Writers Writing About Maine

Maine is one of our nation’s 48 contiguous states, as opposed to the continental definition that lets Alaska and Hawaii into the mix. The Pine Tree State, as it’s often called, was admitted to the union in 1820 as the 23rd state, part of the Missouri Compromise.

Even better, our motto, Dirigo, means, “I lead.” When Maine (and a handful of states) held their elections in September (while much of the rest of the nation held theirs in November), the pre-New Deal Republican adage that “as Maine goes, so goes the nation” made perfect sense.

Yet, for all this talk about Maine being a leading light, writers and others have been getting our state wrong as long as writers (and others) have been offering their insights on the American experience, which means for as long as we’ve been a state, and before that—a northern outpost of Massachusetts.

Libraries are treasure troves, full of undiscovered gems. It’s not uncommon for me to have a couple of books in mind during one of my weekly runs to Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, and to arrive back at the compound with an additional three or four books I just “happened upon” during my time navigating the stacks. That’s always been one of the library’s lures for me. I’m not sure how the experience will be when libraries stop being repositories, and turn into just another digital archive, which they’re likely to become at some point. Hopefully I’m dead when that happens.

Sunday, I was looking through the Travel & Languages section for books about my home state. As a writer I’ve never lost my fascination (and equal parts frustration) with Maine’s portrayal by various literati (or worse, the Twitterati), not to mention some lifestyle magazines. It’s as if most Mainers know little or nothing about their own state. Worse, they rarely question or seem flummoxed by the ongoing misrepresentation of the state and its people, save perhaps the hipster theme park of Portland. Even then, most writers writing about the state’s largest city seem tone deaf or write their pieces without a critical eye, or anything approaching nuance. Plus, all they seem capable of writing is yet another restaurant review, or pimping the latest hop bomb from yet another new craft brewery that’s opened. Basically, the equivalent of Chamber boosterism and cheerleading.

But, I’d be remiss in believing and perpetrating misinformation that this is a recent phenomenon. While I often think that the tendency has picked up momentum during my own tenure as a writer that’s not the case.

For a moment, let me offer up a sidebar to today’s topic. While longtime Mainers get our state wrong in their descriptions and understanding, it seems to be a common scourge inflicted on us by people from away, or perhaps worse—people from away who move here and think they know Maine better than the natives. I could easily develop a list of writers that fit that category; in fact, many of them are the most popular and widely read types, the ones you’ll hear talked about incessantly on MPBN’s Maine Calling program, or raved about by other writers who’ve lived here for a year or two.

And then, you have so-called journalistic gadflies who show up from time to time with some time-sensitive story that they manage to totally mess up. A case in point—Lewiston’s mayoral run-off last week. Actually, I was pleased to read Scott Taylor’s concise piece on Medium, detailing exactly how these types of writers got the election ass-backwards. Taylor, a reporter with the Lewiston Sun-Journal, took issue with how the city where his newspaper is based got absolutely trashed as some rural hick town, being labeled as “Trumpland” by some New York City-based travel writer (who likely never bothered visiting Lewiston) impersonating a journalist, and the race wrongly characterized as some kind of bellwether of national portent.

My November essay in Down East Magazine danced around the edges of this, although I framed it more about a specific writer, like John Gould, and why his back catalog is mostly out-of-print, while a writer like E.B. White’s work is still available and being read. There’s more to that story, which I wasn’t able to delve into given their imposed word count limit.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post, “Forgotten Writers,” where I made the case for reading Kenneth Roberts. At that time, I was making my way through his book, Arundel, a book that had been recommended by another Maine writer worth seeking out, Sandy Phippen. You ought to go back and read that post.

Writers like Kenneth Roberts wrote accurately about Maine.

Writers like Kenneth Roberts wrote accurately about Maine.

What I didn’t know then was that Roberts had penned another short book called, Don’t Say That About Maine! Roberts was one of the state’s staunchest defenders. Written in 1948 and first appearing in The Saturday Evening Post as an essay in response to historian Arnold Toynbee’s patronizing comments about the state in A Study of History, representing Maine as a place made up primarily of “woodsmen, watermen, and hunters…” and that Mainers are “unimportant” and “unsophisticated.”

Don't Say That About Maine!

Don’t Say That About Maine!

Roberts uses a pithy 5,000+ words to put Toynbee (and historians like him) in their place, standing up for Maine as a locale with far more breadth and depth than Toynbee’s caricature revealed. Hooray for writers like Roberts, leaving us with some realism in his depictions of the state.

Too bad there are far more writers like Toynbee, and too few realists like Roberts being read these days.

One thought on “Writers Writing About Maine

  1. Good post, Jim. I went back and re-read your “Forgotten Writers” post as well as Phippen’s essay (buried in the University of Maine’s “Distance Learning” pages). I’ve thought about this notion of non-Mainers writing about Maine ever since we went to a book signing a few months ago and the complexities of being “natives” of this place. More thoughts than there is time to write about them.

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