Friday, September 18, 2009

2: South Berwick and Cape Neddick: Local girl makes good

A little reality check to serve as a disclaimer: I won’t necessarily be posting these “adventures” in the order I take them. I’ll be mixing it up so I don’t write about the same area or people one of top of another. First and foremost, it’s to maintain my interest level—but secondly, I hope it helps maintain yours too. Just being honest here. 

So next up … it’s a lovely late summer day. In southern Maine this is the perfect time of year. And I’m thinking Sarah Orne Jewett would agree with me. 

My friend Amanda and I arrived a few minutes before the day’s first tour at the Sarah Orne Jewett House in South Berwick, Maine, and spent the time wandering in the garden behind the house—where we met a pair of sisters (one from New Hampshire and one visiting from Seattle). We swapped stories (Amanda was visiting from Portland, Oregon) and compared notes on travel and visiting historic places.


We wound up with seven in our tour group, and we got an immediate sense of being in this together as our guide, Ann, instructed us to put on shoe covers to protect the house from outdoor contaminants. So there we all were in little booties. 

One of the interesting things about visiting historic homes is the sensation of layers of history—like Longfellow’s home in Cambridge. Yes, it was Longfellow’s home, but before that it was the Craigies’ and before that someone else’s, and George Washington even lived there. Multiple stories clamor to be told. The Jewett house whispered more than clamored—it was built in 1774 by a shipbuilder wanting to impress (many rooms have elaborate moldings), but in 1819 it was purchased by Sarah’s grandfather Jewett, so most of the house’s story is also the family’s story. 

I found it interesting to try to read between the lines of the house’s physical evidence for the ethereal familial relationships. (Must be the writer in me.) A little family history: Sarah’s grandfather, Captain Theodore Furber Jewett, had four sons, three of whom followed in his footsteps as seamen and one, Sarah’s father (also Theodore), who became a doctor. Their mother died when young Theodore was only a few years old, and the Captain remarried (and remarried and remarried). I’m guessing Cap didn’t like living alone. 

It’s a nice house, but not a huge one, yet at the time Sarah was born, it was home to her grandfather and his third wife, her great-grandfather, her uncle William, plus her parents and older sister Mary. A short time later, her father built a small house next door for his young family. (This building now houses the town library.) Another guess—the doctor wanted a place to call his own, even if it was on his father’s property. 

When the Captain died, the house was left to William. When William died in 1887, he left the house to Sarah’s sister Mary. Mary, Sarah and their mother (Dr. Jewett had died in 1878) moved back into the “great house” as they called it, and younger sister Caroline moved into the smaller house with her family. 

Tour guide Ann told us that Mary and Sarah, neither of whom ever married, were always known as “the Jewett girls.” Mary became active and influential in town matters, while Sarah, once her writing took off and gave her entrée into the wider literary society of the late 1800s, enjoyed traveling. Back to that idea of everyone knowing everyone: Jewett’s publisher was none other than J.T. Fields of Boston, and she became acquainted with Hawthorne, Longfellow and Emerson. She knew writers in her own back yard like Celia Thaxter and John Greenleaf Whittier as well as Dickens, Tennyson and Kipling. After Fields died in 1881, Jewett and his widow Annie Fields (already a close friend) enjoyed a “Boston marriage” until the end of Jewett’s life, and the two of them traveled extensively in the US and Europe. 

Despite the heady company, she always came home to South Berwick. The town provided inspiration for her work)—the title character of her first novel, A Country Doctor, was based on her father. And that wasn’t the only time she based a character on a real acquaintances; indeed speculating on those identities became a favorite pastime of the locals. Jewett’s writing was detailed, so the clues must have been abundant for those who could recognize them. It may have been this attention to detail—crafting intricate images of people and place—that made her critics point out that she was weak on plotting. She admitted herself that this was a weakness in her writing, although it didn’t seem to bother her readers—she was a very popular author during her lifetime. 

This approach may explain why her works have fallen out of favor—hers and the works of so many of the nineteenth-century writers I am visiting. They seem quaint, the language sounds strange to our twenty-first century ears. (“Befriend” was the verb related to the noun “friend,” and it had to do with the efforts to develop a friendship not clicking a button on Facebook.) These words were written in a more leisurely time when readers savored books. Now, if we read at all, we demand page-turners—plot, plot, plot that can hold our feeble attention and not give us a moment to take a breath, because our minds might wander off in that split second. And don’t even get me started on our withering vocabularies. 

If Jewett were writing today, she might be a nature writer rather than a novelist/short story writer. Her descriptions grab the details and hold them close to her readers’ faces, so they can see and smell and hear each and every feature of the scene. It may have been the story “A White Heron” in which Jewett captured her essential self. Ann, the tour guide, told us that Jewett considered nine her favorite age and that she had been quite the tomboy and nature lover. (She had learned plant names from her father when she accompanied him on his rounds). In the story nine-year-old Sylvia sneaks out before daybreak and climbs a tall pine tree to discover the next of a white heron. 

“… Sylvia could see the white sails of ships out at sea, and the clouds that were purple and rose-colored and yellow at first began to fade away. Where was the white heron’s nest in the sea of green branches, and was this wonderful sight and pageant of the world the only reward for having climbed to such a giddy height? Now look down again, Sylvia, where the green marsh is set among the shining birches and dark hemlocks; there where you saw the white heron once you will see him again; look, look! a white spot of him like a single floating feather comes up from the dead hemlock and grows larger, and rises, and comes close at last, and goes by the landmark pine with steady sweep of wing and outstretched slender neck and crested head. …” 

One of the men on our tour asked Ann if Jewett had to work. There was some confusion between them—Ann answered, yes, she her work was her writing. But did she have to work? he asked again. After the tour, Amanda said that the question must have annoyed me—that the man was inferring that writing wasn’t work. But I hadn’t interpreted the exchange that way at all: I thought he was asking if she had to work (at writing or anything else) in order to support herself. And the answer to that was no. 

So here’s my green-eyed envy: no, she didn’t have to work. She had inherited wealth to pay the bills, she lived first with her parents and then with her sister after Mary inherited the house, and she had money enough to travel both in the US and in Europe. A writer’s lifestyle is certainly easier if your family has money. I’m sure Louisa May Alcott—who had the misfortune to have a philosopher rather than a doctor for a father, which meant she actually did have to work to help support the family—would share my sentiments. 

But I’m not bitter. I think Jewett knew she had it good, so I’ll accept that.

After our visit to South Berwick, Amanda and I headed east to Cape Neddick and one of those places that define local color. Flo’s Hot Dogs has been a Route 1 fixture since 1959, no small accomplishment for a roadside snack shack. If it had been around in Sarah Orne Jewett’s day, she certainly would have put it in one of her stories. Crowded parking lot, long line trailing out the door and all. 

Once we joined the customers lucky enough to have made it inside, I could revel in the goings on. This is just the kind of American pop culture experience I live for. There are obviously rules of behavior, but they aren’t spelled out anywhere; you have to figure them out by watching and listening. The line snaked along the far wall then looped around to the counter. 

Gail (daughter-in-law of founder Flo and now obviously The Woman in Charge) presided behind the counter and handled everything herself. First she worked her way through the line asking only how many hot dogs each person wanted (the batch we were in totaled 47, with most people ordering more than one), then she’d get enough dogs and buns going before she went back to each customer to get the details of each order—toppings, chips, drinks. Several people ordered Moxie, and each time she asked if the man was sure he wanted one. “It’s carbonated Robitussin cough syrup.” The first man assured her he had had it before and actually did want it. The second was dissuaded by her description and went for a regular root beer. Talk about customer service.  One man came inside blustering to get the owner of a Mercedes to move the car because it was blocking him in. He mistakenly identified the owner (that poor guy said, “It’s not mine. I walked here.”), then the actual owner went outside with him. When she returned a few minutes later, Gail apologized to her—and the rest of us. “My customers aren’t usually that rude.” 

Outdoor seating is a handful of non-exclusive picnic tables. (There are several stools inside at the counter, but I would imagine that anyone trying to sit there would wind up with an elbow in the ear at least once as transactions took place over the counter.) We sat with two couples, both first-time visitors like we were, and compared notes on how we figured out what a “Flo’s dog” was or what the various topping options were. For the record: relish refers to the green stuff, and sauce means Flo’s special relish (seemingly a concoction of condiments that you can purchase by the jar if you want to take some home). We had ordered three dogs: one with sauce, mustard and a sprinkle of celery salt; one with sauce, mayo and the celery salt; and one with just sauce and the salt. When Gail handed it to me, she said, “What you’ve got here is the sampler.” She explained that the mustard brings out the spicy side of the sauce, and the mayo its sweeter side. Good to know—because I’ll be going back.

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