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Being from Maine, growing up in its woods and cities and near its waters, I can tell you that not much of note happens here on a daily basis. We’ve got lobster, which people flock from other states and countries to partake in. We’ve got abundant fishing, hiking and leaf-peeping opportunities. Hunting is always something people love to do here. We’ve got tons of blueberries and potatoes as well. Famous folks live here, too – famed author Stephen King lives right in Bangor for much of the year. The Bush family. John Travolta. Patrick Dempsey. Willem Dafoe. The list goes on and on, because Maine is a beautiful state in the summer. Who WOULDN’T want to own a part-time residence, at least, on our shores? That being said, Maine has an air about it that fosters creativity. This has always been true since before Maine was even thought of as a state and was still a part of Massachusetts. Artists and writers flock here every year, many of them to live and some to work.
Growing up in Maine in the 1980’s, I always had an impressive shadow looming over me and that was Stephen King’s. No, I’m not related to the guy….but if you’re not a tourist here then you should know by now that people will ask you “Hey – ever run into Stephen King?” No, I have not. I live in Portland currently and that is a good two hours away from Bangor. People have no idea how big Maine actually is. True, it’s not the biggest state, but it’s a very decent size.
In school, I decided to try out the writing path, with King helming my inspiration. I figured if he was a guy from a town like Bridgton and HE was making it – I could, too. Well – that still remains to be seen (although I just accepted my Master’s degree in creative writing – score one for me!) but one thing I didn’t anticipate during my educational foray into literature and writing was that all this time, without even knowing it…I had been walking in the footsteps of giants. Not real giants, obviously – but writing giants, aside from Stephen King. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to be exact.
Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts – but during his childhood he was playing ball and was injured in the leg. He had a long convalescence on crutches as a result, and spent his time recovering in Raymond, Maine on Sebago Lake. He appreciated his time there and wrote later in life “Those were delightful days, for that part of the country was wild then, with only scattered clearings, and nine tenths of it primeval woods”. Later on, he attended a boarding school in Stroudwater, near Portland, and eventually attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He eventually settled down in Concord, Massachusetts among other known writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott.
Longfellow, by contrast, grew up with affluent parents and was born in Portland, Maine on the corner of Fore and Hancock Street at his Aunt’s home. He grew up down the street in what is now known as the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, a colonial style brick building that is now the oldest standing structure on the peninsula. Longfellow immortalized his childhood in Portland with the poem entitled “My Lost Youth” – where he recalls a battle off the coast during the War of 1812 between the British ship “Boxer” and the American ship “Enterprise”, and the two dead captains of the ships who were buried at the Eastern Cemetery – not far from Longfellow’s home. Here is an excerpt from “My Lost Youth”:
|I remember the sea-fight far away,|
|How it thunder’d o’er the tide!|
|And the dead sea-captains, as they lay|
|In their graves o’erlooking the tranquil bay|
|Where they in battle died.|
|And the sound of that mournful song|
|Goes through me with a thrill:|
|‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will,|
|And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’|
Longfellow went on to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine and then on to Europe after he graduated with Nathaniel Hawthorne and the class of 1825. Eventually, he settled down in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife, Frances Appleton.
Later in life, Longfellow and Hawthorne became friends. Hawthorne described himself as “no student” and that he was not dressed as well as Longfellow had been during their time at Bowdoin. The two hadn’t been close during school, but once they each started to gain accolades for their writing prowess and had their writing published, the two of them communicated via correspondence – Hawthorne writing to tell Longfellow that he enjoyed his writing and that he wished he’d gotten to know him better in school. This resulted in the two of them reading each other’s work and giving one another favorable reviews for years to come. They tried to collaborate on several works. When Longfellow moved to Cambridge, he would often invite Hawthorne to come dine at his home – which Hawthorne did often. Once, Longfellow even commissioned a Maine artist by the name of Eastman Johnson to do crayon portraits of family and friends, including Hawthorne.
When Hawthorne moved overseas to England for a while to live as a consul in Liverpool, Longfellow threw him a grand going-away party. When Hawthorne eventually moved back to Concord the two men resumed their friendship once again until Hawthorne grew sick and died a few years later. Longfellow was a pallbearer at his funeral and penned an elegy for his friend, entitled “Concord. May 23, 1864”. Here is an excerpt:
“For the one face I looked for was not there,
The one low voice was mute;
Only an unseen presence filled the air
And baffled my pursuit.
Now I look back, and meadow, manse, and stream
Dimly my thought defines;
I only see–a dream within a dream–
The hill-top hearsed with pines.”
What does all this mean? Why am I writing about the history of these two men and what does it have to do with me?
Well, for starters – it’s interesting. When we think about historical figures, we sometimes forget that they were actually alive. They woke up everyday, they had breakfast, they enjoyed sitting in the sun, they stressed over bills, they worked, they played, they loved. These two men – Longfellow and Hawthorne – were very much alive. I have been walking behind them, in their metaphorical footprints, since before I was aware I was doing it. These two men lived their entire lives and I am a spectator somewhere in the future as they penned their masterpieces and enjoyed their friendship. They didn’t know that I was watching them from the future. I didn’t know that I was walking in their past.
I often found myself in places their lives had been lived out. When I finally discovered this fact, I embraced it. I sought out remaining places I knew they had spent time in. I visited their boyhood homes, their schools, their adult homes, their towns, their spaces of inspiration, their final resting places. I’ve seen their good china, I’ve walked through halls that they once stood in. I’ve touched their desks, I’ve breathed in the air they breathed. I’ve looked through windows they must have stared through, watching the surrounding scenery for their muse. Most importantly, I’ve felt their lives being lived. They accomplished things many years before I was even born, but what they did still echoes in our collective minds. They are relevant, they are worthy of history.
They were people. Real people. Just like you and me.
So, my next couple of posts will focus on the individual people and what I got out of seeing their personal lives played out in front of me. I’m shooting for four parts (including this one) but we’ll see how it goes. I’ll see you soon with my thoughts and experiences of Nathaniel Hawthorne and places where he’s touched my own life.
Graduated from Saint Joseph's College Of Maine with a Bachelor's in Fine Arts - Creative Writing as well as Stonecoast, a low-residency MFA program through University of Southern Maine. Has several screenplays, a novel, graphic novel and a memoir all in development.