Searching for White’s Maine
John White, grandson of author E.B. White, fixes his boat in Brooklin, Maine. He now runs the Brooklin Boat Yard, where E.B. White sailed and one of the places in Maine that he cherished. At age 64, White wrote about his lifelong love of sailing in The Sea and the Wind That Blows. Illustrates MAINE-WHITE (category t), by Andrew Reiner © 2014, The Washington Post. Moved Thursday, March 27, 2014. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Michele McDonald for The Washington Post)
When I pulled off I-95 near Augusta, Maine, I needed gas and caffeine. But something else was even more pressing. The cover of E.B. White’s book One Man’s Meat that I had torn off and affixed to my passenger seat was falling off. Before I did anything else, I duct-taped the beloved children’s author and essayist back where he belonged. I needed White for the 14-hour trek from my Maryland home to his adopted home town, Brooklin, Maine.
I picked up Route 11 and headed west toward the Belgrade Lakes region, my first leg of the trip. Specifically, I was heading to Rome, home to Bear Spring Camps, perhaps White’s most cherished Maine getaway and the setting for his widely anthologized essay Once More to the Lake. In this piece from 1941, White writes about taking his son, Joel, 10 or 11, to the small lakeside resort where White has a blurry-eyed time of things, struggling to discern between past and present.
The drive to Rome looks the same as many stretches throughout the state: Lumber companies and rusting trailers neighbor up to fastidiously restored clapboard Colonials. One of the treats about traveling to Maine in late spring is the wildflowers. Even though storm clouds, intermittent showers and cool weather followed me, meadows in the Belgrade Lakes region detonated in pyrotechnic pastels from wild columbine, Jacob’s ladder and the purple-spiked cones of wild lupine. Some of these exotic fireworks, especially from lupine, fizzle before Fourth of July.
On the way I stopped at a convenience store that looked like an old garage. As I was getting out of my car, the guy parked next to me peered in my passenger window. “What’s up with the picsha on your seat?” he asked in his clipped Maine accent. “Is it a memorial?” It was. Sort of. The image shows White, in his clean, spartan boathouse overlooking Blue Hill Bay’s Allen Cove, pecking away at his Underwood typewriter. He writes at a sharp-edged, wooden table while sitting on an equally stiff, angular bench (which looks more like a pew, really). In characteristic fashion, he sidesteps the limelight, ceding the camera’s focal point to a large, open window, filled with pine trees and salt water — the essence of what White considered real artistry. Nature. For decades, this photograph of White at work, oxford shirt sleeves rolled up, has served as a consecrated reminder to me of the holy trinity required for good writing and good living: bare forearms, bare floors, simple truth. This was what I was after in searching for E.B. White: I didn’t just want to find the snapshots of landmarks and landscape that inspired White’s artistic vision. I wanted to step into the photograph.
I pulled up to the main house at Bear Spring Camps, which sits on a sloping ridge, overseeing North Bay and the camps. Traditional Maine camps were uninsulated, bare-bones affairs with one or two bedrooms. The multigabled, low-slung farmhouse was splashed white with red roof and shutters. The front door led to the dining room, and I tried not to interrupt diners who were finishing dessert, cranberry gingerbread buckle. On a wall near a taxidermied moose head (the closest I’ve come to seeing this animal in my more than 20 years of travels to Maine), I came across another elusive species: an unmarked photograph of E.B. White. There he was, paddling close to shore in his beloved Old Town canoe, wearing a porkpie hat and aviator sunglasses, his long-sleeved oxford shirt unbuttoned, revealing his bare, aged torso. This was not an image to which White — a hyper-private patrician who wore jacket and tie to Friday-night dinners in his home — would have given the rubber stamp. The photograph looked to have been taken slightly before or on his 81st birthday, the last trip he made to Bear Spring.
White was, as he admits in Once More to the Lake, a “salt-water man” as an adult, but there “are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows ... make me wish for the placidity of a lake in the woods.” Since his Belgrade memories (which dated to 1904, when he was 5 or so) had been “infinitely precious and worth saving,” he returned often — alone, with Joel in his youth and, after his wife, Katharine, passed away, with his Harper & Row editor, Corona Machemer. If there was any part of Maine that left its most defining imprint on his psyche, this was it.
I walked down the small hill, along the old cow path, past the lone tennis court to the lake. More than 70 years after White wrote his renowned essay about this place, precious little seemed changed. Considering that the place was fully booked, the camps, which ringed the lake, looked preternaturally deserted. The “pattern of life indelible” that White had once described still existed in the camps that so closely resembled the originals from 1910. An early evening mist took advantage of the break in rain to stake its claim on North Bay, nearly shrouding a lone fisherman in a skiff perhaps 300 yards offshore.
I was suddenly overcome with a compulsion of religious proportions to enter the water. I turned toward the shoreline littered with overturned canoes. I found an Old Town canoe, flipped it over and dragged it a few feet.
When I looked up, I saw that the mist had spread and thickened in mere seconds, as often happens in Maine. Whoa, I thought, as if I had just awoken from sleepwalking. I can’t take someone’s canoe. But I could step into the familiar frame that surely White had witnessed many times over the years. I dropped it, ran to the shore and waded into the cold water, plunging under for a few seconds. When I breached the surface, gasping, I felt reborn.
Now I could leave.
Mention the name E.B. White to most people, and, if they recognize it, they make the connection with his classic children’s books, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan and, especially, Charlotte’s Web. Maybe they mention the seminal book on writing that he co-wrote, The Elements of Style.” A small but fevered group remembers White for the small, nonfiction pearls he wrote for the New Yorker magazine over a six-decade career. (Katharine Sergeant Angell White, his wife, also commanded literary esteem for her reputation as one of the magazine’s founding and most influential editors.)
But it was his personal essays on life in Maine that still generate impassioned outbursts from writers, English teachers and bloggers. This was the case for me.
Sure, like everyone else I cozied to his witty, playful, avuncular tone (was there ever a more familiar essayist?) and graceful way with a sentence. But what really hooked me: his inaudible sighs. I had never encountered an essayist on such friendly terms with melancholy. In a world of edgy literary writers who stumbled over themselves to avoid heartfelt sentimentality, I had found one who relished adolescent memories of mooning over unrequited love while listening to schmaltzy German love songs.
I wasn’t after the lobster-Freeport-outlet-shopping side of Maine. I was looking for the coastal life that White had written about with such love, affection and, at times, loss in books such as One Man’s Meat and essays such as Death of a Pig. And I was looking for the writer who went out of his way to devise a children’s book ( Charlotte’s Web ) because “I needed a way to save a pig’s life” after one had died at his own hands years earlier.
Back in the late 1990s, I first set out to find White’s North Brooklin home, and my many requests for directions were basically met with “Mr. White doesn’t appreciate uninvited visitors.” Even though White had been dead since 1985, the community was still doing his bidding. White loathed contact with his public. He agreed with Louisa May Alcott, who wrote in a letter that her “books belong to the public” but her private life was hers and should be considered “sacred by the world.”
Somehow I found the home on that visit, and the present owners were terribly gracious, letting me roam the grounds of the saltwater farm. But the sense that an entire village was giving me the bum’s rush made the experience feel as if I were visiting an art exhibit with hundreds of people behind me.
It’s hard to know what you’re looking at and what it means when the impatience of enmity is breathing down your neck. Besides, it felt disrespectful to pursue someone who demanded privacy, even from the grave. But therein lay the seeker’s dilemma: To whom does he owe his deepest allegiance? Himself or his North Star?
On Route 175 I saw the sign: Welcome to Brooklin, Boat Building Capital of the World. (Later that day I learned that Jim Steele, a local builder of peapods, a classic Maine wooden rowboat, put these signs up, partially in jest. But the truth is that Brooklin is a formidable boat-building center and, above all, a wooden boat mecca.)
If I wanted to find vestiges of White in Brooklin, a place where sailboats were built and restored would be a good start. While he was a lifelong canoeist, White also loved sailing. Throughout his life he kept a slew of boats at the ready for single-handed sailing, and wrote an essay that recounted his obsession.
But another reason that Brooklin Boat Yard proved a good place to stop was because it had been owned and operated by his son, Joel, a world-renowned naval architect. Joel was such an important player in the wooden boat revival that he was largely responsible for luring WoodenBoat School and its eponymous magazine to Brooklin when its founder, Jon Wilson, searched for a new home. Since Joel passed away in 1997, his son Steve, White’s grandson, has taken control of the business.
The building first saw life as a boat yard some time after World War II, when Arno Day, a reportedly mercurial, savant artisan who sometimes wouldn’t speak for days or weeks at a time, opened up shop. Steve White says that his father learned how to build boats from Day. But Joel got his first taste of wooden boats at age 10, when his father built him a small cedar scow called Flounder. On this late spring day, sailboats bobbed at their moorings, and pines and hardwoods across the water radiated a hue of effervescent green.
A burly, mustachioed guy who looks part President Theodore Roosevelt and part New York Mets great Keith Hernandez, Steve White gave me a tour and showed me one of his greatest treasures. In one of the storage areas he removed a tarp. There lay Shadow, the first sailboat his father bought, a Herreshoff 121/2 he purchased when he was 16 in 1946. Steve White refurbished it and repainted it black, its original color. I asked him if his grandfather spent a lot of time at the boat yard, and he shook his head.
“He wasn’t a hardcore sailor,” Steve White said. “He would go out, often by himself, for four or five hours at a time. He wasn’t an adventurous sailor. He liked the peace of it.”
After Steve White excused himself, I walked down to a narrow beach and came across part of an old wooden pylon. It was coated with calcified barnacles, the kind I imagined E.B. White was referring to when he was 64 and wrote about his lifelong love of sailing in The Sea and the Wind That Blows. The essay ends on a slightly overcast note as White foreshadows his final sailing days, edged with the threat of mortality: “I’ll feel again the wind imparting life to a boat, will smell again the old menace, the one that imparts life to me: the cruel beauty of the salt world, the barnacle’s tiny knives ... the claw of the crab.”
On the way back into the village I stopped off at the intersection where the General Store and what had been the Morning Moon Cafe meet. At the vacant cafe’s takeout window, a high-school-aged girl was hawking her mother’s blueberry pie, chocolate ice cream, iced coffee and lemonade. Even though I wasn’t hungry I bought slice of pie.
I couldn’t bear missing out on the tiny, piquant Maine blueberries, which would fetch more per pound than lobster in my world. The rain had stopped, so I considered walking across the street to Brooklin Cemetery to find White’s headstone. But that seemed a static place to find the legacy of a man who was known to ride his bike along these roads well into his 70s.
The rain began yet again as I drove back through town, and I sought temporary relief in Friend Memorial Library. If a public homage exists to Katharine and E.B. White in Brooklin, then Friend Memorial Library is it. Above the card catalogue — which some people still use — hung two framed original Garth Williams drawings for White’s first children’s book, Stuart Little.
When White dismantled his New Yorker office in 1968, he knew exactly where he wanted the artwork to go. “I’d rather give them to this library than any other place,” he wrote in a letter. White even used the library to score Brownie points with Katharine, a tireless advocate and trustee of the tiny library for decades.
He knew Katharine’s concern about the vacant Earl Firth house, which sat near the library and posed a fire threat. He lavished Katharine with a check — to have the house demolished. “So I now have the strong desire to make you a gift in lieu of rubies, and it seemed to me the other night that the thing you most wanted was to tear down Earl Firth’s house — so I am giving you that, my love my own. Hit it hard and true!”
The librarian suggested I check out the wildflower garden outside, dedicated to the Whites, or the Maine section in the back of the library, which featured 22 titles by or about White. Few, if any, public libraries own White’s extensive oeuvre.
As charming as all of this was, I had to admit the hard truth: Yes, I had wangled my way deeper into White’s Maine and had experienced a presence of being with his spirit that I hadn’t known before. But the journey still felt disembodied, as if only half of me had made it into White’s framed vision. I reached for the last book at one end of the shelf, a tattered copy of The Trumpet of the Swan, and noticed something familiar next to it: the photograph of White in his boathouse.
Leaving Brooklin, I passed a large Colonial with manicured wildflower gardens. This looked like the White farm from my memories. A few seconds later I made a U-turn and headed back, pulling off on a side road a half-mile or so away. There are few, if any, places to park on Brooklin’s roads outside of the village, and this is the way that police and locals like it. I walked back up along the narrow stretch of grass separating the pine woods from the road. A few hundred yards past the Colonial, a police car pulled over.
“Can I give you a ride somewhere, sir?” the policeman bellowed. “These roads aren’t meant for pedestrians.”
“No, thank you,” I replied.
“I don’t think you’re getting the picture,” he said, lifting his sunglasses. His steely blue eyes were set. “You can’t just walk this road. Get the picture?”
I looked around. “I’m going down there,” I said, pointing to a dirt path ahead that cut into the woods. He flipped down his sunglasses and drove off. I took the path that led toward the water and bushwhacked through the woods until I came to another path next to a verdant, golf-course-trimmed field. A white scow floated on a small, nearby pond, and beyond that lay a large barn. If memory served, this was it: the barn that has captured the imagination of Charlotte’s Web pilgrims for more than a half-century.
I followed the path for maybe a half-mile, past lowbush blueberry shrubs, and Allen Cove exploded in front of me. Off to the right a small, privately owned, cedar-shingled cottage faced the cove. The boathouse. I walked through the white-framed doorway. There was the old Franklin stove at one end, the one White had written about in One Man’s Meat that housed his office mate, a mouse. A large pen-and-ink drawing hung from a wall, caricaturing White as corporate agitator. One image showed White atop a penny-farthing bicycle, challenging the U.S. Postal Service’s mail-carrying policies in Maine. Another portrayed White as mouse taking on a lion in the form of Xerox when he accused the corporation of threatening journalists’ freedom of speech. And off to the left, there it was.
The table and bench.
I tried to envision White sitting there, typing up Notes and Comment for the New Yorker, but the magnetic pull was just too overpowering to keep standing. So I eased myself down onto the bench, which really did feel like a pew, and laid my fingers on the table near where the Underwood had rested. The window was open, and from outside seagulls cawed.
Three of them stood atop an Adirondack chair a few feet away, glaring squarely at me. For one brief moment I occupied E.B. White’s frame — all of it. Watching Allen Cove and Harriman Point appear through the dissipating fog, I rooted further into the hardwood surfaces. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, my nose tingling from a dram of pine and low tide. I was baptized by the peace of it all.
Now I could leave.
Reiner teaches at Towson University.