Sunday, September 27, 2009

Greetings From Asbury Park

I am presently sitting on a bench in front of Madam Marie’s small shop on the Asbury Park boardwalk from which she has for years dispensed Tarot readings, fortunes and advice. It is a Sunday afternoon. The place is closed; I guess she is taking the day off. Bruce Springsteen, who got his start in this "city by the sea," turned 60 years old this past week! Who would have thought it possible? And the guy keeps rocking! So I guess there is hope for all of us who are quickly approaching that benchmark in our own lives.

I discovered Springsteen in the summer of 1978, when I was working in a record store in College Park, Maryland; a second job while I was teaching and completing my doctoral program at the University of Maryland. Darkness on the Edge of Town, his fourth album, had just been released and each afternoon, after punching the time-clock, I slid the black vinyl disk (remember them?) out of its cardboard sleeve, put it on the turntable behind the cash register, and set the needle down on the last track on the A side – "Racing in the Streets." This song in particular, but the entire album really, captured my imagination. Who was this thin, scruffy rocker from the Jersey Shore, and why did his music and lyrics resonate with a guy who had grown up in the white bread suburbs of Chicago? But then again, in the late 60s and early 70s, my generation, even those of us who had led relatively sheltered lives, had begun to question that which we always assumed to be true. What was this so-called "American dream," and why was it out of reach to a growing number of Americans? I recognized these very same questions in many of Springsteen’s lyrics and I began to look to his songs for the answers I had not yet discovered for myself.

Although Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band had already been on the music scene for a few years, it was Darkness on the Edge of Town that caught my ear . . . my attention . . . my imagination. It would be years before I would more fully appreciate his earlier songs. Darkness on the Edge of Town eclipsed all that went before. Not even Born to Run, recorded three years earlier, had resonated with me as it had others who saw Springsteen as "the new Dylan," the new poet of blue collar America. But now I listened to his music and his lyrics . . . stories about real people . . . people I might have met somewhere along the way. Springsteen and the band were searching for a way out . . . a last chance power drive to find the promised land. I was not quite there yet, I guess, but Darkness on the Edge of Town changed all of that. "Occasionally a record appears that changes fundamentally the way we hear rock and roll, the way it’s recorded, the way it’s played," wrote Dave Marsh in a review of the album appearing in a July 1978 issue of Rolling Stone. "One ought to be wary of making such claims, but in this case, they’re justified at every level." Marsh hit the nail squarely on the head. This record was nothing less than a commentary on the veracity of the American dream. It clicked with me . . . finally!

Now, over thirty years later, I have spent this weekend on the Jersey Shore where I have been participating in a symposium co-sponsored by Virginia Tech and Penn State at which over 200 educators, journalists, historians, musicians and musicologists from more than thirty states and nine foreign countries have assembled to celebrate Springsteen’s life and music on the occasion of his having reached geezerdom. This is a follow-up to the original symposium held back in September 2005. Having spoken on the subject of Woody Guthrie and John Steinbeck and their influences on Springsteen’s social conscience, this time around I was invited to participate in a panel where I spoke to the influences of Jack Kerouac on Springsteen as a narrative poet while also chairing another session exploring Springsteen’s sense of place; a fascinating topic given the fact that we were meeting at the epicenter of his life and music.

It was not all academic exchange, however. There was a tribute to Danny Federici, the former E Street Band organist, led by Bob Santelli of the Grammy Museum and featuring Vini Lopez, Springsteen’s original drummer, and Tinker West, a former Springsteen manager and sound engineer. And how could there be any celebration of, or tribute to Springsteen, without music? Lots of music, played where he emerged as a dominant voice of the Jersey Shore Sound . . . an interesting synthesis of early rock & roll and rhythm and blues with not a little doo wop thrown in for good measure. Although the Boss did not materialize in our midst - he was up the road in New York City talking with Elvis Costello at the Apollo Theater and preparing for a series of stadium dates at the Meadowlands - several musicians who have played with Springsteen over the years were there: Joe Grushecky and the House Rockers out of Pittsburgh; Lisa Lowell, who sings with the Seeger Sessions Band; Joe d’Urso and Joe Rapolla, who co-host the "Songwriters by the Sea" series, Jen Chapin (the late Harry Chapin’s daughter) with her bassist husband Stefan Crump, and Scott Kempner of Del-Lords and Dictators fame, all of whom covered some of Springsteen’s songs. There were thoughtful and meditative acoustic performances, including one featuring Grushecky, who discussed his collaboration with Springsteen over the years while premiering an acoustic version of "Code of Silence," as well as loud, hell-bent rock and blues performed by Grushecky, Gary "U.S." Bonds, gasoline rocker Willie Nile, and others at the Stone Pony, that seminal Jersey Shore club just a couple of blocks south of where I am sitting here on the boardwalk and where Springsteen played early in his career and where he still shows up from time to time to jam with his friends. We were also treated to an evening reception at a gallery here on the Asbury Park boardwalk featuring a photo exhibit by Danny Clinch, Springsteen’s photographer. Later that evening Danny showed up at The Stone Pony where Joe Grushecky coaxed him to the stage to belt out a couple of tunes on the harmonica with the Houserockers.

Asbury Park has changed a great deal since I first came here 45 years ago. It was the summer of the New York World’s Fair on Flushing Meadow and my family and I spent a couple of days at the shore before heading home to Wisconsin. Back then it was a thriving beach resort with its boardwalk anchored on either end by the Convention Center and the Casino and its brightly lit amusement rides, concession stands and arcades. All this changed on July 4, 1970 when racial tensions culminated in riots that left much of the area destroyed or abandoned, and to this day it has not regained its glory days of the past. The Convention Center has managed to rise from the ashes, the linchpin for efforts to revitalized the area. The Casino, or what is left of it, remains a skeletal reminder that there is still much work to do.

This weekend I have wandered around the places and among the people Springsteen has been writing and singing about since his earliest recordings; the Jersey Shore is very much his native ground. A few miles up the shore from Asbury Park is Long Branch. In 1974, when Springsteen was on the cusp of success, he left his hometown of Freehold, west of here, and settled into a small cottage at 7½ West End Court, just a short walk from the beach. Here, from May 1974 until late 1975, Springsteen lived and wrote the eight songs that would be his breakout album, Born to Run. I was able to find the place and counted myself lucky. Back in July, Bob Dylan, who was also looking for the Springsteen cottage, was stopped by two very young Long Branch police officers and briefly detained because he could not provide any identification. When success finally came, Springsteen was able to move out of this tiny cottage and it would have been easy to never look back. Yet regardless of the fame and fortune attendant his career over the past four decades, Springsteen has never lost sight of his roots and the family, friends and places who made him what he is today. In his song "Youngstown," he chides those who have grown "rich enough to forget my name." Springsteen has never forgotten his native ground and the people who inhabit it. Walk around Asbury Park. You will hear his songs everywhere you look.


On the almost four-hour trip home this evening, I put the Born to Run CD on and listened as I drove non-stop from the Jersey Shore to the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC; the same eight songs over and over again. A week ago, just days before his 60th birthday, Springsteen and the E Street Band played these same songs, in the order they appear on the album, at a concert in Des Moines, Iowa. I can’t recall him ever doing this before. But it makes perfect sense; Springsteen was returning to, recognizing the importance of his native ground. Once again he is cruising those "dusty beach roads" not really sure what the future will offer. Perhaps now he can finally take some satisfaction in the choices he has made and the roads he has chosen to travel. Isn’t this what we all hope to achieve to some degree? You keep moving . . . sometime "one step forward and two steps back," but you keep on moving, keep on racing in the streets, keep on "pulling out of here to win." The Boss really did the nail on the head "cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run." Amen!

NEXT WEEK: You Can Go Home Again . . . Sort Of

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Old Swimming Hole

I want to thank my cousin Shirley Huffman for her booklet, Spoken Treasures of the Past, which provided me with some of the local history of Almena Township, including her recollections of Blocker’s Pond, as well as some of the photographs used here.

The Paw Paw River flows for 89 miles through Michigan’s Van Buren and Berrien counties before joining the St. Joseph River near its debouchment in Lake Michigan at Benton Harbor. It watershed, covering roughly 445 square miles, consists mainly of farmland, orchards, vineyards as well as quickly vanishing swamps and wetlands. There are several small streams in the Almena township that join to form the Paw Paw River. At one time, far up in this river’s eastern headwaters, near the tiny hamlet of Almena, in the township’s southwestern quadrant, there was a small impoundment known locally as Blocker’s Pond, or Miller’s Pond, depending on whom you were talking to. It was situated on an unnamed feeder stream flowing northwards from Mud Lake and Lime Lake to its confluence with the main stem of Hayden Creek.

Southwestern Michigan was long home to the aboriginal Potawatomi of the Algonquin family and it was they whom the French explorers first encountered in the late 17th century. LaSalle, who spent the winter of 1680-1681 along the shores of Lake Michigan near what is now St. Joseph, navigated the Paw Paw River to its headwaters and encountered the Potawatomi as did the French trappers who operated throughout this region until the end of the French and Indian War, in 1763, and the ascendency of British traders and influence in the region. Settlement increased significantly following the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and soon small communities began to appear along the banks of the region’s many rivers and streams.

The first permanent settlers began arriving in the Almena area in the early 1830s and Jonas Barber constructed a sawmill on Hayden Creek around 1835. The boards produced there were used to construct many of settlement’s early buildings. A gristmill operated by a fellow named Brewer was erected around the same time a mile or so west of Barber’s Mill and adjacent to a small pond on the small feeder creek flowing up from Mud Lake. A third mill, S.B. Fisk’s gristmill, was constructed along Hayden Creek in 1844 and continued to process white and buckwheat flour and cornmeal under the name "Almena Mills" for many years. It was later converted to a sawmill by William Piffer and used for the manufacture of wooden crates until 1935 when it was torn for the construction of three fish ponds.

My story, however, begins with Brewer’s Mill and the small dam that was erected near the mill. The small pond that existed prior to 1835 grew in size and volume behind the dam and for almost 80 years, until 1912, provided the water powering the gristmill (which also contained an apple press, stored ice taken from the pond during the winter, and served as the area’s first post office until 1865) while also serving as the local fishing and swimming hole. The size of the pond is subject to debate . . . anywhere from three to ten acres. Around 1840, Burton Hipp took over the operation of the mill and dam and constructed a boarding house nearby to house the mill workers. The area became known as Hipp’s Corner and the mill continued to serve the community until 1906, when the dam collapsed and the pond drained, although the mill remained intact. A new dam was eventually built to replace the old one and the pond once again returned to its former configuration to support the mill operation.

In 1908, my great grandparents, William K. and Sophie Miller, purchased the mill and boarding house from Hipp and the enterprise became known as Granly Farm. The replacement dam collapsed again in 1912 during a torrential rainstorm and the resulting flood washed the mill downstream. Although the dam was once again replaced, the mill was not. The old boarding house became home for William and Sophie Miller and their two children, Hildur and Volmar (my grandfather). They added a wing to the eastern elevation of the house to serve as a cannery for their tomato crop, and during its peak operation it produced 700 cans daily. They also cultivated and harvested grapes which were then taken by horse-drawn wagons to the train depots in nearby Paw Paw and Mattawan, as well as to the farm market a few miles east, in Kalamazoo. Another farm, owed by Eric and Hattie Blocker who had come to the area from Chicago, was located at the opposite (southern) shoreline of the pond, and their apple and cherry orchards were situated along the pond’s eastern shore line.

My great aunt Hildur Miller married Willard Rumsey in March 1916. William and Sophie moved to a smaller house on the farm property and the newlyweds took over the operation of Granly Farm. They also operated the small Almena Cider Mill which was constructed at Hipp’s Corner around 1917. It pressed apples and grapes until it was sold in 1955 (it remained in operation until 1964 when it was sold again). It was eventually damaged in a fire and razed, but for several decades it remained a local landmark known to all.

After the gristmill washed away in 1912, the pond served no practical purpose other than as a swimming and fishing hole, as well as a great place to ice skate during those cold Michigan winters. By the 1930s co-ed swimming was permissible and kids gathered at the pond on hot days to swing from the rope tied to the branches of an oak tree on the shoreline opposite the dam. There would also be races to the big stump sticking out of the water near the southern end of the pond where Hattie Blocker’s chickens pecked along the water’s edge. The pond also served as a communal bath of sorts. Local farm families, after a busy day in the fields and barns, would come to the pond in the afternoon armed with bars of soap to wash away the day’s dust and sweat. After lathering up they would rinse off in the cool water pouring over the lip of the dam to the rocks below. At the end of the day the pond’s surface near the dam was white with soaps suds, yet the next day the pure, clear water had returned as the pond flushed itself clean overnight.

In the early mornings hours, and again later in the day and evening, the old swimming hole became the old fishing hole, and folks would come to the pond with their cane poles outfitted with a length of gut tied to a hook and a can of juicy worms. They would find a shady spot hoping to catch sunfish and bream, and if they were lucky, perhaps one of the pond monsters, a five to six inch bluegill that had wandered downstream from Lime Lake. This lasted until 1949 when the dam washed out again and the pond drained. A new dam was erected two years later and the old swimming and fishing hole returned.

The primary activities remained swimming and fishing when my grandfather Volmar Miller, who grew up on Granly Farm, first introduced me to the pond which maps (even to this day) refer to as Blocker’s Pond. But from that beginning I (and many others) always referred to it as "Miller’s Pond." It was there that my grandfather taught me the ways of the angler, first with a simple cane pole, and later with a spin-cast outfit and finally a fly rod. Volmar was quite the outdoors man and would later serve on the Michigan State Waterways Commission in the 1960s under then Governor George Romney. He had built two small fish ponds on his property just downstream from the pond and stocked them with brook trout from the local hatchery. These ponds were fed by the stream flowing out of the Miller’s Pond. Volmar had constructed a small wooden waterwheel on to which he fastened old coffee cans, each one ladling stream water onto a wooden flume running down to the small fish ponds. We would take turns drowning nightcrawlers in Miller’s Pond for fat bluegills which we later fried up for dinner. Other times we would toss the delicate flies that Volmar had tied to the beautifully-speckled brookies in the small trout ponds. Fishing for trout was a treat, and we would almost always release them after finessing them to the net (although an occasional one found its way to the skillet).

I always looked forward to the quiet walk along the stream and up through the woods to Miller’s Pond. The Blockers had a small rowboat and from time to time I would see someone fishing from it along the opposite bank. I asked Volmar if we might not catch more fish from a boat. He impressed upon me the importance of patience when fishing, like so many other of life’s adventures. Patience, and the proper presentation of the fly to an Argus-eyed trout. Give the fish what it seeks and where it expects to find it. It could care less whether the angler was standing on the bank or sitting in a boat. There was truth in this as we almost always returned home with a stringer of bluegills and perch.

I came to associate the big pond with my grandfather; he spent most of his life just a stone’s throw away. Much of his own personal history is connected with the pond. As a young boy he fell through the ice while skating and disappeared into its cold depths only to miraculously reappear at the same hole. How everything would have changed had he not found his way back to the here and now. I never had a chance to skate on Miller’s Pond. Perhaps I am better off for it.

I visited the pond less frequently as I got older and eventually moved beyond my own Midwestern roots. I stopped to visit Volmar in January 1971, on my way home from New York City and Toronto where I had spent part of my holiday semester break from college. Miller’s Pond and the smaller trout ponds were covered with thick ice and snow drifted deep in the woods between the house and the big pond. Volmar invited me to stay and do some ice fishing, but I was in a hurry to visit my girlfriend who attended college a few miles away. I stopped by again a few months later, on my way home for the summer break. This time Volmar and I tossed some flies and small poppers to the bluegills in Miller’s Pond. One last time we brought back a stringer of fish for lunch. Little did I know that this would be my last visit to Miller’s Pond.

Sometime during the 1970s a swimmer discovered a crack in the dam erected in 1951. State officials came to inspect it and notified the local township authorities, who had jurisdiction over the dam, that it would have to be removed or replaced. This was not the first dam to hold back the pond’s water, but it would be the last one. The costs to maintain the dam and pond, coupled with the many attendant safety concerns, led the township to remove the dam permanently and drain the pond once and for all. I did not return to Almena again until 1994. Volmar had died seven years earlier and is buried in the nearby churchyard. I walked the same path he and I use to take along the stream and up to Miller’s Pond. There was nothing there but the gently flowing stream flowing through a thick stand of poplars and alder bushes. The sound of the water flowing over the dam, the laughter of the children splashing in the pond were forever silenced. But many fond memories remained. I still mourn the passing of this one small piece of my now distant childhood.

NEXT WEEK: Greetings From Asbury Park

Sunday, September 13, 2009

With the Suddenness of a Dream

Since first visiting Maine in the summer of 1988, and early trips to Ocean Point and Orr’s Island, I have long been interested in the American writer Thomas Wolfe’s brief yet interesting association with this rocky coastline. My early visits to those areas, coupled with my research, eventually led to an article, "Ocean Point Rhapsody," in the August 1994 issue of Down East Magazine, followed by a talk on the subject at a conference at Harvard University, in 2001. I later organized an annual meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society which convened at the Eastland Hotel, in Portland, in 2005, and Wolfe’s visits to Maine became a focal point of that gathering. Earlier this summer, while on a short visit to Maine, I returned once again to the areas where Wolfe stayed and I poked around his old haunts. [Vintage postcards courtesy of the Sally Ann Rogers Collection. Current photographs courtesy of the author.]

" ‘Where shall I go now? What shall I do?’ A dozen times that year he made these tormented journeys of desire." With these words Thomas Wolfe, in Of Time and the River, describes the protagonist Eugene Gant’s desire to escape New York by train for brief "journeys of caprice" into unknown territories. On one such excursion Gant would discover "the lonely, tragic and elemental beauty of New England. It was the country of his heart’s desire, the dark Helen in his blood forever burning." Eugene, like Wolfe, felt drawn to New England, "with its harsh and stony soil, and its tragic and lonely beauty; its desolate rocky coasts and its swarming fisheries, the white, piled, frozen bleakness of its winters with the magnificent jewelry of stars, the dark firwoods, and the warm little white houses at which it is impossible to look without thinking of groaning bins, hung bacon, hard cider, succulent bastings and love’s warm, white, and opulent flesh."

Thomas Wolfe also traveled through New England, with brief visits in New Hampshire and Vermont in addition to his sojourns in Maine. Before gaining fame as the author of Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and other novels and stories, Wolfe visited Maine on three separate occasions between 1923 and 1931. Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, he grew up in the western mountains of his native state, and having never spent any time near the sea, the rugged coast of Maine made a deep impression on him.

Wolfe's first trip to Maine, in August 1923, was a short one. He traveled from New York to Portland on his way to Madison, New Hampshire, the home of Henry Carlton, a former Harvard classmate. Although Wolfe reacted favorably to his first trip to northern New England, his correspondence from that time provides no specific impressions of Maine. But he did return to the state almost six years later when he needed time and solitude for the preparation of the manuscript of his first novel for publication.

By the summer of 1929, the galley proofs of Look Homeward, Angel, were ready for review. Max Perkins, the iconic editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, assigned John Hall Wheelock, one of his junior editors, to supervise the final preparation of the manuscript. Perkins and Wheelock had already revised and shortened Wolfe’s morass of words by the time he received the galleys. Although Wolfe was already at work on some short stories, as well as developing ideas for his next novel, he set off on the arduous task of reviewing the galleys in his Manhattan apartment. "I don't like to visit people, or to make trips, or to do anything much besides my work when I am busy at it," he wrote to his mother. "I want to be here, naturally, while the book is coming out." But the weather in New York was "hellish hot" and he found it difficult to concentrate on his work; "It's as hot as any where on earth and you can smell all 7 million when the temperature hits 90."

At the end of June 1929, Aline Bernstein, Wolfe's lover and benefactor, rented a small cabin at Ocean Point, near Boothbay Harbor, where she and the young author could relax far away from their responsibilities in New York. Wolfe wrote to his mother that he was "tired and nervous" after working on the galleys for six weeks. Although he had been to Portland before, he was excited about the prospect of visiting an unknown place "far up the seacoast, no people around, very quiet. I'm going to think of nothing for two weeks." Furthermore, Wolfe was certain the weather would be better than back home in New York. "Where I go in Maine will be cold enough for a sweater and blankets. After New York I should like an ice box."

Wolfe departed New York in mid-July, traveling by train to Boston, and on to Bath, where he boarded a steamer for the hour-and-a-half trip down the Kennebec River to Boothbay Harbor. From there, he traveled by car the last few miles to the summer colony at Ocean Point, "a little place on the wild and rocky coast with a few summer cottages." Wolfe found his new surroundings to be an ideal place to get some rest; a cottage tucked away among the spruce trees "not 25 yards from the water," and the gray sky "full of creaking gulls, the Atlantic sweeps in a long grey surge." Aline Bernstein joined him a few days later, and he later wrote, "It's a wonderful place for a vacation - no noise except the ocean, nothing doing, no one has to dress up. You can fish, swim, sail and loaf to [your] heart's content, and there is always - even when they're roasting in Boston and New York - a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean." Wolfe enjoyed writing to family and friends, telling them about a nearby "rotten old wharf" and his ability to "pull fish in as fast as I drop the line."

Wolfe was completely taken by the serenity of Ocean Point and the beauty of coastal Maine. "If I ever make any money I may buy or build a little place here," he wrote to his mother in North Carolina. "Land is cheap - you can buy several good lots on the shore with spruce trees all around you for the price of a single foot of earth in Asheville several years ago - good lots are from $250-$500, I believe." In a letter to John Hall Wheelock, Wolfe described a harbor island, viewed from the porch of his cottage: "It is covered by a magnificent forest of spruce trees, and a little cottage is tucked away in a clearing under the mighty trees at one end." Now, he dreamed of buying the entire island, "and so strange is the possibility that one day perhaps I shall." He also confessed to Wheelock that he had been dreaming about an island even before he came to Ocean Point. He saw himself putting off from an old decrepit wharf on the mainland with his servant and provisions, and traveling to his island, with its "spring house where butter and milk and rounds of beef" are stored, and where one could face out on the open Atlantic. Now, from the porch of his cottage, Wolfe could finally see the island of his dreams. "I am unable to distinguish one from the other," he confessed to Wheelock, "so imperceptibly have the two fused (even to the rotten old wharf from which I fish)."

Wolfe's stay at Ocean Point was not without constant reminders of the work that needed to be done. Wheelock continued to send the latest galleys to the post office in Boothbay Harbor. Wolfe reviewed them, making the necessary changes and explications, and sent them back. Although most of their correspondence focused on the galley revisions, Wolfe apologized for subjecting Wheelock to his long "personal rhapsodies," but he felt obliged to share with his friends and family the joys of his newfound paradise. "In this wild and lovely place, all America stretches below me like a vast plain: the million forms that spend themselves in the city, and torture us so by their confusion and number, have been fused into a calmer temper - I am filled with a kind of tragic joy. I want to tear myself open and show my friends all that I think I have." The solitude of coastal Maine, the wooded islands, the scattering of small secluded cottages along the winding shore roads, the tidy yards with their bright flowers, and the immediacy of the sea, all had a profound impact on Wolfe. He had never spent any time near the ocean, and was struck by its mystery and grandeur. "I had ceased until recent years to believe there could be such scenes, and even now it does not seem real. I thought there would be preludes to the sea. But there are not."

In describing to Wheelock a night walk near his cottage, Wolfe demonstrated the power of his prose, not only in a more carefully crafted fiction, but in his description of the area near his cottage at Ocean Point. "The little farmhouses slept below the moon, the gnarled apple trees full of apples getting ripe leaned over the hedges, and on the walls the wild wood lilies grew." There is something unique about the Maine coast. You are passing through a pine forest, or an impressive stand or birch with its undergrowth of alders and rose hips, and then the wide ocean expanses are before you. Wolfe seemed mesmerized by this. "You would not say along that road the sea was there behind the houses, behind the fir trees and the hedge, and the apples getting ripe - and yet you round a bend, and the sea is there. I thought there would be vast lengthenings into the sea, slow stoppages of land and rock, drear marshy vacancies, slow lapse and waste relinquishment of earth, but when you round the bend of the road the sea is there . . . This union of the vast and lonely with the little houses, the land, the little harbor, made a great music in me . . . And I thought that if one came into this place on a ship from open sea it would be with the suddenness of a dream." Invigorated by the peace and quiet at the Ocean Point cottage, Wolfe found the time and energy to complete his galley revisions and to work on some new projects. "I feel packed to the lips with rich ore."

Wolfe's sojourn in Maine was brief, however, and at the end of July he left for Québec City, planning to spend a week or two in Canada before returning to New York. But Wolfe departed Ocean Point with a renewed spirit. "These two weeks up here have done me alot of good," he wrote to his mother. "[I am] no longer nervous and getting fat." The summer weather on the Maine coast - cool with only one day of rain - had agreed with him. On the trip to Québec Wolfe was also impressed with the lakes, hills and forests he had seen on his 1923 trip to New Hampshire. He returned to New York in mid-August, relaxed and ready to go back to work. The galleys of Look Homeward, Angel were sent to Max Perkins later that month and publication came later that year.

Following the publication of his first novel, royalty payments made it possible for Wolfe to resign his position at New York University and work full time on his second novel. He also received a Guggenheim Fellowship and he spent a year in Europe working on the growing manuscript. He eventually returned to New York in early 1931, and perhaps thinking back to the cottage at Ocean Point, considered moving to New England to write. Instead, he chose the relative anonymity of Brooklyn, where he hoped to find the peace and quiet he needed to finish his book. But Wolfe soon found it impossible to work. Pressure from Perkins to complete the manuscript, and the oppressive summer heat in his Brooklyn apartment drained his energy and ambition. His love affair with New York had faded and he yearned for a respite. Perhaps some time on the coast of Maine, the immediacy of the powerful ocean, might be just what he needed to salvage his work.

In early August 1931, Wolfe made another brief trip to Maine. Given his favorable impressions of the rocky coastline and the offshore islands two years earlier, it is surprising that he chose not to return to Ocean Point. Instead, he traveled to Orr's Island, not far from Portland, in Casco Bay, where he spent a week or so at a local boarding house. "It is a quiet place," Wolfe wrote to his mother, "and a good place to get a vacation." Wolfe had grown up in his mother's Asheville boarding house, but he quickly discovered that Orr's Island and his fellow boarders, with their "tartness of speech," their "mean prim swirliness," and their "suspicious chip-on-the-shoulder we're-as-good-as-anyone attitude," did not provide the solace he sought. "I'm taking my meals at a boarding house and the crowd of boarders is the same as it always was, " Wolfe wrote in a postcard to Alfred S. Dashiell, the editor of Scribner's Magazine. "They sit on the porch and rock - they never change."

The boarders’ attitudes overshadowed any effect the ocean had on Wolfe and served only to intensify his growing sense of alienation and discontent. "At night they come up to the fringes of the sea: they go down across the springy turf of pine-warm woodlands, they clamber over rocks, they walk along the hard sliding mist of salty sea - level, salty, unspeakable exultant, and illimitable - the sea confronts them and they cannot escape their hatred." The woodlands and the islands at Ocean Point in 1929 had been dream-like, a source of pleasure and inspiration. On this visit they were oppressive and distracting. "Hatred on an island - Orr's Island, for example - the reason why Englishmen when they begin to hate their country hate it with such an intense and bitter hatred." Yet it was the people, not the island, that were the source of Wolfe's irritation. "If there were only one man on the island there would be no hate."

Wolfe was always a wanderer, visiting places and becoming instantly enthusiastic about the people who lived there and the things that he saw and did. "My life had been enriched and quickened immeasurably by contemplating and experiencing them, and always when I saw them I had the profit of a vast, fertile, inestimable comparison." Wolfe frequently described his personal experiences in his stories and novels, including "the hissing glut of tides upon the thousand miles of coast . . . of men in harbors and traffic of the ships." The places Wolfe visited were also places to live and write. "I learned instantly and forever that this mythical, this magical, this wonder-making, miraculous, and mysterious place to work was everywhere, was all around us, was wherever we happened to be so long as the power, the will, the overwhelming and inexorable necessity to work was in ourselves." But Wolfe was a man of superlatives; each new place often out-shined the ones that came before. If he returned to a place later, he was often disappointed that it did not live up to his inflated expectations.

Like Wolfe's reaction to the other places he visited during his lifetime, the infatuation with Maine was short-lived. He had found a paradise, the cottage at Ocean Point, and had gained the peace and quiet he desperately needed to work. When he tried to recreate it on Orr’s Island, his efforts failed miserably. Wolfe would never return to Maine, never relive the pleasures of Ocean Point and the dream of his own secluded wooded island. After leaving Orr's Island, he returned to New York, where, with the exception of a few extended trips around the United States and to Europe, he remained for the rest of his short life. His second novel, Of Time and the River, was published in 1935, followed by a collection of short stories, From Death to Morning, in 1937. When Wolfe died from tuberculosis in September 1938, just a few weeks short of his thirty-eight birthday, he left behind yet another massive manuscript that, after major editorial work by Edward C. Aswell, was eventually published by Harper's as two novels, The Web and the Rock and You Can't Go Home Again. Maine does not appear in any of these highly autobiographical works. Wolfe had created a dream world in Maine, and it ended with the suddenness of its beginning.

NEXT WEEK: The Old Swimming Hole

Sunday, September 6, 2009

What I Did On My Summer Vacation: An Open Letter to a Friend

Dear Herr Goethe,

We were in Maine for almost a month. We have been spending most of August up there for the past 22 summers and I go back as often as I can in between summer trips. So I am guessing you have been wondering what I did on my summer vacation? You may be sorry you asked.

We left home in late July as planned and drove to southern New Jersey in order to get a couple of hours down the road and thereby enabling us to get around New York City at a decent hour and avoiding the traffic heading down the shore. It turned out to be a very restless night and I was happy to be on the road again the next morning. To make matters worse, I was feeling under the weather when I got up - not a very auspicious beginning for a vacation that has been long in arriving. I began feeling better the farther north we drove - solid evidence of the restorative powers of a New England landscape - and I was fully recovered by the time we arrived at our hotel a stone’s throw from the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. When we left New Harbor for Monhegan Island after a relaxing day on the fringes of Muscongus Bay, I was feeling my old self again.

We were counting the days until we would once again step off on the Monhegan Island wharf. We have been making the 12 mile off shore trips for eight summers now, and we are always itching to get back. And after a cold and very wet early summer, the islanders were on the threshold of some very delightful weather, the first of the summer by all reports, and we were there to enjoy it. You take your chances along the coast of Maine in the summer, and so we considered ourselves very fortunate. Early morning sea fog is frequent, but this is to be expected and it usually burned off by late morning. We could not have asked for better weather. It was a glorious week!

Each morning we enjoyed a quiet breakfast at the Monhegan House, the quaint and rustic hostelry which has been our home on each of our annual summer visits. Afterwards, we would take the path through the village to the wharf to meet the Laura B., the mail/packet boat from Port Clyde, off-loading supplies for the island while on-loading whatever was being sent to the mainland. This afforded a wonderful opportunity to chat with the captain and his mate while taking photographs of the comings and goings. When the Laura B. finally departed with its cargo and a few passengers around 9am, some days quickly disappearing into the morning fog, passengers would often follow the old tradition of throwing a small floral bouquet into the water. If it drifts ashore it means the traveler will eventually return to the island. There is also another tradition - island children will leap off the wharf into the cold water as a boat departs, a brave act that insures the safe passage of the boat and its crew and passengers (we would experience this when our own boat departed later in the week). The rest of our days on the island were spent hiking the various woodland and shoreline trails, eventually ending up on one of the headlands on the backside of the island. Monhegan is only 1½ miles long and less than a half mile at its widest, but there are over 17 miles of trails.

While we were out on the island I also had a delightful conversation with the unofficial island historian (she has been coming to Monhegan for the past 81 summers), and she filled me in on the island’s history far beyond anything I have read or heard during our previous visits. She knows the people who have lived on and visited the island for decades and she has cataloged every building on the island for the past two centuries and who lived and worked in each. Our innkeeper, whose family has been associated with the island since the early 1920s, has also been a wonderful source of information, anecdotes, and scuttlebutt in the years we have been coming to the island. One more reason for returning to the Monhegan House every summer.

Artists have been coming to Monhegan since the late 19thcentury - Robert Henri and members of the Ashcan School in NYC, George Bellows, Rockwell Kent, James Fitzgerald (a personal favorite of mine through his connection with John Steinbeck when Fitzgerald painted in Monterey in the 1930s and hung out on Cannery Row), Reuben Tam, Samuel P. R. Triscott (another favorite), and, of course, Jamie Wyeth who still has a cottage on the island. As you walk around the island you regularly encounter artists at work - up on Lighthouse Hill, down among the ancient fish houses along the harbor, or out on the headland towering nearly 200 feet above the rock-strewn surf below, the highest cliffs on the coast of Maine.

Although we hated to leave Monhegan, we spent the remainder of our summer sojourn at the lake cottage where we relaxed . . . just sitting by the lake, swimming and canoeing as the New England weather turned warm and dry. We were saddened to discover that our favorite little roadhouse/general store which I used to frequent for breakfast while listening to the locals solve the problems of the world over their morning cups of joe, is now shuttered, the latest victim of the rerouting of the main highway between Portland and the western Maine mountains. I figured it was only a question of time, but I am sad to see it gone; I have a lot of fond memories of the place.

In addition to our time relaxing by the lake, we also traveled down to Portland one day for an excursion through island-studded Casco Bay to visit Admiral Robert Peary’s summer home on Eagle Island situated 12 miles to the northeast of the city and some three miles below Harpswell Neck and the road to Brunswick and Bowdoin College which Peary - as well as Hawthorne, Longfellow and Jonathan Cilley - attended and where the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum is now located. This year marks the centennial of the Peary expedition to the North Pole and there is still a debate whether he actually reached the Pole as he claimed. We wandered through his cottage and cozy library/office and walked the nature trails he laid out across this small 17 acre forested island with its rocky shores and tidal pools.

And speaking of Portland – we have discovered over the years that it is a very liveable city. Granted, we do not know all of its neighborhoods, and like any American city these days, it has its mean streets. But those areas which we have explored - its busy downtown full of people and traffic; the Old Port which can be a bit touristy in the summer but still interesting with it many shops and watering holes amid a thriving waterfront; the Eastern and Western Promenades with stately Victorian homes and views of Casco Bay and the Fore River; Munjoy Hill and its blue collar homes and shops - beckon us back time and time again.

We spent Sally Ann’s birthday up in Rockland where we visited the Farnsworth Art Museum and the Wyeth Center (something we do almost every year). It looked to be a beautiful day, but it turned into a real scorcher with temperatures near 90 and quite humid. Not your typical Maine summer weather. So we enjoyed the cooler confines of the museum and its posthumous tribute to Andrew Wyeth which included some of his better known paintings along with some of his more recent work which I had not seen before. There was also a brand new Jamie Wyeth exhibit, "Seven Deadly Sin," which is a series of paintings - all painted in 2006 and 2007 - in which he depicts seagulls (a favorite subject for Jamie Wyeth, living as he does along the Maine coast) representing each of the sins normally attributed only to human beings. Wyeth sees gulls as often nasty and pugnacious - "they’re evil" - which they certainly can be. There is something inherently fascinating about Wyeth’s gulls. He once said that a gull’s eye can tell you more about the ocean than any seascape can hope to do. I think he is absolutely correct about this.

Our trip to Rockland also afforded us the chance to return to the nearby St. George peninsula which we try to visit each time we come to Maine for it is the heart of Wyeth country on the Midcoast [see my February 9, 2009 and June 14, 2009 posting]. Port Clyde, at the peninsula’s southern most point, is where N.C. Wyeth first brought his family to Maine in the earth 20th century and where the old family home "Eight Bells" is located at the end of Horse Point Road. From there you can see Teel Island and neighboring Blubber Butt (yes, that is what the small island is called) where Andrew first started painting his early Maine themes. Jamie Wyeth has his home and studio on Southern Island, at the entrance to Tenants Harbor just up the road. This entire peninsula smacks of Wyeth. On the southern horizon is Monhegan Island some 13 miles offshore. We had been there just a week earlier but now it seemed to be of a different time and place.

As the final day of our vacation approached I began to contemplate our departure and I made a unilateral executive decision. Instead of pulling up stakes on a Sunday morning as is the tradition, then spending 12 + hours on the highway on a busy summer weekend, I delayed our departure until Monday morning. True, I would have to burn another day of annual leave, but so what for such a worthy and noble cause - another full day to enjoy ourselves by the lake? There was another player on the stage in this final act of Summer Hiatus 2009. Hurricane Bill was churning northward and expected to brush along the Maine coast. The idea of driving home in the wind and rain was not one I cherished. We also recalled when Hurricane Bob swept through during August 1990. We were in a very remote cabin in far northern Maine at that time and our only outside connection was shortwave radio. So we were able to track the storm as it approached the coast . . . ironically enough, via BBC which was the only good station I could pick up . . . while listening to the reports of the coup attempt against Gorbachev. Of course, we did not have to worry about losing power or water since we had no running water or electricity. We had propane for gas lanterns and Ian and I had laid in plenty of water and wood for the stove on which we relied for heat and cooking. So we were golden. Later that night the storm hit with a vengeance but we were snug as bugs in a rug. So we decided to wait out Hurricane Bill and come home after it had blown by us. It turned out to a rather lackluster storm; some rain showers came though but not before we had a chance for another swim and a canoe ride across the lake.

Well, do you think I have rambled on long enough? As least now you might understand why we love it so and yearn to get back every chance we get. It is magical.

Mehr Licht!

NEXT WEEK: With the Suddenness of a Dream