Peter N. Anastas ’59 died on December 27, 2019 in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
(The following was published by The Gloucester Daily Times on December 27, 2019)
If Gloucester’s rich cultural life could be said to have a moral epicenter, Peter Anastas was it. And to say that he will be missed is beyond understatement.
The Gloucester born, bred and beloved writer, historian, scholar, teacher, social activist and homie extraordinaire, died quietly Friday morning at Seacoast Nursing Home with his loving partner of 33 years, Judith Winslow Walcott, by his side. His son, Benjamin Anastas, told the Times that his father, who had succumbed after a long battle with cancer, had remained fully engaged with life until the very end.
It would be difficult to imagine Peter Anastas, who was 82, as anything but fully engaged with life. He would no doubt prefer to think, as his friends at the Gloucester Writers Center — where he was a founding board member — put it in one of the many Facebook tributes posted in his honor, that he had “left town.”
Better yet, that this passage would prove a means by which to reunite with some of his late, great old pals, including fellow writer/historian Joe Garland, and the prodigious poet Anastas revered as his “model,” Charles Olson.
On his Facebook page, Anastas had posted a group photo taken at Olson’s 1970 wake at The Tavern on the Boulevard. It was quite a line-up. Some of the most radical influencers of 1960s American counter culture, including Allen Ginsberg, were present and accounted for. It was an era defined by the rock musical hit ‘Hair,’ and it could have been a casting call.
Olson, famed author of “The Maximus Poems,” had been a huge influence on the young Anastas. In an interview with Karl Young, he said that Olson’s “theory of “saturation” — that you concentrated on one place, one writer, one topic until you had absolutely exhausted it for yourself…has proved to be immensely helpful to me.”
As anyone who knows anything about Gloucester knows, Anastas chose his hometown as his one place. To such a degree that, in his memoir “Too Good to Be True,” Benjamin Anastas, himself a published author, says that he was “jealous” of his father’s infatuation with Gloucester.
“Thoreau said that he had ‘traveled a good deal in Concord,’” Anastas wrote, “and I might say the same for myself in Gloucester.”
He first made a name for himself as a prolific young reporter for the Gloucester Times, where his beat was basically anything that made the city’s heart beat. From Rocky Neck painters’ studios to the Rogers Street jazz scene to Charles Olson’s Stage Fort writing table (now at the Gloucester’s Writer’s Center) he covered the waterfront — and the working waterfront — not so much interviewing his subjects as befriending them.
His weekly columns in the Times — some 620 of them — were the basis of his books, “At the Cut” and “A Walker in the City: Elegy for Gloucester.” And his amazing cast of characters included a fair share of cast-offs.
“He was always,” says his son Benjamin, “working on behalf of some under-appreciated artist/poet/thinker, or a piece of Gloucester that needed preservation.”
That is how those who remember him most as a social activist, think of Anastas. In her tribute, his great friend and fan Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, recalled Anastas not only as a writer and chronicler of the city, but as an advocate for its people — an agent for change for those in need.
“He knew what affordable housing was before anyone…advocated for it back in the ‘70s…was always looking for a way to help,” recalled the mayor.
Instrumental in making the anti-poverty nonprofit Action Inc. — where for 30 years Anastas served as a social worker — the local force it is today, the mayor praised the roles Anastas played in setting up Action Energy, delivering surplus food for the city’s first food co-op, and getting gifts for the holidays for the children.
As Action’s director of advocacy and housing, he established a fishermen’s boarding house on Duncan Street, and got Central Grammar Apartments approved for senior housing.
“He opened so many doors for so many,” wrote Romeo Theken, “(but)…he would say ‘they owe me nothing, that’s why I’m here on earth.’”
To Peter Nicholas Anastas Jr., born in 1937 to Panos and Catherine Anastas, Greek-American shop owners, there was no place on earth like Gloucester. He grew up in its inner city, watched its fishing vessels, hiked its woods, combed its beaches. At Gloucester High School, where he was president of the National Honor Society, he showed an early flair for writing as editor of the school newspaper.
A scholarship student at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, he wrote for the student newspaper, and was editor of its literary magazine. In 1958, he was named Bertram Louis, Jr. Prize Scholar in English literature, and in 1959 he was awarded first and second prizes in the Brown Extemporaneous Essay Contest and selected as a commencement speaker.
During summers, he edited the Cape Ann Summer Sun, published by the Gloucester Daily Times, and worked on the waterfront and in his father’s stores.
At the University of Florence, he studied medieval literature from 1959 to 1962, taught English, and worked as an interpreter-translator at the university’s Institute for Physical Chemistry. Returning to Gloucester in 1962, he taught English at Rockport High School and Winchester Senior High School before winning a graduate teaching fellowship to Tufts University, where he studied English and American literature, receiving a master’s degree in 1967 with a thesis on Henry David Thoreau.
Survived by three children — Jonathan, Rhea and Benjamin — from his marriage to Dr. Jeane Wiener, Anastas leaves also the daughters he shared with Judith Winslow Walcott — Betsy and Diana Walcott — and their six shared grandchildren.