Missing from the Books: My Maine

By Sanford Phippen

 

Reviewing Maine books for the past seven, almost eight years for Maine Life and other publications, I begin to feel like the great film director, Federico Fellini, who once remarked, "I read all these books about Rome so as to forget what Rome was like."

After several hundred books either about Maine or by Maine writers, or by people who consider themselves Maine's spokesmen, I haven't forgotten, for it would be impossible, what "my Maine" was and is like; but in these books I certainly have to hunt long and hard to locate that telling passage, that revealing characterization, that right bit of dialogue, that apt description, scene, or line here and there that "rings true" and speaks of the Maine I know in my heart, soul, and guts; the Maine I grew up in; the Maine I both love and hate; the Maine that is in my blood and ancestry and will haunt me always. The great bulk of Maine's popular literature, unfortunately, still suffers from a surfeit of superficial views from without. The picture is way off-balance in favor of the Year-Round Summer People and the Maine Mythologists who have combined forces along publisher's row to continue to hype the Maine that never was. It's nothing really new, of course; they've been at it ever since Thoreau first reported upon his travels in The Maine Woods. And they gained great strength when E.B. White moved from Manhattan to Maine, when Louise Dickinson Rich "took to the woods," when Helen and Scott Nearing continued their good life Downeast, and when other popular writers like the late Robert PT. Coffin, as much a showman as P.T. Barnum, started winning national praises and prizes for their sunny, always up accounts of the wonderful rewarding life to be led in Maine.

How right Helen Yglesias was in her latest book, Starting (1978), in which she writes, "Rural life displays its exquisite exterior view of unspoiled elegant simplicity, but this enchanting coating 'straight out of central casting,' is a cover for an underpattem of complex and frightening problems. Maine suffers one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country; there is insufficient industry, no public transportation, mediocre schools; and the spread between the poor and the rich is as wide as that in any undeveloped country. The spread between their interests and intimate knowledge of one another is even wider. The farmhouses dotting the Maine landscape and inhabited by locals are seen as places in which 'nothing ever happens.' On the contrary, a subterranean, unreported life of intense social melodrama exists alcoholism, incest, illicit love, illegitimacy, homosexuality, madness, a high incidence of feeble-mindedness; violent and lasting family ruptures; couple-switching; drugs, vandalism and rebelliousness among adolescents-in a setting where the ratio of living space to human beings should insure a bucolic peace and soaring mental health statistics. (A recent study contrasted a section of New York City residents with the natives of a small village in Nova Scotia, measuring for contentment, stability, mental health. The New Yorkers came out way ahead.) Yet Pilgrims fleeing what they have experienced as the ugliness and madness of urban life continue to pour into Maine searching to be 'born again' (and into Vermont and Oregon and other spots), seeking a new road to community, personal joy, fulfillment-and social good."

Philip Issacson, the art critic of the Maine Sunday Telegram, wrote in his March 2, 1980 art column, "Painters have fostered an image of Maine that doesn't really exist." The same might very well be said about writers and recording artists like Marshall Dodge and his "Bert and I" performances. Mr. Isaacson goes on to say "…each summer we are watched by a steady stream of amateurs who swarm into the state for a few days to eat some lobster and see the coast. Many of these visitors are in search of what they perceive to be a simple and gentle way of life.

They are looking for less complicated times and expect to find them here. They have a vision of a Maine and a cultural tradition that never really existed.

"Their image of us comes from a variety of sources. They've seen us in Andrew Wyeth's paintings; they've read about the clothing they think we wear in their L.L. Bean catalogs and they note our goings on in the pages of Down East. From such sources they build their images-images that are a blend of sentimentality and misplaced nostalgia.

"In the tradition of those who live outside our borders we become Freeport-costumed, wood-burning, organically-fed, cross country skiing non-polluters who live on the edges of the forest or in white clapboarded villages next to the great sea."

Of course, many native Mainers are just as much to blame as the folks "from away." Many Mainers like to believe that they are just as noble, brave, and wise as their sea-faring and wood-chopping forebears were supposed to be; and that they are just as sharp and smart in a folksy way as "Bert and I." But, as Kenneth Roberts wrote in his Trending into Maine (1933), "I've heard a little too much about the canniness and sharpness of Maine natives-a little too much about how they always weigh with superhuman acumen all the arguments for and against any proposition-a little too much about how one Maine Yankee is more than a match, in any trade, for the wiliest Levantine ... I have never taken much stock in the idea that State-of-Mainers were supermen ... Maine people, probably, are no hardier than those from other sections, and I doubt whether they are able to stand more punishment, as some would have us believe ... Ah, no; not all the politicians in the world can make me accept Maine as only a Vacationland; not all the sentimentalists in the world can delude me into thinking there's nothing in Maine but scenery; not all the dyspeptic authors in the world can make me believe, with them, that Maine is wholly populated by dour, sour, cautious, calculating yokels."

Besides all this traditional stereotyping and the prevailing viewpoint of the writers "from away," Maine's literature also suffers from too much good taste. Richard Schickel, Time's movie reviewer, said in a review of the film "Nijinsky" [March 24, 1980], "There are times when excesses of good taste become a kind of bad taste, a falsification of a subject's spirit and milieu." I remember how outraged a Maine writer was when Jack Douglas appeared on the "Today" show publicizing his new book, Benedict Arnold Slept Here [1975], a wild put-down of Maine and Maine people done in a hilarious and rather truthful, if exaggerated manner. It was exaggerated in the way Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H Goes to Maine is exaggerated. Mr. Douglas does at least make a good point about the perverseness of some natives in their dealings with "foreigners" trying to run a Maine business.

Maine deserves and cries out for the "bad taste" in writing of a William Faulkner, a Thomas Wolfe, a Flannery O'Connor, a Eudora Welty, a Tennessee Williams. Some of the very best short stories ever written about Maine people, in my opinion, were by Erskine Caldwell of Tobacco Road fame. Caldwell lived in Maine for a time, and he saw in Maine what he knew about his native Georgia. When I was searching as a teenager and college student for my Maine in literature, I found the Maine I knew in these southern writers. Mississippi didn't seem at all alien to me; on the contrary, the people in Faulkner's Jefferson and in Welty's towns, both black and white, acted, spoke and thought just like the people I knew and grew up with Downeast. Take their collected works, mixed together with Willa Cather, Ethan Frome, and Peyton Place, and you'd have the Maine I'm trying to describe.

Of course, I found various versions of my Maine also among the classic works of Maine's best native writers: Sarah Orne Jewett, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Mary Ellen Chase, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Kenneth Roberts, Ruth Moore, and selected works of Robert P.T. Coffin and John Gould. Unfortunately, too much of Gould's work seems written expressly for the Maine mythology trade; but his first books, Farmer Takes a Wife and Last One In, especially, are delightful. However, I don't think it's any accident that his later books sell best in California.

Growing up in Hancock County in the 1940s and '50s, I was surrounded by Maine writers; and as their books came out, I remember overhearing often heated literary discussions about their merits and otherwise among my elders. Seven Steeples, by the late Reverend Margaret Henrichsen of North Sullivan, caused quite the stir because of the way she described certain of her parishioners living in filth and referring to Hancock County as a wilderness area. How naive of Reverend Henrichsen not to realize that many of our ancestors went to sea and were really quite worldly people. Wind off the Water by Miriam Colwell of Prospect Harbor, Winter Harbor and Our Island Lighthouse by Bernice Richmond of Winter Harbor, and The Peninsula by Louise Dickinson Rich of Corea also were avidly read and discussed by my relatives, neighbors, and teachers; and most of my classmates at Sumner High School, who knew well the subjects of the above books, made dozens of book reports on them in English class. My favorites at that time were Spoonhandle by Ruth Moore, Windswept by Mary Ellen Chase, and Bushed by Frank Whitehouse Anderson of Ellsworth, which is excellent fare for a seventh grade Maine boy who likes to go hunting with his father and male relatives in the Maine woods.

In my hometown of Hancock lived Ruth Sawyer, the well-known author of children's books. Her Maggie Rose takes Hancock as its setting and Miss Sawyer used a number of real people as characters and based her fictional leads on a family we all knew well. I remember enjoying the book very much as a youngster; but I also vividly remember sensing that it was at heart a phony book-and thinking that that was the way authors had to write books. They had to lie and make up stuff that wasn't true about people and places. For instance, one of her main characters, whom she paints as a wonderful, generous, warm man, was my father's skinflint boss; and in his dealings with his business and his employees, as my family knew so well, he was far from being warm and wonderful. A Dickens would have had a field day describing this man's life and personality, as well as his craggy features, but Ruth Sawyer made him into a quaint and "typical" Downeaster.

So what is it Maine writers, especially ones from away, need to know about Maine natives that will help them avoid this constant and patronizing stereotyping and shallow characterization? According to my native poet-friend, Mary Ellen Georgitis, they need to know more about the poverty and frustration, the thwarted ambition and lack of opportunity, the bitterness and uneasiness that goes back many generations and which underlies everything. Maine coastal people, the ones Mary Helen and I are from anyway, are particularly ill at ease with people from away, feeling that somehow they are inferior, somehow they have missed something. Many of my relatives and neighbors, when talking to summer people, always agree with them to their faces. There is always the fear of being made fun of and the sensitivity of the underdog. But there is the fierce pride, too; and the knowledge that as a Maine person one may not have as much money or have traveled as widely as the person from away, but one may very well have just as much intelligence, education, class, and common sense. Because of the often rude and condescending, and sometimes down-right cruel, treatment accorded Maine natives by summer people and tourists over the generations, there is a natural resentment, a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude, an envy that's turned inward along with the feelings of inferiority and jealousy. It's certainly also true that Maine people are apt to read more into what the person from away said than was intended.

Is all this the result of the lack of an early education? A lack of opportunity? A lack of self-confidence? Do Maine people fail to understand the world? Are they afraid of it? It often seems so. Maine people quite often don't view the people from "the west'ard," as they'd put it, or outside Maine, as real people with real feelings, like themselves. They, in turn, laugh at and make jokes about the summer people and strangers. And much of the Maine native frustration turns into despisableness and they take it out on each other. One answer to some of these questions seems to lie in what Mary Ellen Chase once said, and I'm paraphrasing: "When the seafaring days were over, Maine people locked themselves up in their houses and got queerer and queerer."

Certainly, the best of Maine's writers from away know or sense all of this complex matter. Edward M. Holmes in his short stories (Driftwood, A Part of the Man, Mostly Maine), Martin Dibner (Ransom Run, Seacoast Maine People and Places), and Elizabeth Hardwick, who in her latest and acclaimed novel, Sleepless Nights (1979), writes of her Maine washerwoman: "Oh God, there she is, homely, homely, scabby with a terrible skin rash, heavy in her cotton housedress, lame in her carpet slippers, pushing to the door with painful, heavy slowness. She is violently cheerful ... Her large, muscled arms hold me for a moment in a pounding embrace. The smell of laundry is, truly, like a bitter sacred incense. Her cropped hair is damp. Her legs are swollen, the large aching ankles seem to groan as she pulls her weight along. She stands there, the great teeth throbbing in her round, gleaming face. Oh, Ida. For a moment she is framed against her new white washing machine, as if waiting to be photographed-savage miraculous, with the ambiguous smile of an old hearth goddess, an icon to which no offering was ever made without a grumble."

It's a wonderful, sensitive, memorable portrait of a Maine woman; but how much more incredible-or credible-Ida's story might have been if she could have told it herself.

Unfortunately, even the talented forces of Hardwick, Holmes, and Dibner, to name only three of the most outstanding current writers, aren't much of a challenge to the Maine Mythologists whose work goes on. On Broadway for the past year there's run a popular play, On Golden Pond by Ernest Thompson, who summers in Maine, in which a Maine native character appears named Charlie Martin. Charlie is the middle-aged mailman who's so full of chuckles and "ayuhs" that I felt like crawling under my fifteen dollar matinee seat every time he appeared. Charlie Martin is the Maine Native as Nigger; and, unfortunately, this Downeast shufflin' man characterization has some truth to it. I cringed and wanted to crawl under my seat, not just out of anger, but embarrassment; for I've played that role myself many summers delivering laundry and milk on the Maine Coast and working for the summer people, hoping they'd be kind enough to give a poor Maine boy a tip. I've heard that On Golden Pond is to be made into a movie starring Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn as the aged summer couple who have been coming to Maine each summer for years; perhaps they'll sign Marshall Dodge to portray Charlie Martin. Sadly, he'd be perfect for the part.


Reprinted in The Messiah in the Memorial Gym And Other Writings 1973 – 1998. Nobleboro, Maine: Blackberry Books, 1998.

Originally published in Puckerbrush Review - Spring/Summer 1980 and Maine Life - September 1980.

Copyright 1998 by Sanford Phippen - All rights reserved: Made available on www.ume.maine.edu/ced/wom/index.html with permission.


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