Earlier this year, DownEast magazine chose 100 books that “every lover of Maine should read.” This idea of “Maine books” has long fascinated me. It is really a question of what Henry Louis Gates calls authenticity, and I wrote about it years ago in an essay called Two Pigs from Maine.
When DownEast announced their list, I made my own before I read the article, just to see how much overlap there might be between their assessment of what makes a good Maine book and my own point of view. Many of their choices were on my list as well.
Nevertheless, I might quibble about some of the DownEast choices. For example, as a kid, I always enjoyed Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder more than Blueberries for Sal. The Weight of Winter is a more important book from Cathie Pelletier than their choice, The Funeral Makers. While Spoonhandle is my favorite Ruth Moore title, A Walk Down Main Street is still relevant to understanding Maine life today. Quibbles aside, more surprising were the missing titles in their list. My list has seven entries you should read not included in the DownEast recommendations.
At first, I thought these differences in selection of “Maine books” was natural, given the challenge of any list-making exercise. Then I realized that important books were crowded out of the DownEast list by seventeen Stephen King entries. A good case could be made that a number of these seventeen do not even count as “Maine books” and could make way for some other important Maine writers. In my lexicon, for all of his merits King really is a writer from Maine rather than a Maine writer.
Here is what I think was missing from the DownEast list:
- Some title by Elijah Kellogg, perhaps The Whispering Pine(1900) or one of the Elm Island series, like The Young Shipbuilders (1898). Kellogg wrote juvenile fiction that was widely read across the country, and, more importantly, he wrote with veracity about late 19th Century coastal Maine.
- Even more widely read by the same audience was C.A. Stephens, centerpiece of The Youth’s Companion, a weekly family periodical of the time. His stories about the Old Squire and his grandchildren are still used today by scholars for their descriptions of Maine farm life and of wildlife populations. A good pick for Stephens would be When Life Was Young at the Old Farm(1912).
- The recent take on the same time period in Maine history that I would include is one of Van Reid’s Moosepath League books. Of those books, I would choose Daniel Plainway(2000) – not great literature, but fine storytelling and evocative of the late 19th
- Maine has not produced a lot of mystery writers, but surely Sandra Neily’s Deadly Turn deserves mention for its insight into the enduring conflicts in Maine’s North Woods (more on this book in a future blog post).
- Two additional non-fiction titles should be read by anyone wanting to understand Maine. First would be Inventing Acadia: Artists and Tourists at Mount Desert(1999). What could be more Maine than the intersection of Acadia National Park and landscape painters?
- Second would be Jim Acheson’s The Lobster Gangs of Maine(1988). This work has not only informed Maine’s success in lobster management over the past few decades, it has been recognized worldwide by economists and anthropologists alike as a seminal study for understanding open access marine resources, like lobsters.
- Finally, the most egregious omission from the DownEast list is R.P.T. Coffin. He deserves to be there as a Maine poet – Strange Holiness(1935), Pulitzer Prize winner; as an essayist – Mainstays of Maine (1944), his take on what we might now call Maine food culture; as a scholar – New Poetry of New England: Frost and Robinson (1938); and as a story teller and illustrator – Coast Calendar (1947). I think Coffin might well have been the most widely read Maine writer until Stephen King, and certainly his poetry is deserving of inclusion before Ruth Moore. Indeed, Coffin was featured in the September 1964 issue of Down East in an article called “A Breath of Maine” and he deserved inclusion in June 2020.
DownEast deserves thanks for encouraging Mainers and lovers of Maine to find their own best of Maine books. What would add to the list?