The Write Life: Growing Up In Maine

Growing up as a kid in Maine can be pretty boring. What we lack in things to do in this state, though, we make up for in spades with natural beauty, rugged wilderness, and scenery that has inspired artists of all walks for generations.

Though I lived mostly in the city of Lewiston, I was able to get out into the countryside every once in a while. Many folks in larger cities don’t have that sort of luxury, and looking back at my early life – I’m thankful I had that opportunity. I’d go to my grandparent’s house in Windham where nights and days were spent in the sandpit and surrounding woods behind their home. For a while, my siblings and I lived with our mother and her boyfriend in a barn somewhere in Dixfield where we played on and inside of rusty old cars which were in the middle of being reclaimed by forest growth and we’d eat blackberries and raspberries which grew in abundance all around us. For a summer, or at least most of one, I lived on a farm that belonged to my uncle “Ed” – where there was no running water and we had to lug buckets of freshwater from the stream behind his house in order to wash dishes or wash ourselves. In all of these places, my imagination took hold. Suddenly, branches became rifles and rusty oil tanks became spaceships. The boredom was often palpable in these places, but I can’t help but wonder if my exposure to these outdoor places is what helped develop my imagination and thus, my writing.

Little did I know as a child that my adult life would revolve around writing. And little did I know that this “boring” state that I lived in was once home, at least partially, to two writers whom I would eventually find a sort of kinship with, spiritually – Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I’d imagine that my own childhood was not much different from those of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, at least on the surface. Their time was harder in many ways than mine was, though my own childhood presented many problems that they would be unfamiliar with as well. My own childhood was rife with alcoholism, poverty, and sometimes even abuse. I can’t speak to their upbringings much – aside from what I’ve researched.

Hawthorne and Longfellow each had very different upbringings, and if I were to compare my own to one of them it would probably be closer to the childhood that Hawthorne experienced. Longfellow was born into an aristocratic family – his father a congressman and his grandfather a hero of the American Revolution and the founder of the town of Hiram, Maine. He was well-to-do and was free to enjoy leisurely walks down Congress Street to the East End here in Portland, where he would watch out over the ocean waves. Hawthorne’s own father died at sea, leaving his mother alone to take care of her children and also leaving them with not much in the way of money. He knew grief early on, which may have spurred him on into his writing life later on – and I think that’s what he and I mostly have in common. The shared history of sorrow and poverty.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 04, 1804 in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. right on Union Street in a building built in 1730. The building was moved back in the 1950’s to stand next to the House Of Seven Gables and you can still see it there.

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The original house on Union Street in Salem, Mass. (image from hawthorneinsalem.org)

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Hawthorne’s birthplace today, as it stands next to the House Of Seven Gables.

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The House Of Seven Gables

 

Hawthorne only lived in the original house until he was around four years old. When I visited the House Of The Seven Gables, I was with my then-girlfriend and we hadn’t made it in time for the guided tour. So we had to resort to wandering around outside the building he was born in, which is still in great shape for being built before the American Revolution. As you can see in the photo, the museum curators and those in charge haven’t made many changes to it at all. The inside is pretty much just as pristine.

Longfellow’s place of birth didn’t quite survive as long as Hawthorne’s. Longfellow was born on February 27, 1807 – three years after Hawthorne. Longfellow was born in the city I currently live in, Portland, Maine – on the corner of Fore Street and Hancock Street. The building he was born in was also built in the 1700’s but it only lasted until the 1950’s when it was demolished. Currently there stands a Marriott (ugh) hotel on the site and there is a large rock in front of its doors with a plaque affixed to it denoting the spot Longfellow was born.

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born here, on the corner of Fore and Hancock

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The site of Longfellow’s birth, denoted by the rock in front of the hotel

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The rock from Longfellow’s grandfather’s farm in Hiram, Maine – denoting Longfellow’s place of birth.

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Close up of plaque on the rock denoting Longfellow’s place of birth. It reads: “ON THIS SITE FROM 1784 TILL 1955 STOOD THE HOUSE IN WHICH HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW WAS BORN FEBRUARY 27, 1807 – THIS BOULDER IS FROM THE HIRAM FARM OF HIS GRANDFATHER, GENERAL PELEG WADSWORTH, WHERE THE POET SPENT MANY HAPPY YOUTHFUL DAYS.

It was definitely strange to be standing there, in front of the Marriott, looking at this rock. I turned, my back to the rock, gazing over at the harbor and the massive cruise ship that towered over all of Portland’s Old Port buildings. I wondered exactly how the harbor looked back then – instead of a cruise ship there would be sloops and large-masted sailing vessels. Of course, Longfellow was only born at that location. He actually grew up in his parent’s home on Congress Street, near the East End.

Tours are available of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House on Congress Street. I went one day with my then-girlfriend and we were the only ones taking the tour at the time, so our tour guide brought us patiently throughout the restored, neoclassical home of the boy who would later become America’s greatest poet. The building looks strange, surrounded by more modern architecture. Inside, I could feel Longfellow’s presence. His portrait, along with that of Stephen Longfellow (his father), adorn the parlor along with images from his acclaimed poem Evangeline and an Edward Savage print from 1801 of George Washington over the mantle.

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Parlor in the Wadsworth-Longfellow House. It looks much the same today

In the Sitting Room, I could just see Henry in there – studying or writing as a young boy. Behind the Parlor, in the Summer Dining Room – there is a large window which looks out into the garden. Our tour guide explained to us that Henry had written his poem “The Rainy Day” in there, watching as the rain rolled down the window panes. I gazed out the window, the same window Longfellow had often looked out from,  into the lush garden that had also been restored. I felt like I was standing next to him as his mind turned phrases and searched for the right words to express his soul. In the Kitchen, we were shown an engraved codfish in the iron fireback of the oven which Longfellow once wrote about and jokingly referred to it as “a fish baked in effigy”. In the Parlor Chamber sits an old colonial tea table which Longfellow once used as a young man for writing. The top of the table was worn, and there, too, I could feel his presence through history. Perhaps some of the marks upon it were made by him? Much of what the guide was telling me was lost, as I scanned my eyes over every crevice of the structure. I willed myself to leap back in time, just to see the people who lived here once go about their business, to see Henry scribbling onto parchment his words. Alas, we have not mastered the science of time travel yet, and I just stood there looking like I was processing some emotions.

I learned that from the water one day on the East End, Henry witnessed a historic battle between the USS Enterprise and the HMS Boxer – two naval ships which were fighting off the coast. Sometime after the mighty naval battle, he witnessed the burial, or at least visited the graves, of the captain of each ship – who were buried side by side in the Eastern Cemetery (along with a third man who died from his wounds two years later), down the road from his house, on Munjoy (then Mountjoy) Hill. I felt compelled to visit these graves as he had, to take in the sight of them as a boy would, as maybe he would. So I went to the cemetery one foggy morning from my place in the West End and reflected there for awhile.

The Eastern Cemetery is in much different shape, presumably, from that of Longfellow’s time. Many of the headstones are now in disrepair but there has been a renewed effort to fix some of the damages and to plant trees and to make the space habitable for visitors like myself. When I stepped into the cemetery, repair work was being done near the entrance. “Am I still allowed in here?” I asked. “Yup,” said the man near his truck, surrounded by orange tape. “Just stay behind the tape.” I nodded and walked into the white mist which clung to the air just above the ground. A couple of tourists took photos in the distance. From the Shipyard brewery, carried by the damp air, came the strong smells of hops and barley. I smiled and wondered if the soldiers interred here would have appreciated that their resting places, at least for now, were so near a brewery as to constantly be inundated with its smells.

I found the graves of the soldiers and remembered the stanza in which Longfellow referred to the battle and to its effect on him as a boy.

"I remember the sea-fight far away,  
  How it thundered o’er the tide!  
And the dead 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.'"
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The stone at the entrance to the East End Cemetery

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The graves of British commander Samuel Blythe, American Lieutenant William Burrows and American Lieutenant Kerwin Waters

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The dead soldiers of the battle off Pequid Point in Maine between USS Enterprise and HMS Boxer

As a child, Longfellow also enjoyed visits to his grandfather’s farm in Hiram and presumably, the farm in Gorham where his father, Stephen, once lived – called The Elms. I went with my then-girlfriend, and we eventually found it with some help from a local. It was a small yellow farmhouse, in the colonial style, on an old road in the middle of two great fields. We walked down the road and – as the home is a private residence – we couldn’t enter. However, we were able to snap a couple photos of the exterior and the stone marker and plaque that denotes the home being a historic building belonging once to Stephen Longfellow.

I took in the surroundings. Back in Longfellow’s time, the road would have been lined with large elm trees. Next to the home was a field, in which I’m guessing Henry must have taken many walks in. I could see him there, sitting under one of the elm trees, watching birds and insects flit through the vegetation. It’s hard to disbelieve that he must have received many inspiring thoughts in this place. I was even inspired and the area had lost some of its natural beauty to urban development and foresting, so I can’t imagine how beautiful it must have been back then.

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Marker denoting the home’s historical significance

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Stephen Longfellow’s former home in Gorham, Maine

Very near to Stephen Longfellow’s home in Gorham is the boyhood home of Nathaniel Hawthorne, where he spent at least some years during a convalescence after a leg injury. There is some debate as to what sort of leg injury it was, but a popular opinion is that when Hawthorne received the injury while playing sports the injury somehow became infected and so he then spent his time in Raymond, Maine healing up. From Stephen Longfellow’s home in Gorham, I traveled to Raymond, near where I spent part of my own teen years in Casco on Sebago Lake. My two cousins lived in Raymond, too, so I would visit them as well off and on over the years.

The home Hawthorne stayed in looked similar to that of Stephen Longfellow’s, albeit a different color and not quite so large. The bugs were out when I arrived and I swatted them away, admiring the architecture and the peacefulness of the surrounding small community of homes and grassy yards. Hawthorne revered his time in Raymond, writing once:

When I was eight or nine years old, my mother, with her three children, took up her residence on the banks of the Sebago Lake, in Maine, where the family owned a large tract of land; and here I ran quite wild, and would, I doubt not, have willingly run wild till this time, fishing all day long, or shooting with an old fowling piece; but reading a good deal, too, on the rainy days, especially in Shakspeare and “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” and any poetry or light books within my reach. Those were delightful days; for that part of the country was wild then, with only scattered clearings, and nine tenths of it primeval woods.” (Julian Hawthorne, I, 95- 9 6)”

There are a large number of books and resources available to read about his time there, specifically HERE where you can read a detailed outline of Hawthorne’s life in Raymond and how it may have influenced some of his writing. With that said, I found it pretty neat how close in proximity the two writing giants really were while in their respective childhoods. In the same state, near the same lake, before finally attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick together in later years. And growing up in these same areas gave these writers a sense of realism that I have not experienced with other historical figures. These were real people. They were writers.

My then-girlfriend took photos while I milled around the side and then to the back entrance. We couldn’t go in as it was past visiting hours for any sort of tours (if there even are tours in the first place) but I appreciated the building from the outside and tried to imagine a young Nathaniel Hathorne (Hathorne is how his family spelled their name before Nathaniel added a “W” to distinguish himself) gazing out the windows or sitting in the yard to soak up the sun as his leg healed.

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The boyhood home of Nathaniel Hawthorne in Raymond, Maine

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Sign denoting the boyhood home of Nathaniel Hawthorne

So what inspired these two boys, with such different backgrounds to become writers? What inspired me to look into myself and take up the pen (or the keyboard, if you will)? What inspires countless others here in Maine to become artists or to pursue artistic endeavors? Perhaps it’s different for all of us but I do know that these two men, great literary figures of their time, have one thing in common. They spent their boyhoods, or at least a good part of them, sitting under the Maine sun, near its waters, reflecting on things and doing some serious soul-searching. Though they may not have interacted until they met informally at Bowdoin College later on, they were experiencing nature in the same way and experiencing the hardscrabble Maine way of life in the early-to-mid 1800’s. They were just like us, but cut from a different time.

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 (at least initially).

I often unintentionally 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 signs of 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.

But they were just people. Real people. Just like you and me.

That’s yet another reason to celebrate their work, especially as a fellow writer. And it helps to know that these writers – who were prolific over a hundred years before I was even born – were once just like me. And just like you. To have success as they did is actually attainable under the right circumstances.

We were all children once. We all roamed, looking for adventure. And now as writers, we have the opportunity to share that spirit with the world. So, when I think about what it means to be a writer – especially in Maine – I’m not intimidated by those who came before. I am actually inspired. In today’s world it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who are doing the same exact thing as you. But with enough hard work, determination, and talent – we can make it like Hawthorne and Longfellow did.

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Me as a child, on the left – followed by my cousin Lester and my Uncle Brian. (Taken in Windham, which is not far from Gorham or Raymond)

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