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.
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.