COASTAL MAINE IN POPULAR CULTURE
BOOKS: Mainers have generated whole libraries, from the earliest days of hellfire-and-brimstone Puritan sermons to Stephen King’s horror novels set in fictional Maine villages.
The tales of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64)—a Bowdoin College alumnus—captivated a public eager for native literature. His most famous story, The Scarlet Letter, is a narrative about morality set in 17th-century Boston; his numerous other books wrestled with themes of sin and guilt, often set in the emerging republic.
Another Bowdoin graduate, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–82), caught the attention of the public with evocative narrative poems focusing on distinctly American subjects. His popular works included “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and “Hiawatha.” Poetry in the mid–19th century was the equivalent of Hollywood movies today—Longfellow could be considered his generation’s Steven Spielberg (apologies to literary scholars). A tour of Longfellow’s childhood home, the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, in Portland, opens a window onto his New England roots.
Henry David Thoreau’s The Maine Woods explored Maine (although not the coast) in detail, at a time when few white men had yet penetrated the interior of the state—and there were still significant dangers involved in doing that. His canoe trip to Mount Katahdin was a genuine adventure.
Other regional writers who left a lasting mark on American literature include Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950), a poet from Camden, and Sarah Orne Jewett (1849–1909), who wrote the indelible The Country of the Pointed Firs (you can visit her house in South Berwick). The best-selling Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the book Abraham Lincoln half-jokingly accused of starting the Civil War, was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–86) while in Brunswick. Though it isn’t in Maine, New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island claims Willa Cather, who summered there in the 1920s and 1930s.
The former New Yorker scribe E. B. White (1899–1985) wrote many fine, wide-ranging essays and books (including children’s books such as the classic Charlotte’s Web) about rural Maine from his perch in North Brooklin, near Blue Hill, where he moved in 1939. You could do worse for an introduction to Maine than to pick up a copy of his essay collection, One Man’s Meat.
Finally, Bangor, Maine, is still the home of Stephen King, who is considered not so much a novelist as Maine’s leading industry.
FILM & TV: Maine is frequently captured through the lens of Hollywood, thanks in equal parts to its natural beauty and, probably, the unusually high numbers of actors and actresses (Oliver Platt, for example) who maintain vacation homes here.
Lillian Gish’s 1920 silent film Way Down East was perhaps the first movie to bring cinematic attention to the region. Poignantly, Gish’s last film, The Whales of August (1987), was set in a summer cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. Scenes from 1999’s The Cider House Rules, which was set in Maine, were filmed on Mount Desert Island, and the 2005 HBO adaptation of Maine author Richard Russo’s Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls was filmed all over the state.
A host of horror films written by Maine’s Stephen King—from Carrie, Cujo, and The Dead Zone down to a welter of TV miniseries—make it sometimes seem like the only inhabitants of small New England towns are ghosts, creeps, and other
supernatural forces. However, King also penned the short story upon which the wonderful flick starring Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption (one of my all-time favorites), was later based. The story and film are both based in Maine, though the prison and events are completely fictional.
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