Or, as a new book asks, can there even be such a thing?
Photo by Mark Fleming
You don’t need to be an English major to appreciate Hidden Places: Maine Writers on Coastal Villages, Mill Towns, and the North Country, by Dr. Joseph A. Conforti — but it doesn’t hurt if you’re well read. Conforti’s approachable lit-crit tome examines how a dozen or so of Maine’s finest writers have “explored the experience of living in far-flung settings.” Along the way, the University of Southern Maine professor emeritus raises a solid question.
“What I try to do in the book is ask, is there really a single book so representative of Maine that we can call it the Great Maine Novel?” Conforti says. “My argument is, there can’t: the state is too big, the physical and human landscapes are too diverse. So what I try to suggest is that we need to try to think about multiple major Maine novels.” We chatted with Conforti, who offered five candidates.
“It’s the work that was first considered the Great Maine Novel,” Conforti says, “and in some quarters, it still is, particularly among scholars of American literature.” Jewett’s collection of linked stories focuses on the imaginary fishing village of Dunnet Landing, where the narrator, a Bostonian, flees in search of solitude before slowly becoming enmeshed in the community. Conforti raises questions about whether the book really holds together as a novel (Jewett wrote the chapters as standalone stories in the 1890s, and her original collection was posthumously rearranged and augmented with unpublished material), but The Country of the Pointed Firs introduces a theme common to a lot of memorable Maine writing: the relationship between outsiders and insiders. “My argument in the book,” Conforti says, “is that Jewett, who spent six months a year in Boston and was part of the Boston intelligentsia, was kind of a literary anthropologist, a go-between for outsiders — tourists, summer people, those who were discovering Maine — and the country people she knew.”
A sweeping historical epic, Chase’s 1935 novel traces the fortunes of a single family across four generations on the Down East coast, from the peak of the age of sail to the dawn of the tourism economy. The novel, Conforti says, stands out for its sheer scope. “It’s the story of 100 years of upheaval,” he says. “Chase was the first Maine writer to offer a significant critique of what outsiders were doing to the Maine coast.”
Moore’s second novel was a spectacular bestseller in 1946, earning the Maine native comparisons to Faulkner along with a big-budget Hollywood adaptation. Another tale of a coastal community in transition, Spoonhandle is rich with complex, often funny characters navigating their island community’s discovery by summer people. “One of Moore’s significant achievements,” Conforti says, “is that she gives you this close-up of an entitled businessman from Baltimore trying buy up one of the islands, and it’s a scathing critique of a representative rich person from outside who has no comprehension of Maine and its people.”
Conforti sometimes gets grief for preferring Strout’s 2013 novel, about the fallout from an alleged hate crime in a fictional Maine mill town, to the author’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge. But The Burgess Boys, he says, is a worthier effort. “It’s an ambitious work, and it acknowledges some diversity in Maine,” Conforti says. “Strout spent time studying the Somali community, getting to know some of the Somali people. They invited her into their homes. She would go and park her car at a school and see if the Somali kids and the native-born kids were interacting, if they were playing with one another. She’s someone who has strong ties to Lewiston, and The Burgess Boys is essentially about Lewiston as a community.”
“Long and involved and certainly an ambitious book,” Conforti says of Russo’s Pulitzer winner, published in 2001. A tragicomedy about blue-collar interior Maine, Empire Falls feels a world away from Sarah Orne Jewett, but as with The Country of the Pointed Firs, the reader comes to understand the place by understanding its people. Seemingly no citizen of the titular fading factory town is denied his or her own plot arc in a novel that Conforti calls “an artful act of literary jugglery.”
HONORABLE MENTIONS A few other titles dissected in Hidden Places that deserve a shout among our 100 must-reads: