Forgotten Writers

When I first got serious about writing, I was especially interested in people and the geography that defines who they are. This was particularly germane to Maine, my home state, and the first book I ended up writing, about the history of town team baseball. Those small towns where baseball was played on  warm July evenings, the lights rimming the diamond burning brightly somewhere in the middle of a small village, drew me back to the place and time, capturing the memories of the men who inhabited similar patches of grass and dirt across the Pine Tree State.

It was during this period that I made the acquaintance of Sanford Phippen (known to his friends simply, as Sandy). At the time, Sandy was teaching classes in Orono, at the University of Maine, and commuting to the campus each week from his Down East home in Hancock.

While working on When Towns Had Teams, Sandy and I talked by phone a number of times. He offered welcome advice and encouragement to me, a fledgling writer trying to find his way forward. I was especially struck by what he told me about writers and my home state. He talked about how often “his Maine”; the same Maine that most of us know about, if living outside the state’s few centers of commerce and culture; is too often missing from almost all the books written about Maine.

There’s actually a link that’s available to an article that Phippen wrote about Maine for Maine Life, and the writers that try to tell the story of the place and its people. It’s one of the better characterizations of the “airbrushing” of Maine, as I’m apt to call it. The article is especially helpful if anyone actually cares to read a few of the books that he references. It’s amazing what one can learn from actually reading the right books.

An author referenced in the article, and one who I heard Sandy mention several times, is Kenneth Roberts. Roberts was from Kennebunk (and lived later in Kennebunkport), was an Ivy Leaguer at Cornell, and got his start as a journalist for the Boston Post prior to enlisting in the Army during WWI, and then later, for the Saturday Evening Post, where he worked from 1919 to 1928. It would be as a novelist however that Roberts’ reputation would be built upon, a novelist writing historical fiction.

I picked up a copy of Roberts’ Arundel years ago in a used bookstore in Bath. It’s a hardcover version, with a flyleaf and in very good condition. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf all that time. I took it down a few years ago and started to read it and then abandoned it. I don’t know why.

Roberts was the subject of a Time Magazine cover, March 25, 1940.

Roberts was the subject of a Time Magazine cover, March 25, 1940.

Last Tuesday, as I headed out the door to be checked over after my bike accident, I had the presence of mind to grab  Arundel, which I’d taken down the night before, thinking I’d finally plow through it and see what Phippen and others saw in it. Knowing the nature of medical care in America, it’s never a bad thing to have a large book with you, especially if you’re not sure what your diagnosis might be.

I’m three quarters of the way through the 600+ page book about Benedict Arnold’s march with his Northern Army into Quebec, at the start of the Revolutionary War. It reads like it was written about events that happened yesterday, not almost 250 years ago.

Roberts’ reputation and popularity have faded since the 1930s and 1940s when his books sold briskly and he was a well-known figure in literary circles. It’s too bad because if his other books are similar to Arundel, and I’m guessing that they are, then they’re well worth seeking out and reading.

While we’re on the subject of books worth seeking out, especially books that capture the essence of the “real” Maine, at least the Maine not filled with fluff and attributes of the state’s few rich and famous, make sure you add Sandy Phippen’s Cabin Boy to that list.

4 thoughts on “Forgotten Writers

  1. Kenneth Roberts was one of those authors whose books were on every bookshelf around us growing up, but was never read. It’s unfortunate how the tides of fashion lead us around. How many other very popular writers from the time before teevee have been forgotten? Booth Tarkington, for one. And for that matter, how many Mainers understand the War of Independence at all any more? They get a list of factoids at school to tell them what “they need to know,” they recite the factoids back for a test, and rest secure the remainder of their lives that they know all about it. Roberts is from another time, and the only way to go back to his time is to read him.

    Sadly, our libraries betray us. I read many, many old and forgotten books from the 1950s and earlier in the old Lewiston Library, but these days the computers track which ones are popular and which ones sit by the barcodes, spitting out reports that librarians use like marketers to determine which books to rid themselves of in order to make more room for computers! As the days go on, the joy of discovering Arundel by serendipity lessen.

    • I find my experience of “discovery by serendipity” increasing. The old, “so many books, so little time” adage. Just came across the name Grace Lee Boggs, a 98-year-old social activist and philosopher still going strong. How did I not know about her?

  2. Phip was my English teacher in the early 80’s. I took extra English classes because of him. He gave me my start in newspapers. I haven’t seen him since graduation but still think of him often. Nice memories.

    • Robin,

      Sandy is a gem. A few years back, we rented a cabin, sight unseen in Steuben. It turned out to be one of the best vacations, ever. I knew Sandy lived nearby in Hancock, so I invited him to dinner. Oh could he tell stories!! We laughed and laughed. Our son and his girlfriend at the time drove up from Boston and Sandy had advice for Mark, the young writer.

      I’m sorry to say I’ve lost touch with Sandy over the past few years. He’s not big on the technology, don’t ya’ know, which is probably a good thing for him.

      Like Kenneth Roberts, I was late to the game reading “Kitchen Boy,” but when I did, it stayed with me. One of those honest reads about true life in Maine, not the myth perpetuated by the Maine Office of Tourism.

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