The Maine That Never Was: The Construction of Popular Myth

in Regional Culture
 

by George H. Lewis

"To hell with all my worries

They are negligible at best.

I leave for Maine tomorrow

Where my soul can take a rest."

In The Maine Woods







The above poem, from the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad's tourist magazine In The Maine Woods, was published in 1934. Such magazines and brochures have, for the past one hundred years or more, depicted Maine as isolated, surrounded by the beauties of dark forests, rugged lands and turbulent seas-safely removed from the perils, temptations and rat-races of twentieth-century urban living. They depict the state as a land which holds the promise for people who live or visit there of life as simple and happy as that of their romantically rural ancestors-children of nature with their souls at rest.

This idyllic and romantic image of a "homeland of the soul," connecting as it does psychic space with geographical location, can be found in publications as old as that of the Maine Central Railways who, in 1895, invited tourists to "become, once more, eager children of nature" in Maine (Maine Central Railroad 1895: 6), or as recent as the Maine Publicity Bureau's 1990 campaign, in which they asserted that "Maine means getting away from the rat race .... A state where nature's unspoiled bounties await (and where) scenic, rugged beauty offers a lifetime of cherished memories" (Maine Publicity Bureau 1990: 17).

The identification of Maine as such a homeland is an example of what Judith Adler calls an enacted trope (1375), or master narrative developed and directed toward visitors to an area in an attempt to reconstruct the meaning of that area for a particular purpose (Culler 27-40). In this case, Maine has been reconstructed as a "state" that has escaped the onslaught of twentieth-century urbanization and still exists as an earlier, perhaps even timeless, place-a vantage point from which one can grasp and understand "Life as it should be"-a phrase that, not coincidentally, is the most recent slogan for the state, introduced in 1988 by the Portland based marketing firm of Londy, Seardlick and Mackey, in a campaign underwritten by the Maine Publicity Bureau.

This constructed Maine of the publicity bureaus and the railroads is not the same Maine one is likely to hear described by a long-time native of the state-economically one of the poorest in the nation and poorest of the New England States. As characterized by Sanford Phippen, a local Maine writer: "this Maine is frustrating; it is hard on people. It is a life of poverty, solitude, struggle, lowered aspirations, living on the edge" ("The People of Winter" 308).

For the people who live in this state, poverty is the dark side of life. At any given moment, the poverty rate is about 15 percent, according to Joyce Benson, senior planner in the Maine State Planning Office. For rural areas this is closer to 21 percent (Wood 8). But thousands of others are so close to the line that a cutback in work hours or a family illness sends them below, bringing the actual figure for the state to more like one out of every five persons. Thus, the dark woods, deep lakes, crashing surflines and rocky soils of the state are the home of more than 200,000 people whose lives demand a daily struggle to get by. For many of these residents, life in Maine is more apt to be nasty and brutish than it is gentle and restorative of one's soul. And yet this darker image of the state is seldom presented, or even discussed, outside the state itself (although it has recently become a focal theme, or counter-trope, in the writing of new "realist" regional writers of the state, such as Carolyn Chute, who penned The Beans of Egypt, Maine).

In a word, the realities of "living on the edge" represent a far different Maine from that whose image has been developed and reinforced through at least the past century of mainstream writing about the state-especially by those with major vested interests in luring people with spending money to Maine. The construction and evolution of this image, or myth, of Maine is the subject of this essay. But before going further, here is "Maine" again this time with all the shapes, moods and colors of nature carefully painted in:

More than most places, Maine offers a sense of permanence .... The curved knife-edge of Mt. Katahdin, encircling a vast wooded amphitheater, rises out of the wilderness in profound isolation .... The islands of Casco Bay, startling in their number and their beauty, appear and disappear from view as the fog lifts and comes in again. The sharp ledges of Pemaquid Point, bright in the summer sun, thrust out to sea and, it seems, hang breathlessly before plunging into the Atlantic .... Maine's own unique and natural self still determines ... what happens there and what is thought there ... [It] tugs at a man's soul to let him know that this is home. (Clark 15, 184)

This last quotation, rather than coming directly from the publicity people, is drawn from a history of Maine written by an academic, and which was given a very favorable review in the Journal of American History in 1977. However, this history was written "for the public," rather than for an academic audience and was published in commemoration of Maine's Bicentennial celebration, so it is little surprise that this century-strong image should appear in its pages.

This Maine image, painted with the intensely romantic themes of escape, discovery and rejuvenation, is strikingly similar to what Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have explored in their Invention of Tradition, in which they examine state-sponsored image-making campaigns in (mainly) Europe. According to their work, a good deal of what is "sold" to tourists and visitors as authentic images, and the material artifacts that represent these images (such as kilts and tartans in Scotland), did not emerge from the dark past of folk tradition as the way the people felt about themselves and their land, but instead were invented and developed because of the pressures of "romantic tourists and English publishers" who wanted very badly to discover, experience, embrace and sell the authenticity of quaint regions. This same phenomenon has been charted more close to home, in Nova Scotia, by historian Ian McKay, who has traced the emergence of Peggy's Cove in the consciousness of Canada's Maritime populace. "Maritimers find their sense of collective identity in their folk traditions, in their fiercely independent hamlets, in their amiable rejection of the twentieth century. Storm-tossed Peggy's Cove, securely nestled around its harbour, provides this social myth with the full guarantee of nature" (McKay 34).

This creation of social myths of "authentic non-reality" in our contemporary culture has been discussed by Boorstin, who argued for the view of tourist advertising as an integral part of the packaging and selling of what he termed "pseudoevents." This concept has been taken further by Ewen, who has recently pointed out that such constructed images in American culture are beginning to vie with lived experiences, with images often "a representation of reality more compelling than reality itself-even perhaps throwing the very definition of reality into question" (25).

In the literature that more directly focuses on tourism and the creation of quaint regions, this concept is echoed as well (Cohen; MacCannel; Adler). Barthes (1972), in discussing the French Guide Bleu, suggested that it selectively focused on the picturesque and portrayed people as an element in the "decor of place," while Britton, Kadt and others have proposed that international tourist advertising depicts Third World societies in an "unauthentic" manner-substituting an imagery of paradise for any local sense of place and minimizing or romanticizing local poverty or other pressing social problems (Albers and James).

That this is true in Maine-an economically depressed state that has clung to tourism as a means of staying afloat-can be seen in these further comments by Sanford Phippen, the local Maine author:

The Maine I know in my heart, soul and guts, the Maine I grew up in, the Maine I both love and hate; is missing from the great bulk of Maine's popular literature. The picture is way off balance in favor of the year-around summer people and the Maine Mythologists who have combined forces along publishers row to continue to hype the Maine that never was. ("Introduction" 7-8)

Romancing the Past

The propositions that are central to this image of "the Maine that never was" seem to spring from the romantic tradition that views urban life of this century with suspicion and dread while at the same time idealizing the "wilderness" as a place for individual redemption and the discovery of universal truths (Nash; Williams; Short). According to this view, there is something intrinsically quieter and more simple about Maine-spending time there is both comforting and rejuvenating for the urban dweller. In Maine one can get back to the basics, back to the simple, rural cultural roots of last century America. As the most recent advertising campaign for the state, launched in 1987-88, puts it:

Living here is like living in a Rockwell painting. In Maine, Americana is not a facade, but the heartfelt pride of our residents.

(Londy-Swardlick-Mackey)

In this romantic view, it is almost a commonsense proposition that, along with the unspoiled nature of its land, somehow the uniqueness of its idealized natives must be recognized and appreciated. Rural, salt-of-the-earth people, these tightlipped, taciturn, yet humble folk, living in harmony with their inner natures and the rugged outer beauty of their land, must be appreciated (and sometimes envied) for who they are (Short 10- 12).

This view is wonderfully summed up in a classically popular bit of Maine humor-the story of the tourist who, having motored deep into the Maine woods and gotten lost, stops to ask a Mainer sitting on his front porch for directions.

"Which road do you take to Bangor?" the tourist asked.

After an overlong silence, the local replies. "Can't get there from here."

In other words, no matter how hard you try, you'll never quite get totally there-to the idealized state of the local resident-if you hail "from away," as they put it. And the maps you bring with you from the city don't help, either. But, even realizing this, you still can get close enough, on vacation, to rejuvenate your twentieth-century urban soul at least until next summer, when you'll have to make the trip again.

What is important to understand about this joke (and others like it) is that it originated not with local Mainers, but with summer people-the folks "from away" themselves-near the turn of the century. It is esoteric in origin, as Edward Ives has pointed out in his study of Maine humor. "It developed out of an others' view, it is how an outsider group saw native Mainers" (115) and not, originally, how they saw themselves. Now, of course, it is part of the image, and after its huge popularity on the famous Bert & I recording of "Maine" humor, made by Marshall Dodge, even locals are likely to think it is authentic.

Thus is the Maine resident reduced to a stereotype and frozen in an idealized nineteenth century time. Quaint folkways, down east humor and the Maine accent are valued by outsiders as more than mere objects of curiosity-they are touchstones to historical roots that others feel they have lost. To the tourist industry, then, this mythic Maine image-and the objects of material culture that help reinforce it-are valuable. People will pay, often outrageous amounts, to visit this world and to take home "authentic" curios found in it, from recordings of Maine humor; to videos of the unspoiled rugged coastline, set to soft, new age music; to sturdy L.L. Bean walking shoes (sold in Bean's store located in Freeport, a town known to locals as "Yuppie Tijuana").

To outsiders, then, Maine became beautiful when it came to stand for the essence of a romanticized regional lifestyle that many felt had been lost in this century. This image of Maine and its people and culture is an invented one, developed by "romantic tourists and publishers" to fill significant social and economic needs. The invention of Maine transformed a potentially negative image. It recognized regional backwardness because it had to, but cleverly placed it under a positive sign. Lack of education was viewed as the triumph of natural wit and native intelligence. The severe harshness of the environment was interpreted as stark beauty and a challenge well met by a sturdy people. Small local communities, lacking modern goods and services and dependent upon limited natural resources, were re-imagined as unspoiled havens of authenticity in an artificial world, as reflected in this passage from Sara Orne Jewett's classic The Country of the Pointed Firs, written in 1896:

I was very cold and tired when I came at evening up the lower bay, and saw the white houses of Dunnet Landing climbing the hill. They had a friendly look, these houses, not as if they were climbing the shore, but as if they were rather all coming down to meet a fond and weary traveler, and I could hardly wait with patience to step off the boat. (147)

Shaping The Image: The Late 1800s

This invention of a mythic Maine had its roots in economic and demographic factors of last century. Beginning around 1830, large numbers of Maine farmers began moving out of the state, as the new railroad market connections made the open and more tillable lands of the Midwest a more profitable place to farm than the hilly, rocky soil of Maine. By 1860, 50,000 natives of Maine were living outside New England. About half of these were farming in the Midwest, some 6,000 or so were in Minnesota, lumbering in the new timber frontier, and about 10,000 were in California, where Maine ships had traded for two generations and where people flocked to the gold strike of 1849 (Clark 152).

Population-wise, Maine never recovered from this great exodus of the mid-1800s, nor from the collapse of its farming and lumbering industries that the opening of the West by railroad precipitated. By 1900, Maine's dominance in shipbuilding and ocean trade was also over-again, partly because of the railroads and partly because the skills of building and sailing wooden hulled ships were no longer needed in an era of steel and steam.

The textile and paper industries-nearly totally controlled by outside economic interests-were not enough for Maine to maintain its position in population and wealth. In terms of other industry, the state was just too far out on the edge of the national rail network that had developed to get much of a share. By the turn of the century, then, Maine was strongly locked in a spiral of demographic and economic decline. The state was "fast becoming more interesting and valuable for its past than its future" (Clark 153).

It was then that the summer people began to arrive. Wealthy residents of the industrialized urban centers of the East, these people "discovered" Maine through the landscape paintings of the romantic "Hudson" school artists, such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who had traveled to the Maine coast and inland, boarding with local fisher and farm families while they painted their lush, dramatic land and sea scapes (Lewis, "Mass Society" 10-19). Cole, in speaking of what he was trying to represent in his paintings, referred to the "pleasures' which spring like flowers within the bosom of the wilderness" (Nash 79), and Church, in painting his famous "Twilight In The Wilderness," spoke of the realization of the promise of the American setting in his work (Huntington 82). This painting, which looks from a spruce-covered cliff, over a river, to Katahdin in the distance, reflects especially well the extent to which the romantic image of nature, wed to the concept of harmony and souls at rest, was dominant as a theme in these constructed visual images of Maine.

These wealthy and educated persons were also familiar with the written works of Henry David Thoreau, who had come to Maine in the 1840s and had written thusly of the inland forest lands of the states:

Such is the home of the moose, the bear, the caribou, the wolf, the beaver and the Indian .... What a place to live, what a place to die and be buried inl There certainly men would live forever, and laugh at death and the grave. (Thoreau 97)

These wealthy summer people came first, in the 1870s and 1880s, to the coast, building lavish summer "cottages" at Kennebunkport, Boothbay, Camden and Bar Harbor, where they hired the locals as caretakers and amused themselves by recording their "quaint" ways (Street). Soon, these visitors (and those just a notch below them in wealth) had also followed Thoreau deep into the Maine woods, traveling by rail and steamer up the Rangeley Lakes or Moosehead to hugely lavish resort hotels-the Mt. Kineo House, the Poland Spring House, The Moosehead Inn. By 1897, the Nation magazine found at almost every mile along Maine's coastline, from Kittery to Mt. Desert, "some of the marks of a summer resort," and between 1887 and 1914, the state gained more than a thousand exclusive summer hotels (Herrick 183).

These summer resort complexes were competitive with any in the country, and represented substantial economic interest and investment. The Maine Central and the Bangor & Aroostook railroads, which carried up to 3,000 summer visitors yearly, promoted Maine with brochures, literature, exhibitions, information offices and monthly travel magazines-two of which were quoted at the beginning of this essay (Schrivelbush). In fact, Maine's long standing slogan, "Vacationland," was coined by Maine Central railroad publicists in the late 1890s. Later, when the state got into the publicity game in the 1920s and 1930s, this slogan was officially adopted and found its way onto the state automobile license plate (Bachelder).

Other early promotional organizations which helped mold this image of Maine in their own journals and promotional publications included the Maine Sportsmen's Fish and Game Association, The New England Resort Association, and the city of Portland's Board of Trade, whose publications touted the city's healthy environment and clean air as a refuge from the smoggy urban life of other, "outsider," cities (Babcock 79-85).

This literature, begun around the turn of the century, was instrumental in developing the romantic, preindustrial image of Maine. Coastal travel descriptions emphasized the informality of villages. Islands were peopled by a sturdy race, living "like one large family or clan, with no aristocracy, no middle class, no poor" (Maine Central 1897: 282). Inland, in the lakeside hotels nestled in the deep Maine woods, the traveler could cast off the veneer of city life and be "changed into the likeness of an aboriginal" (Judd 184).

This tourist landscape, developed by Portland businessmen, railroad and steamship agents, hotel men and resort proprietors, was a last refuge from industrial society-a reservoir of tradition and natural simplicity. As historian Richard Judd has remarked, "Rusticity itself-rural stagnation became an important commercial resource. Contrasting this landscape to the noxious and crowded industrial centers most vacationers were fleeing, tourist literature presented Maine as the ,true poetical conception of the wilderness in all its wild beauty, unpolluted by the march of modern progress' " (184).

Although written a few years later, the following description of Musgongus captures the spirit of this mythic landscape exactly:

The community constitutes one large family, and any islander's property is more or less everybody's .... The people are splendid physical specimens, as well as intelligent, progressive, religious .... Although so small and with little industry but lobstering and fishing, Muscongus is a prosperous little community, with well-kept houses, happy contented people and is wholly free from the rush and worries, the problems and innovations of the outside world. (Verrill 261-2)

Democratizing The Image: The 1920s and 1930s

By the 1920s, with automobility, the rise of the middle class and the spreading institution of paid vacations that stemmed from union contracts, the nature of the Maine visitor changed. Caravans of middle class automobile tourists traveling on the gradually improving roads of Maine began to supplant and surround the enclaves and resorts of the wealthy. Owners of spacious old houses along the coastal routes put in electric lights and flush toilets and set out signs welcoming guests. Tourist cabins began to appear in clusters, grouped along driveways, with names like the "Maine Idyll," "Bay Haven," and "Forest Paradise." Motor camping became the rage (Belasco).

Maine became "the pine tree state" in the 1920s, with the Maine Publicity Bureau candidly commenting that "trees are worth hard cold cash .... It is because of trees and our winding streets that Maine has a reputation for quaintness and charm ... it is like a glimpse into paradise" (Jenks 50). The Bureau, begun in 1921, began to focus on the motor driven tourist, launching a "Maine by motor" campaign which, by 1929, featured ads in papers like the New York Times that read: "25,000 Miles of Fine Smooth Roads: Another Maine Attraction" (Jenks 50). Also in 1929, L.L. Bean featured a tree-lined parking lot on the cover of its spring catalog, with the "curved knife-edge" of Mt. Katahdin visible on the horizon.

Cabins and camps for the middle class tourist and hunter were advertised in Maine-oriented publications-deep in the "balsam scented forest" and on lakes that featured fishing, boating and canoeing. Lake View Camps boasted of "cool nights, dry air and no hay fever" in 1922, while The Forks of the Machias proclaimed itself "an oasis for discriminating sportsmen," and Togue Pond Camps advertised "log cabins, home cooking and our own garden, cows and hens to supply the table" (Bangor and Aroostook Railroad 98, 99, 102). During the 1920s, this image of Maine as a hunting and fishing paradise, a place to get in tune with nature (minus the hay fever), that had been pushed by the railroads since the late 1800s, was also taken up by L.L. Bean, with his Freeport store, open 24 hours a day.

Bean's business was a successful attempt to capture the image of Saunders' store, founded in 1857, and known to wealthy hunters all over the world. Saunders was described thusly at the time:

For more than eighty years hunters, trappers and guides have outfitted at this ancient trading post which sells everything from canoes to toothpicks, and from canned tomatoes to outboard motors. Its shelves are stocked with blankets, sleeping bags, rifles, shot guns, ammunition, tin ware, crockery, engine parts, anchors, fishing tackle, boots, shoes, socks, and other things too numerous to mention. Presidents, United States senators, governors, bankers, and even members of royalty have been outfitted for fishing and hunting at the Saunders' store. (Buxton 124)

L.L. Bean took the romantic and status-filled image of Saunders and commercialized it for the middle class, not only in his store but also in his mail order catalog. The catalog, featuring a full four-color cover with a romanticized painting of a hunting or fishing scene, emphasized the image of Maine as an unspoiled wilderness and-with L.L.'s written comments about his productshelped contribute to the image of the Mainer as honest, hardworking, thrifty and wise in the ways of nature (Montgomery).

As the Depression dampened the economy in the late 1920s and 1930s, the romantic image of Maine and the Yankee character took on new importance. Bernard DeVoto wrote in Harper's Magazine, in an article entitled "New England: There She Stands-," that Yankees were coping with the Depression better than others. "They have lived for three centuries, tightening their belts and hanging on by the sense of what is real. . . " he observed. A Yankee "will buy a Chevrolet and, uniquely in America, keep it year after year without hearing that thrift is a vice" (Miller 100). Throughout the essay, DeVoto used the image of granite to describe the enduring character of the region and its people.

DeVoto's essay was part of a cultural rediscovery of New England that took place in the 1930s. The people of Maine (and the other New England states) were seen to be tough and enduring able to weather the economic storm of the Depression better than many. As Henry Buxton, a reporter for the Bangor Daily News wrote in his book Assignment Down East:

One Maine coaster, living on a little salt water farm said to me: 'we never worry about politics and depressions ... down here, for if worst comes to worst, we can dig a mess of clams, and there are always coots among the islands .... I've never heard of anybody starving or freezing to death. (79)

Mainers described thusly were seen as being in touch with nature and living in harmony with their rugged environment. This overly romanticized image offered the nation rejuvenation-a chance to immerse oneself in the Maine myth and cleanse one's soul.

In the mid-1930s Yankee magazine was established by Judson Hale, with its main goal being the preservation of images, objects and values associated with "old New England culture." This popular magazine, with its historically high subscription numbers, has a significantly larger readership outside New England than it does within the region. With a major focus on Maine (at this writing, 15 of the 23 major articles and stories in the last three issues focused on Maine), Yankee has been described by the head of the University of Southern Maine's Regional Studies program as "having more than any other publication perpetuated what I would call the Yankee myth in the twentieth century... the romanticized view of the region that historian George Wilson Pierson labeled an 'obstinate concept' more than 30 years ago" (99).

From 1930s on, then, even if one did not actually motor to Maine for "rejuvenations," the mythic image of the state and its people was alive and well in the pages of Yankee magazine, as well as in L.L. Bean's increasingly popular mail order catalog. Reading these myth-sustaining publications-and perhaps even ordering some sturdy, honest Maine shoes from Beans-became a way of vicariously immersing oneself in this Maine of the collective imagination, even if one could not physically escape the hot and smoggy urban landscape.

Back To The Earth: The 1940s

The lure of mythic Maine took on new meaning in the 1940s, as individuals from outside the state, battered by the Depression and the on-going world war, hoped to get back in touch with the strength of traditional values and themselves by moving "back to the land." These people, committed to their new lifestyle, but viewing it through mythcolored glasses, began to write about their experiences, sometimes in the first person and sometimes as thinly disguised fiction. This literature includes the works of Henry Beston, who wrote of his Nobleboro farm in Northern Farm (1948); Elizabeth Ogilvie, who wrote of her life on "Bermetts Island" in books like High Tide A t Noon (1944); Ruth Moore, who began her Maine coastal books with Spoonhandle in 1946 and Louise Dickinson Rich, who moved from Massachusetts to the Rangeley Lake region of Maine, the "wild and new" land, as she called it in her books We Took To The Woods and Happy The Land. "Here in this country I have found the circumstances and conditions that will make a woman of me if anything ever will," she wrote. "Here I have my feet on the solid earth, literally, and that is good" (Happy the Land 256).

Highly romanticized, these books of the 1940s kept the Maine myth alive for many who, in this decade, were seeking such a haven from the world of uncertainty and war. Many envied authors like Bernice Richmond, who wrote of her experiences during the war years isolated on a lighthouse on a tiny island off Winter Harbor, Maine, where she and her husband, "with the help of the kind village folk-lobstermen, mostly, and their families, set to work to create a refuge from the clatter and confusion of city life."

Short columns of thin vapor lay between me and the island and stood motionless along its eastern shore. Then, out of the misty sea, with its shores tinted pink and glistening through the thick coats of ice of the rocks, the rugged little island rose and shone against the cold winter sky. The sky touched our home and all the little buildings ... until the whole island was a delicate miniature on the distant sea line. (275)

Many of these romantic books of the 1940s, probably initially inspired by E.B. White's move from New York City to a salt water farm south of Blue Hill, Maine in 1938, and his subsequent pieces in the New Yorker describing his attempts to recapture the repose and sanity of nature and the rural life, have been recently reprinted and are enjoying a second life among the Helen-and-ScottNeering-inspired new generation of back-to-thelanders who inhabit the state today.

Commercializing The Image: The 1980s and 1990s

These new back-to-the-landers in Maine, with their organic, post-1960s philosophy, are reading their own social values into the landscape, even as they hark back to the romantic images of the 1940s, validating these images in contrast to the "touristic hard sell" of Maine that they see, increasingly, around the state. Yet, the myth in its 1940s romantic form is also being aggressively marketed today. Down East magazine's editor, in 1986, reaffirmed the myth when he wrote of "the appeal of Maine, in that it stands alone on the Atlantic coast as a rugged, fiercely independent state, inhabited by a people of great common sense and practicality, who will tolerate a little foolishness, but not much (Stinnett 12). Down East's book division is one of the major publishers of reprints of these romantic classics of the 1940s, as well as of collections of Maine stories from their own magazine with similar romantic/nostalgic themes and titles like "Time Stands Still" and "That Maine Spirit." These books are published because, over and above the backto-the-landers, there is a large market for them. They sell thousands of copies to today's mass market tourists, who have bought the Maine image in its new, slicker commercial guise and enjoy reading romantic confirmations of what they already believe is true.

As Maine publisher Lance Tapley has said of these books: "It's like the natives selling trinkets to the tourists. They can make money selling the Maine myth ... just talk to anyone outside the state. All they know about Maine is a 'Bert & I' record, or L.L. Bean or lobsters. When they have a chance to learn more about Maine in a book, they gravitate to what they know already" (Wilson 22).

What they know already is the Maine myth, which is being aggressively marketed in a slick new campaign launched by the Maine Tourism Bureau which, in 1987, had its budget tripled to $3 million. The campaign is designed to attract even more visitors to the state than come at present. Tourism, the dominant industry in Maine, is big business and it shows ... especially along the coast, where Route I is cluttered with curio shops, souvenir stands, outlet stores and sea food restaurants. In the late 1980s nearly 7 million tourists were visiting Maine annually, spending close to $1.5 billion in the state each year and creating nearly 60,000 jobs in this economically depressed state (Maine Tourism Study 1985).

In the new campaign, the familiar "Vacationland" state slogan that originated with the railroad publicists in the late 1800s and that has also appeared on the state's license plates since 1935, has been retired (although it still does appear, along with the image of a lobster, on Maine plates [Lewis "The Maine Lobster"]). According to David Swardlick, head of the ad agency in charge of this campaign, "Vacationland" doesn't "position Maine as unique from Vermont or Disneyland or from South Dakota" (Jenks 47). It's a tired, worn-out term, he feels, and has been replaced with: "Maine: The Way Life Should Be"-ad-speak for the myth, commercially updated to today:

Welcome to the way life should be. The place where you can establish your life's course, where you set your own boundaries .... America's got only one Maine-the classic seashore, the perfect lakes and mountains, the peaceful moments of uncommon serenity, the folks who live here .... This is what it's all about. Maine is simply the way life should be. (LondySeardlick-Mackey 24)

This general promotional statement, aimed at the visitors who will likely drive to Maine and spend some time in the state, rather than the pre-packaged mass bus tourists, was arrived at only after extensive market research-interviews with several hundred past and potential visitors to the state. Those interviewed have a minimum household income of $26,000 and a median income of $50,000.They are between 35 and 44 years of age and have at least some college education (Jenks 48). In general, they think of Maine as a place to get away from it all.

The more specific advertisements of the campaign, targeted for the national media, are highly nostalgic. Maine is depicted, following the myth, as unspoiled and quaint. The ads feature idyllic, professionally taken photographs of Maine landscapes, printed as though they were amateur snapshots that could have been taken by anyone. These photos are supplemented with ad copy such as: "We've found nothing spoils a lover of mountains and lakes like mountains and lakes that are unspoiled" and "There's no end to the quiet inlets, sandy beaches, rocky coves and bustling harbors that dot our shores."

Swardlick says, echoing the Maine myth perfectly: "We are not just showing a piece of landscape. We are trying to create a sense of the escape, the visit, the relaxation, the rejuvenation that would come from a vacation in Maine" (Jenks 48).

Or, as the early publicists said in the 1880s: "Cast off the noxious veneer of city life. Become, in Maine, transformed by serenity and the pure state of nature" (Maine Central Railroads 48).

The Maine That Never Was

This preindustrial myth of Maine, with its romantic themes of escape, discovery and rejuvenation, is as alive today as it was at the turn of the century, although, as pointed out in this essay, it has shifted and evolved to some extent-reflecting changes in the social grouping to which it has been directed and to whom it has appealed over time, as well as reflecting historical and cultural changes in the region (and beyond it) during the past century. What is reflected in this myth of Maine and her people is not nature, as the myth suggests, nor the real past to which it supposedly refers. Rather, what is reflected is a constructed image that both validates and consoles those who believe in it. Myths, as Roland Barthes observed, deprive the objects of which they speak of their history. "All that is left to do is enjoy this beautiful object without wondering where it came from" (151).

And that is what the majority of visitors to Maine have been doing for the past century. The myth, originally shaped by economic and political interests in the late 1800s to lure visitors to this depressed state, has become an officially sanctioned and accepted way of seeing Maine. With the exception of the back-to-the-landers (who reject the crass commercial version of the myth, but accept the softer romantic one), and the new literary school of Maine "realists" who are actively doing battle with the myth (but who some say are only attempting to replace this myth with one of their own), this myth is generally accepted as true. It dominates tourism ploys, promises and advertisements; it makes up a large part of popular magazine articles, books, television shows and films set in Maine; it structures what is known as Maine humor; public festivals and celebrations in the state are built around it. No wonder, then, that this constructed myth of Maine has even come to be believed by a large proportion of those who should least be able to afford such belief-those "on the edge" who make their home in this state.

Works Cited

Adler, Judith. "Travel As Performed Art." American journal of Sociology 94.6 (1989): 1366-91.

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George H. Lewis is Professor of Sociology/Anthropology, University of the Pacific, Stockton, California 95211.

This article is reprinted with permission of the author from the Joumal of American Culture, Volume 16, No. 2, Summer 1993

The Maine That Never Was: The Construction of Popular Myth in Regional Culture

Copyright George H. Lewis


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