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The Universal Notebook: Literary exiles in Maine

Opinion

The Universal Notebook: Literary exiles in Maine

Some of the most interesting writers who ever worked in Maine did not write about Maine. When it comes to Maine, I’m as chauvinistic as a native gets, a local yokel who never ventured very far afield, but for some reason I have rarely been interested in Maine writers, with the possible exception of E.B. White.

This column is prompted by the death last month of novelist Thomas Berger, author of the 1964 American classic "Little Big Man." My guess is very few readers realize that Berger lived in Maine for several years. I met him one day in a bookstore in Bar Harbor. He was living in Somesville with his wife, artist Jeanne Redpath. I’d swear I interviewed him for a profile or review in Maine Times, but I cannot find any reference to it to save my life. Berger (1924-2014) was a noted recluse, a cranky comic genius who did not suffer fools like me gladly, so maybe I just imagined an interview.

In any event, "Little Big Man," a picaresque Wild West story narrated by Jack Crabb, a 121-year old gunslinger who claims to have fought with the Indians against Gen. Custer at Little Bighorn, is a novel well worth reading, as are some of Berger’s other bitterly ironic novels such as "Sneaky People," "Neighbors," and "The Feud," some of which were written right here in Vacationland.

The canon of contemporary Maine literature is rich, deep and regional, writers such as Elizabeth Oglivie, Mary Ellen Chase, Elizabeth Coatsworth, Carolyn Chute, Dorothy Gilman, John Gould, Ruth Moore, Cathie Pelletier, Sandy Phippen, Kenneth Roberts, and Ben Ames Williams being among the local color luminaries. E.B. White and May Sarton stand apart in my declension of Maine greats and Stephen King is a category unto himself.

But among the writers Maine has only half-heartedly embraced if at all, Berger was one of the best and one of the most under-appreciated. Probably the most overlooked “Maine” writer, however, is Henry Roth, author of the 1934 masterpiece "Call It Sleep," an epic of New York’s Lower East side Jewish ghetto.

I first heard of "Call It Sleep" back in high school, when my friend Steve Miller was reading it. Roth (1906-1995) wrote part of the novel while living in Norridgewock in 1932. He then lived in Maine from 1946 until 1968, working as a duck farmer in Montville and then as a psychiatric aide at the state mental hospital in Augusta while his wife Muriel taught school in Vassalboro, Chelsea and Washington. The Roths were living in a trailer park in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when I visited them there in 1988 while on an assignment.

Roth said he had essentially been living in exile ever since his family moved from the Lower East Side in 1914, when he was 8 years old.

“The East Side was intensely Jewish,” he said. “It was like a mini-state. I couldn’t tell myself apart from everyone else, it was so homogeneous. Yiddish was spoken everywhere. Everywhere there were Jews. You were safe. That’s one thing a ghetto confers on you – a sense of belonging.”

In a sense, Maine literature is something of a literary ghetto, a place in the fictional imagination peopled by a homogeneous population of quaint fisherfolk, farmers, lumberjacks and small-town hicks. And I guess that’s what I don’t like about it. Come to think of it, I’m not a big fan of Maine humor either. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to writers exiled to Maine, such as Richard Russo and Richard Ford.

The greatest of these writers in exile, E.B. White notwithstanding, is probably Marguerite Yourcenar, the eminent French novelist who spent the last decades of her life in a little cottage in Northeast Harbor. I met her and her companion Grace Frick there in 1978. Yourcenar (1903-1987), whose best-known work is the 1961 historical novel "Memoirs of Hadrian," was the first woman elected to the French Academy.

“The true birthplace is that wherein for the first time one looks intelligently upon oneself,” says Madame Yourcenar’s Hadrian, “my first homelands have been books, and to a lesser degree schools.”

Like a lot of young people of my generation, my first literary homeland was "Catcher in the Rye." I first recognized myself in J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and then in his Glass family. I have never recognized myself in a work of Maine literature. But Salinger’s last published story, “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in 1965, takes the form of 7-year-old Seymour Glass’s letter home from Camp Simon Hapworth on Hapworth Lake in Hapworth, Maine.

Salinger, of course, went into exile next door in New Hampshire, but I claim him here and now for Maine literature.