CHRONICLE editor Lee included words about the village school in his collection of Maine writings. The educator Mary Ellen Chase writes of the old-time two-room school she attended as a child. She points out the flaws of the “system”; reuse of old books, obsolete maps, “harassed and overworked,” teachers. And she tells of its strengths: “pride in learning well,” “solidarity of outlook” and the instillation of morally strengthening ideas. In this little world of learning, perhaps considered narrow and barren by some today, a love of learning flourished in Mary Ellen Chase as she glimpsed learning at levels higher than her own. Learning was something mysterious and wise, as she saw in “the beauty and order of common fractions” that an older student had transcribed on the board. In this I find the idea that knowing is not as enlivening as the process of learning. Once the thrill of revelation wears off, one wants to proceed through the process of learning afresh.
Though an educator herself, she was not above lampooning or even dryly mocking her childhood education, especially the geography book; and other aspects of insular coastal community life. She spends three paragraphs on the wonder and awe of bananas, where for previous generations oranges were the exotica. Maybe my favorite chapter of her book A Goodly Heritage is called “Our Early Veneration of Authors.” It mingles gentle self-mockery and communal reverence, casting a sheer contrast between our own and her age, while also showing progression, or transitions in culture–owing to changes from childhood in the 1890s till publication in 1932. people were absolutely smitten (love that word!) by writerly personages and past works.
Stephenson, adored by her grandmother, Longfellow the “holy of holies.” The latter spent time in the 1850s in Chases’ community of Blue Hill, Maine, Blue Hill Mt. inspiring poems. But then she writes, “Today authors are so many and so common that even high school youngsters treat them with friendly nonchalance.” Our own day? The students are their own authors!
I want to slip Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Pearl of Orr’s Island into the conversation. I don’t recognize the colloquial way of speaking in this novel. The R’s are too hard and even over-emphasized — out of the soft “color” I’ve encountered here. Mrs. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in this house in Brunswick, maybe 18 miles north from Orr’s Island where she also lived.
The coastal novel is so full of excellent description of people and place that readers are immersed in everything Maine coast peninsular. Audio listening is my preferred experience but there are drawbacks. Listening, in the days it was written, would happen at night over sewing, embroidering, and wood-carving and pipe-smoking. I imagine few would fall asleep while someone read. Today, I listen on the device at night, but Stowe begins each chapter with description and I fall asleep, night-light on, while listening. So I miss all the plot points placed at chapter’s end for those episodic publication values of the mid-1800s. I have to catch up–either listen while loading the dishwasher or check the html version to find out what’s happening. Because going back on the device means starting at chapter’s beginning.
Here are iconic portions of Blue Hill, where Mary Ellen Chase grew up.
I hope to post a humorous passage from The Pearl of Orr’s Island sometime. This chapter opening below follows a plot point from the previous chapter. The bejeweled body of a mother, embedded in seaweed and sand, and still clutching her living child has been thrown up onto the beach in a storm:
Sunday morning rose clear and bright on Harpswell Bay. The whole sea was a waveless, blue looking-glass, streaked with bands of white, and flecked with sailing cloud-shadows from the skies above. Orr’s Island, with its blue-black spruces, its silver firs, its golden larches, its scarlet sumachs, lay on the bosom of the deep like a great many-colored gem on an enchanted mirror. A vague, dreamlike sense of rest and Sabbath stillness seemed to brood in the air. The very spruce-trees seemed to know that it was Sunday, and to point solemnly upward with their dusky fingers; and the small tide-waves that chased each other up on the shelly beach, or broke against projecting rocks, seemed to do it with a chastened decorum, as if each blue-haired wave whispered to his brother, “Be still—be still.”
MAINE: A LITERARY CHRONICLE (1968) is referenced above. It’s full of selections pertaining to historical succession.