Cheney, Matthiessen, and Me

For one writer, the preserved library of two eminent Mainers offers a window into their love story — and some welcome validation.

Painter Russell Cheney, left, and Harvard scholar F. O. Matthiessen, in Normandy, France, in 1925.
Painter Russell Cheney, left, and Harvard scholar F. O. Matthiessen, in Normandy, France, in 1925.
By Scott Bane
From our November 2022 issue

One summer, several years ago, I was lucky enough to join a merry crew of two professors, a curator, and a great-niece of the painter Russell Cheney, to catalog the books in the house in Kittery that he shared with his life partner, F. O. Matthiessen, a Harvard history and literature professor. Cheney and Matthiessen had been a couple since their 1924 meeting aboard the ocean liner Paris, and it was Cheney who landed them in Maine. His family spent summers in York Harbor, and he studied with Charles H. Woodbury at Woodbury’s Ogunquit painting school. Cheney’s best paintings chronicled the people, landscapes, interiors, and still lifes he found along the Maine and New Hampshire coasts, and his work is in the collections of museums like the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Wadsworth Atheneum. Today, Matthiessen’s name doesn’t mean much outside of scholarly circles — and even there, it means less than it once did — but he was an early champion of writers we now take for granted in American literature: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, and Whitman, among others.

The day we drove to Kittery, it poured rain, but it stopped just about the time we hit the Route 1 Bypass traffic circle in town. Everything was lush and green. The tree limbs hung heavily and dripped with water over the road as we wended our way along Route 103 to Matthiessen and Cheney’s house, a white clapboard Cape built in 1790 that sits on a peninsula where the Spruce Creek estuary joins with the Piscataqua River, at the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor. As a painter and scholar, it was understood that each man was married to his work and that living together simply dodged isolation. Had the world known the true nature of the two men’s relationship, Matthiessen would have been fired from Harvard on moral grounds, his tenure notwithstanding, and Cheney’s exhibitions in the Boston and New York art worlds would have dried up overnight.

Both men loved the same dark forests, blue-green ocean, and snow-covered paths that I knew and loved.

I had grown up not far away, on several acres in Cape Neddick, in York. Both towns are on the extreme southern stretch of coast that people like to joke is still part of Massachusetts — a sly insult. But on the patch of Maine belonging to my mother’s family stood their small family farm, complete with chickens, sheep, and a few goats. By the time I was growing up, my grandparents had long since abandoned the farm and moved into a mobile home, parked a hundred feet south of an empty crater of a foundation on which the homestead had stood. Although they were poor, my grandparents had carved out small lots from their acreage to give to each of their three daughters as they married and began families. It was a modest family compound of sorts.

I was an only child and a shy and lonely boy. I knew every contour of the land around our house. The surrounding woods always called to me, and I discovered things there among the rocks, oaks, ponds, and pines. One springtime day, I came upon a lady slipper, an indigenous wild orchid, the flower of which resembles an exaggerated lady’s shoe. It was so incongruous, this lush, delicate pink flower erupting from a carpet of broken twigs and dead, brown leaves. I marveled over the flower, meditating on it, but I did not pick it. These moments of being out on the land by myself induced a profound stillness and tranquility in my already anxious heart. I somehow sensed that to have picked the flower would have destroyed this spell.

In 2003, I was gone from Maine nearly 20 years, living in New York City, when a New York Times book review introduced me to Matthiessen and Cheney. That they had made their home in Kittery came as a revelation to me: a much-needed confirmation that I was part of a tradition, a history of gay people in the place that was so critical to shaping me.

I began to research and write about Matthiessen and Cheney and their life together in Maine. Matthiessen, working at a time when literary studies focused mostly on English literature, helped solidify an appreciation of American authors. He wrote the first literary biography, published in 1929, of Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett, who herself was in a “Boston marriage” with writer Annie Fields, a close relationship that may or may not have been physical. Cheney was well-known in the Boston and New York art worlds in the 1920s, and his most enduring works offer an impressionistic glimpse of the region where he and Matthiessen made their home: landscapes of Kittery Point, Nubble Light, and Ogunquit Beach, among many other locales. Reading Matthiessen and Cheney’s letters, I learned that both men loved the same dark forests, blue-green ocean, and snow-covered paths that I knew and loved.

When I arrived to catalog books . . . it was as if we were stepping into a time capsule of the 1940s.

Cheney died of a heart attack in 1945. After his death, loneliness and depression sank icy claws into Matthiessen’s heart. At the same time, he feared — correctly — that he was being investigated and trailed by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, on account of his progressive activism, often connected with the labor movement. In 1950, he took his own life, jumping from a 12th-story hotel window in Boston. He willed the house in Kittery and all it contained to a Yale classmate, who in turn left the house to his children. They used it in the summers, and other than updating the kitchen and bathrooms, they left everything as it had been when Matthiessen died.

When I arrived to catalog books, Cheney’s paintings hung on the walls. Pottery and artifacts sat on windowsills, caked with several decades worth of dust. Some was from China, collected by Cheney’s family members, silk manufacturers from Connecticut, and some was from the Southwest, where Cheney and Matthiessen spent several winters, in Santa Fe. And there were books everywhere: in Matthiessen’s bedroom, along one wall of an outbuilding that served as Cheney’s painting studio, in the dining-room hutch above the plates and glasses, and next to the front door in the entryway. It was as though we were stepping into a time capsule of the 1940s.

The house’s owners, the children of Matthiessen’s classmate, were away for the weekend, so my crew and I had only Saturday and Sunday to catalog all of the books. After the rainstorm, Saturday broke sunny and warm, not too humid. The ocean stretched out in front of the house, brilliant blue with flecks of white surf stirred up by the breeze. Our group set up a table in Cheney’s painting studio and began to photograph every book: cover, title page, any inscription. There were art books, all different types of literature, the Bible, progressive political works, and books that had been owned by other Cheney family members and passed down through the years.

But the task quickly became overwhelming, so each of us set off on more individual explorations. I gravitated toward writers who inched toward a contemporary definition of gay, as not just attraction to members of one’s own gender but also as a personal identity: books like The Intermediate Sex, Anthology of Friendship, An Unknown People, and Love’s Coming of Age, by Edward Carpenter; Studies in the Psychology of Sex, by Havelock Ellis; Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; and Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions; among many others. There were surprising finds too. The Common Sense of Drinking jumped out at me, knowing that Cheney wrestled with alcoholism in the last years of his life. Also, a Christmas card from T. S. Eliot that fell out from between two books. Eliot had been a house guest of Matthiessen and Cheney’s during the summer of 1933.

By Sunday, dark clouds, rain, and fog began to roll back in. We ended our weekend project by going out to get lobster rolls from a local seafood market.

I didn’t fully appreciate the significance of the books at Matthiessen and Cheney’s house in Kittery until some time later, when I had the opportunity to visit the F. O. Matthiessen Room, at Harvard. The room had been Matthiessen’s office and has been converted into a research room, holding his professional library of 1,700 books. The books were divided up between English and American literature and neatly broken down by century. Among them were all the books you would expect to find in a literature professor’s office — but not the slightest hint of any of the homophile books I had paged through in Kittery. Maine, I realized, had given these two men cover. Against the craggy coast, far from the country’s metropolitan centers, Matthiessen and Cheney were free to love one another and share their life together, at a time without role models or a road map, having to figure out just about everything for themselves. If this didn’t embody the independent and intrepid spirit that I think of when I think of Maine, then I don’t know what does.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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