One day, circa 1968, I was browsing the shelves at the public library when my eye fell on the bold cover of Making It, a memoir by Norman Podhoretz. I checked it out immediately — I was fifteen years old, and under a hopeful misimpression as to the contents. It turned out Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary and a luminary of the New York literary scene, had written a book about money, success and social class in postwar America. I enjoyed it anyway, especially Podhoretz's account of his own journey from a Brooklyn tenement to a stratum of life so different as to be virtually a foreign country.
"That country," he wrote, "is sometimes called the upper middle class; and indeed I am a member of that class, less by virtue of my income than by virtue of the way my speech is accented, the way I dress, the way I furnish my home, the way I entertain and am entertained, the way I educate my children — the way, quite simply, I look and I live."
That was pretty smart, I thought. Even as a kid I'd noticed that class and income are not the same thing. My best friend's dad owned the local Ford dealership and made a ton of money but had no class at all. His most memorable trait was an impressive command of racial epithets. My own dad held a low-paying government job, filled our modest home with books, and comported himself like a gentleman.
Class in Maine is a complicated subject and in some ways a largely hidden one. A friend of mine, originally a New Yorker, later a Washingtonian, says that Maine is the closest thing to a classless society she has known. I think I get what she means: Mainers almost uniformly share a distaste for putting on airs, for flaunting wealth or fame or social standing, and this attitude communicates itself (not always immediately) to newcomers. People here generally don't classify one another by how they earn a living. We don't choose our friends — or cast our ballots — on sociocultural grounds. A typical town select board is as likely to include a plumber and an auto mechanic as a doctor and a lawyer.
Which is not to say that class differences don't exist in Maine, or that they don't matter. The town where I live has traditionally been home to much of the laboring class — carpenters, waitresses, store clerks, et alia — whose livelihood depends on the larger, tonier, pricier town next door. I've never sensed anything approaching animosity, or even resentment, across town lines; yet a certain level of stereotyping is hard to avoid. You hear it in casual chatter among your kids and their friends: terms like "rich kids" and "rednecks." You recognize it in yourself when you consider your own presumptions about, say, the driver of that Prius versus the driver of that pickup truck.
We're back to Podhoretz here: "the way I dress, the way I furnish my home." The car I drive. The radio station I listen to. The contents of my grocery cart. My opinion of same-sex marriage.
Still, in Maine, none of that stuff seems absolutely decisive. The class divide is not so vast or so toxic as it appears to be elsewhere. And I think there are both historical and cultural reasons for that.
There's a long tradition — dating back at least to the age of the "rusticators" in the late 19th century — of the wealthy, the glamorous, the sophisticated finding their way to Maine, at first just for the summer, but increasingly year-round. This tradition, though, has always had a very particular flavor. People drawn to Maine are usually attracted, at least in part, by the un-gentrified character of the place. This isn't the Hamptons, where you retire to your private compound. This is where you unselfconsciously wear your flannel shirt, drive to town in your jalopy, chat up the characters at the village store (the one with all the pickups outside), and generally put aside what Eliot called "a face to meet the faces that you meet." Mainers have, in their turn, traditionally been welcoming of such open-minded immigrants. And over time the newcomers have, to a greater or lesser degree, gone native.
That dynamic continues to play out. As teenagers, my kids' circle of friends has grown to include both "rich kids" and "rednecks" — and among this Millennial generation, it's often hard to tell them apart. Which is cause for celebration, I think.