Books not to miss, for the stories others skip
SOMEHOW A PAST: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARSDEN HARTLEY, by Marsden Hartley (MIT Press, 1998). Published from handwritten manuscripts in the painter’s papers, Hartley’s autobiography is part how-to for the young artist, part re-imagining of the painter’s life. Hartley leaves out childhood abuse and his own homosexuality — for a more detailed (and academic) biography, see USM professor Donna Cassidy’s MARSDEN HARTLEY: RACE, REGION, AND NATION (University Press of New England, 2005).
WINTER’S LIGHT: REFLECTIONS OF A YANKEE QUEER, by John Preston (University Press of New England, 1995). Preston was a prolific writer, publishing dozens of volumes of fiction and journalism, but this slim book is his greatest hits collection. It includes many of his “Letters from Maine” columns and essays on AIDS written just before his death. For a taste of Preston’s sublimely lowbrow fiction, start with his S&M novel MR. BENSON (Cleis Press, originally published 1983, new edition 2004).
TALES OF THE NIGHT, by Madam Sarah Wood (New England History Press, 1982). In 1820 the Scottish critic Sydney Smith asked, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book, or goes to an American play or looks at an American picture or statue?” Madam Wood, a Portlander and already an accomplished romantic novelist, took exception to Smith’s jibe and soon after wrote these gothic, dark-and-stormy-night stories, the first to be set in Maine.
THE SALT BOOK, edited by Pamela Wood (Doubleday, 1977). Is any Portlander unaware of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies? It has an aesthetic ubiquity around here, sending out earnest students (disclosure: I used to be one of them) with microphones and notepads to record daily life in Maine. Yes, it’s a little heavy on the lighthouses and fishermen, but it doesn’t get much more authentic than hearing from Mainers in their own words. The book is out of print, but there always seems to be a copy floating around Portland used bookstores.
THE ROMANCE OF CASCO BAY, by Edward Rowe Snow (Dodd Mead, 1975). A compilation of historical sketches of Casco Bay, this book is pure and glorious kitsch. Yes, it’s about fishermen and lighthouses, but it’s also got pirates and murder on the high seas. Snow was a Yankee of the old school, kayaking from Eastport to New York, exploring the islands, dropping Christmas presents for lighthouse keepers from a helicopter, and diving for shipwrecks. They don’t make historians like him anymore. This one is also out of print, so check your local used bookstore.