hosted the early days of musicmakers Carly Simon, James Taylor, Tim Rush, Phil Ochs, Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band, and Tom Rush. Many musicians, like the Simon sisters and Messrs. Rush and Taylor, had strong Island roots.

In Mr. Dresser’s history of the place, you can join the debate on the origin of the name Moon Cusser, described by the author as “a pirate waiting onshore on a dark night with a lantern to lure unsuspecting sailors to the rocks.”

My kind of history. Can’t make this stuff up.

There will be an author’s talk with Mr. Dresser on Martha’s Vineyard: A History at the Vineyard Haven library on Tuesday, May 19, at 7 pm. The talk is free and open to the public. Books will be available for signature and sale. For further information, contact Thomas Dresser at 508-693-1050 or thomasdresser@gmail.com.