The Uncertain Hours of April

Jeff C. delivers the paper each day at around 3:00 a.m.  He’s dependable and not afraid to trudge through the snow.  The prior carrier threw the paper at the house each day, sometimes missing.  Jeff C. puts the paper in the door.  It’s a pleasant change.

I’m a light sleeper and when the paper arrived today I noticed the stars were still out.  Oddly, the birds had begun to sing.  They must be light sleepers too.  Or maybe it’s just the uncertain hours of April.

April…a busy and uncertain month.

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The Scrapbook

I last blogged about Eloise Jordan in “Just Maine Folks.”  Research on granite quarries, civil defense, and fallout shelters interrupted my progress, but as I’ve paged through digitally scanned decades of Lewiston newspapers, I’ve kept my eyes open for traces of the local writer.

My research stalled out in 1961; as I looked through the December 2, 1961 Evening Journal, I noticed it was a Saturday edition, the day the paper featured Jordan’s weekly column.  It was the beginning of the Kennedy era and the Cold War was heating up.  The Federal Reserve, according to an Associated Press article, gave permission for commercial banks to offer savers 4 percent interest.  Ward Brothers, the elegant clothing store formerly located on Lewiston’s main thoroughfare, was selling ladies London Fog brand all-weather coats for $32.50.  “Can you think of a more practical gift?” asked the advertisement.

The paper featured a long feature by Jordan titled “First Parish Church of Portland is Edifice of Notable Features” and although she doesn’t note her sources, it included a historical timeline dating back to the congregation’s establishment in 1674.

Also in Saturday’s usual spot was Jordan’s weekly column, this one titled “The Scrapbook.”  Jordan reflects on a scrapbook she’d owned since her youth.  What’s interesting and odd about the column, which you can read here, is her use of the first person to write about herself in the third person.

“A little girl I used to know who had ‘Dutch-cut’ auburn hair, a longing to be an author, and a penchant for cats, treasured a scrapbook when she was a child that was filled with newspaper and magazine clippings…”

Apparently, the scrapbook was a discarded notebook “which originally belonged to her lumberman father” and the date “1911” was written inside.  Jordan writes that the little girl’s mother started the scrapbook for the little girl “long before she was old enough to make it for herself.”

Jordan’s technique, writing about her younger self as an outside observer, sounds awkward and self-conscious today.  We’ve grown accustomed to reading first person narratives.  After all, isn’t that what a blog is?

Technique aside, this is an important column because it reveals some of Jordan’s early literary influences.  She says the scrapbook included an article by earlier Evening Journal columnist Mabel S. Merrill.  “She did not know Mabel Merrill then and it was many years before the lady with the pen became the little girl’s intimate friend.”  The scrapbook also includes clippings from other Evening Journal writers and “verses of many kinds adorn the pages…”

The column reiterates her “penchant for cats” with an “illustrated poem showing a distracted mother cat and her three roguish kittens going through daily events in the fashion of people and much like the delightfully pictorial cats on foreign postcards.”

Finally, the column ends with a reference to the scrapbook’s last pages.   Jordan says it’s “another invaluable article” about Richmond Island off Cape Elizabeth “which is treasured by the little girl whose family’s roots were there.”

From a research perspective, this column is rich with clues about Eloise Jordan both as an individual and an archetype.   The influences and themes in this column, such as her lumberman father, cats, poetry, and her Daughter of the American Revolution roots, will occur again in her columns and features.

It would be easy to conclude Eloise Jordan was a lonely spinster, the equivalent of today’s “cat lady.”  Typing and toiling in her moth-eaten fur coat, Jordan was 54 year’s old when she wrote “The Scrapbook.”

Truth be told, I have “mixed emotions” about Eloise Jordan’s writing.  I don’t know if her “story” is one worth telling.  Maybe she’s just a footnote in an old book destined for the library’s next book sale.  Or maybe she’s part of a larger truth which has been peppered with ugly lies over the years.

Let the research continue, as I don’t think I’ve arrived at the end of the “scrapbook” yet.

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Living in These Days

In January, I began writing a series of articles about the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston.  It’s a year-long project which will end in October.  It’s interesting and if I did not already have a full-time job, it would be the perfect project for me.  I spend my spare time searching and researching for obscure facts in old newspapers, French journals, and (of course) the internet.  I’ve learned a lot and I enjoy the time I spend in the past; nevertheless, every Monday morning I wake up and anxiously survey the material I’ve collected and wonder if I can cobble together enough interesting information to churn out 500 or so cogent words.

Did I say it’s making me anxious?  I try not to discuss it with anyone I know, lest I’m given the usual sympathetic bromides like “you need to take better care of yourself,” and “find what brings you joy instead.”

Then, of course, there is the response “I saw a book on Oprah the other day…”

During my research time last night, I had a strange moment of “there is nothing new under the sun.”  In the late 1950’s, folks were worried about the Russians, nuclear missiles, and building backyard fallout shelters.  Some proponents thought the federal government should be more involved in the bomb shelter business, while others wanted to see the matter handled on a state and local level.

The nation was anxious.

As you can see from this column in the February 19, 1957 Gadsden Times, feel-good bromides were never far away.

Dr. Franklin was an Alabama Methodist minister.  He died on December 13, 2002 after a long life of service to the United Methodist Church and Birmingham-Southern College.

The book Dr. Franklin recommended as “one of the best books I have ever read concerning anxieties, worries and fears” was by Dr. Leslie Weatherhead.  Weatherhead  wrote many books in the pop-psychology and theology genres, but my favorite is The Busy Man’s Old Testament.

Dr. Franklin doesn’t provide a compelling case for Weatherhead’s book in his 200 or so words.  Let’s hope this week’s Basilica piece is more thrilling than this “book review.”

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The Lunkheads

Back when I used to post links to my blog posts on Facebook, I would sometimes get three or four “likes” within 30 seconds of posting the link on social media .  This puzzled me because my blog posts run anywhere from 300 to 500 words or more.  It takes me about 63 seconds to read 300 words.  And that’s not including stops for comprehension.

What was being “liked” in less time than an average reader could read the blog post?  Was it the picture included with the content, which Facebook would preview with the post’s headline?  Or was it the “keep up the good work” effect?  Did my Facebook friends think I needed support?

It was unsettling, so I stopped using Facebook to promote my blog.  Writers like it when their work is read, lunkheads.

A few weeks ago, I visited the Maine Historical Society’s library.  Spending several hours in this oasis of quiet and written things was a special treat.  I was able to study the actual typewritten profit & loss statements of a now-defunct business, read old letters written by their employees, and analyze other company documents someone thoughtfully saved.  It was a fascinating puzzle.

While making a request for additional research material, I asked the librarian (jokingly) if she looked forward to a day when robots would fetch manuscript boxes and catalogue information.  My attempt at humor fell flat; she gave me a puzzled look and then relayed her absolute confidence in the superlative expertise of the human being.

The research library is a place from another time, a destination “of the old school.”  The written word, or the literary tradition, has taken a hit in the last decade.  Marshall McLuhan, the noted philosopher and media theorist, once said

“the future of the book is the blurb.”

Had McLuhan lived to see the creation of the internet, one wonders if he might have said “the future of the book is the emoticon.”  Or “the like.”

It’s been a while since I’ve written one of “these types” of blog posts.  You know; a despairing ramble about post-modernity, the culture’s disdain for rational thought, and the restless lawlessness stalking the digital and physical landscapes under the guise of “democracy.”  What was the old quote…opinions are like noses, everyone’s got one?

How in the world did we become such a self-assured and often-wrong society of noses?

On an unrelated topic, there will be no post this Thursday.  Research, reading, and attempts at rational writing will resume on Monday, April 17.

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The Chimes of Time

The John Marshall and Alida Carroll Brown Research Library, tucked away behind Portland’s Longfellow House, is a treasury of books, manuscripts, photographs, and ephemera.

Many of the library’s visitors come to do genealogical research.  A video posted on the library’s website tells the story of a member who initially visited with a goal to establish the lineage necessary to become a member of the Daughter’s of the American Revolution (DAR).

The DAR was founded in 1890; this was a time of patriotic revival following the United States’ Centennial.  It was also a period that witnessed the explosion of women’s clubs.

To join the DAR, a woman 18 years of age or older is required to prove lineal, bloodline descent from an American Revolutionary War ancestor.  Various types of war service is considered acceptable, including military or naval service performed by French nationals in the American theater of war.

I’ve never thought much about the DAR; I don’t think I’d be qualified to join, but you never know.  There might be a French sea captain somewhere in my lineage.

The library at the Maine Historical Society has a mantel clock which chimes the quarter-hour.  In my hurried visit last Saturday, I didn’t actually see the clock and the chime is unassuming.  Not an echoing bong or a celestial gong.  Just a gentle chiming sound, reminding those in the library that time is marching on.

Ding.  You know the drill.

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On Granite

When I’m working on a freelance story, my office looks like a disaster area.  There are two computers running and one of them will have ten or twelve browsers open.  Books are all over the floor with handwritten notes stuck between the pages.  There’s information in my phone, too, usually in the form of images I’ve taken from my forensic research.  This weekend, that included the Maine Historical Society and a flower show, both in Portland, and then a half-mile hike into a quarry in North Jay.

Into this mix, throw a few existential ruminations.  Questions like “how does our culture find equilibrium between technology and spirituality” and “how do we rescue ourselves from the soul-killing nature of automation and technology?”  Maybe “does it even matter?”

Fortunately, I’m researching granite and thinking about the stones of antiquity.  Patrick Perus, CEO of Canadian stone company, Polycor, said in a September 16, 2016 video announcement of the company’s acquisition of Rock of Ages and Swenson Granite, “stone has been a modern product since the time of Jesus Christ.”

Polycor now owns the North Jay granite quarry.  “North Jay White” was the stone used to build Grant’s Tomb in New York City, the Portland (ME) City Hall, and the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company building in Philadelphia, as well as the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston Maine.  Legend has it that the Basilica was built with 515 train car loads of granite.

George Otis Smith, in the introduction to T. Nelson Dale’s 1907 book The Granites of Maine, wrote “Areally, granite is perhaps the most important rock in Maine.  Slates, schists, sandstones, and limestones of various types occur in the different sections of the State, but the mounts and hills of the interior and the islands and headlands of the coast for the most part all exhibit slopes and cliffs of massive granite.”

New Hampshire isn’t the only “granite state.”

When you think about these ancient stones in the grander scheme of things, most of our daily worries are insignificant.

The following video, also available on the Polycor website, was particularly profound to me.  In this short piece, Swenson Granite Company’s Chairman of the Board Kurt Swenson talks about the bittersweet nature of his family business’s demise.

“It outlives us.  Granite has eternal life, if you look at it that way,” said Swenson.  “ I’m on my way out.  This is going to be here forever.”

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Just Maine Folks

Over two weeks have passed since my last biographical sketch of Lisbon writer Eloise Jordan.  In this last post, it was June, 1924 and Jordan had just graduated from Lisbon High School.  I’m a person who enjoys things in chronological order, but I’ve found that digging through time is not always so orderly.

This week, while browsing through the Maine books at the Lisbon Community Library, I found a ragged volume called Historic Churches and Homes of Maine, published in 1937.   Skimming through the essays, I noted a number of the houses and churches were ones about which Eloise Jordan would later write in her Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine features.

In discussing Jordan’s volume of work with a member of the Lisbon Historical Society, we both wondered “where did she source her material?”  The journalistic style of her era, apparently, did not require quotes and sourcing of documents.  So as I fanned through the pages of Historic Churches and Homes of Maine, I thought I might be able to find some of Jordan’s sources.  I even considered it might be a “gotcha” moment and I would uncover whole paragraphs of Jordan’s material “lifted” from the works of other writers.

Later that evening, I finished reading about Damariscotta’s Cottrill House and turned the page to find “A Spire Against the Sky” by Eloise Jordan.  It was a short essay about the Webster Corner Church, once located on the outskirts of Lisbon Falls.

Remember, it’s 1937.  Jordan graduated from Simmons in 1932 and her mother died in 1934.  Wasn’t she busy working for her father?  In an April 29, 1950 feature about her father for the Lewiston Evening Journal Magazine, she wrote “I traveled with him constantly, driving the car when he was on crutches with an injured foot, keeping accounts, and looking after his business when he was ill.”  When did she find time to write?

The Maine Writers Research Club had published a number of other books, including:

  • Maine, My State, published in 1919,
  • Just Maine Folks, published in 1924,
  • Maine: Past and Present, published in 1929, and
  • Maine Indians in History and Legends, published in 1952.

The introduction to Maine, My State notes the book was “composed of a group of Maine women, concerned in Maine historical matters…”

An essay titled “My Debt to Maine,” by “Colonel Theodore Roosevelt” contributed to the cachet of Maine, My State, noting he “responded to a request for a contribution to this book, by sending the story, and the manuscript, written in pencil by his own hand, is a priceless treasure.”

The introduction further explains “Great care has been taken to make this school reader accurate historically, as well as attractive in its semi-story form.  It has been the careful work of two years and a labor of love, with no thought of gain.”

Maine, My State also included a poem contributed by John Kendrick Bangs titled “The Pine.”

Many of the notable women writers who contributed to Maine, My State would also contribute to Historic Churches and Homes of Maine, including Ella Matthews Bangs, Mabel S. Merrill, and Mary Dunbar Devereux.

An article in the December 18, 1924 Lewiston Evening Journal praised the publication of the club’s book Just Maine Folks, considered a companion to Maine, My State.

“All lovers of Maine will find it good reading and to those who have gone forth from the State it will come as a doubly welcome gift, reminding them of the talent and genius Maine has contributed to the world and strengthening their pride in their native state.”

Is it time for the coffee pause?

What kind of club was the Maine Writers Research Club?  When was it founded?  What was its purpose?  It had the prestige to attract contributions from well-known writers and celebrities from beyond the borders of the state.  Was Ella Matthews Bangs related to John Kendrick Bangs?

Was Eloise Jordan a member of this club?  Who wrote her letters of introduction?

So many questions and so much research remains.

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