The Passage of Time, The Meaning of Change

Perspectives by Five Maine Writers

A Let's Talk About It series

  • The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
  • Collected Lyrics by Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • One Man’s Meat by E. B. White
  • As We Are Now by May Sarton
  • The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute

 

While the American Dream portrays change as “a new beginning” and history as inevitable progress, this selection of Maine writers regards the passage of time more skeptically. For many of these writers, the vanished past has an idyllic quality and the future seems dark. Time brings changes that can have tragic consequences.

What strategies for survival are available to those living in a diminished present, with an uncertain future? The writers in this series represent a span of nearly one hundred years, and each provides a different perspective on the problems posed by the passage of time.

For both Sarah Orne Jewett and E. B. White the time spent in Maine represents a retreat from a more complicated and confusing world, and a nostalgic attempt to reconnect with basic verities. Both see historical change as negative; White continually reminds us that behind his pastoral Maine existence looms the menace of World War II, and Jewett’s narrator sees the decline of once-prosperous Dunnet Landing from the seafaring days of the early nineteenth century. However, both writers see Maine as offering another sense of time in the cycle of seasons and of community traditions. The cycles of the natural and communal world balance the negative effects time can have on the lives of individuals and societies. Cyclic time thus creates a world based on continuity, which affirms and renews the human spirit.

In May Sarton’s novel, the passing of time is graphically portrayed in the life of one woman who had been vital, intelligent, and creative, but who has no one left to care for her in old age. Like White and Jewett, Sarton shows the life-affirming experiences of nature and of contact with caring people. However, her critique of the aging process in our society suggests that the very elderly and infirm are cut off from those experiences of continuity and renewal that could make the end of life meaningful.

For Edna St. Vincent Millay the ravages of time are also a major theme, but her perspective is that of youth rather than age. Millay portrays childhood as a timeless state; growing up brings only loss and sacrifices. The inevitability of death, her own and that of loved ones, overshadows all positive experience. From this perspective, even nature fails to provide reassurance of continuity. For Millay, the cycle of the seasons and the beauties of nature offer only false promises that death can be escaped.

Carolyn Chute’s novel startles us in part because it constructs an unsentimental, antiromantic world in which time has no meaning. No one in this novel looks back to “the good old days,” nor do they look forward to the future as promising better than they have. The cycles of life are everywhere in evidence—Bean babies arrive early, Earlene grows up—but the sensation of time passing is curiously absent. Chute portrays the timeless world of poverty in which nothing that happens, no matter how painful, makes much difference in the end.

The Country of the Pointed Firs
By Sarah Orne Jewett

“If I were asked to name three American books which have the possibility of a long life, I would say at once, The Scarlet LetterHuckleberry Finn, andThe Country of the Pointed Firs. I can think of no others that confront time and change so serenely,” the novelist Willa Cather once wrote. Our series begins with the Jewett novel which one hundred years after its publication is still being read.

A native of South Berwick, Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1912) wrote several novels and a dozen short stories, which celebrated what she called the “grand, simple lives” of Maine folk. In The Country of the Pointed Firs the narrator comes to Dunnet Landing for a summer of solitary writing but finds herself drawn into the life of the community through her landlady, Mrs. Todd. The central character in the story, Mrs. Todd gathers and dispenses healing herbs and sustains through her networks of family and friends “a golden chain of love and dependence.”

Dunnet Landing is full of elderly people looking back to better days, but the women clearly have more resources for survival than the men. The female world based on the continuities of land and human relationships is less vulnerable to the ravages of time and history than the men’s, which is now deprived of the jobs and adventure seafaring provided for earlier generations. The consequences of change are shown not only in the economic depression of the region but also in the emotional isolation of three people the narrator encounters: the widower Elijah Tilley, the retired captain Littlepage, and Joanna, who has exiled herself to an island after being jilted. These three have come to terms with change in their personal lives only by cutting themselves off from the living community.

Balancing their sad stories is the trip to an almost primeval Green Island to visit Mrs. Todd’s mother and brother, and the Bowden family reunion, a ritual by which the New England family celebrated “its existence and simple progress.” At the end of the summer the narrator must return to her busy city life but she has tasted “the gifts of peace” available through the rhythms of nature and communal life in Maine.

Collected Lyrics
By Edna St. Vincent Millay

Selections: “Renascence,” “Interim,” “Spring,” “Elegy Before Death,” “First Fig,” “Second Fig,” “Mist in the Valley,” “Justice Denied in Massachusetts,” “Dirge Without Music,” “Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies.”

Maine’s most celebrated poet of the 1920’s and 30’s was Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950). She grew up in Camden and was able to get a college education at Vassar when a summer guest at Camden’s Whitehall Inn heard the green-eyed, red-haired Millay recite from memory her long poem “Renascence.” Although her professional life was based in New York, Millay bought Ragged Island off Harpswell in 1933 and clearly associated the coast of Maine with a kind of bracing freedom.

As an heir to the Romantic poets—Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge—Millay does not accept the simple consolations of the natural world, however. Her early poem affirms the power of the imagination to reveal an eternal world in the natural universe: “The soul can split the sky in two,/And let the face of God shine through.” (“Renascence”) For the most part, though, adulthood is associated with the death of loved ones (“Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies”) and the cycle of the seasons for all its beauty is “not enough” to make up for the fact of death.

Responses to mortality in Millay’s poetry include brief moments of pleasure (“First Fig,” “Second Fig”) and political involvement. The execution of Sacco and Vanzetti by the state of Massachusetts set off world-wide protests and Millay herself was arrested for protesting. Although it does not mention the two Italian immigrants whose guilt or innocence continued to haunt the world, her elegy, “Justice denied in Massachusetts,” is a lament for human injustice, which blights both natural fertility and human effort. Ultimately, the only adequate response to human pain and loss Millay can give is contained in the poems themselves, which as art will escape the destruction of time.

One Man’s Meat
By E. B. White

Selections: “Removal,” “Clear Days,” “Salt Water Farm,” “Education,” “Movies,” “The Flocks We Watch,” “A Shepherd’s Life,” “Freedom,” “Once More to the Lake.”

E. B. White (1899-1985) was a writer for the New Yorker who decided to move to Maine in 1938 in an attempt to simplify his life (“Removal”). The world was on the brink of a major war and White felt a need to bring some order and peace into his personal existence.

The idyllic farm life whose incidents he humorously recounts (“The Flocks We Watch”) contrasts with the World War just beginning and also with contemporary city fashions (“Movies”). Many of the essays written during the five years he lived on the farm portray the value of pastoral Maine life in binding man to the natural world (“A Shepherd’s Life”) and in “linking the generations in a strong indestructible chain” (“Once More to the Lake”). For White, as for Sarah Orne Jewett, the cycles of nature and rural community life provide an alternative to the destructive pressures of history.

In his essays, historical events give people “a feeling of being pressed for time,” but the spirit of man needs freedom “which is persistent in nature; it recurs” (“Freedom”). This sense of freedom, which is essential for man to achieve the peace and continuity he needs, White finds in Maine. White’s own move of writers to pay no attention to duty.” Connected to his interest in freedome is White’s awareness of his status as an amateur farmer (“Clear Days”), his appreciation of the expansiveness of seacoast farming, and his admiration for neighbors who are “mostly descendents of sea rovers” (“Salt Water Farm”).

The freedom he seeks in Maine also finds expression in his sense of humor. The surpluses he produces from his land and his chickens are akin to the jokes he cracks. Unlike Millay, whose poetry is romantic and whose life-view is tragic, White locates himself playfully within historical change. But the playfulness has a serious point, for he seems to connect the freedom to be playful with the freedom for which battles were being fought in Europe. His own writing—although it is in the modest form of personal essays—thus represents a commitment to the values of democracy.

As We Are Now
By May Sarton

Born in Wondelgem, Belgium in 1912, May Sarton has lived in a house by the sea at York since 1973. She is the author of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books. In her fiction she undermines traditional stereotypes of the elderly, of homosexuals, and of women. Particularly after the publication ofJournal of a Solitude in 1973, Sarton has become a public symbol of the woman living alone who can find in solitude a rich, meaningful spiritual condition.

As We Are Now suggests that with old age solitude may turn to isolation and neglect. Forced by lack of money and relatives to enter a small, rural nursing home, Caro Spencer discovers that “old age is a foreign country with an unknown language to the young, and even to the middle aged.” The terrors of old age are fully portrayed: the fear of not being believed, the fear of going mad or losing one’s memory, the fear of being dependent upon people who do not care for you. Those who run Caro’s nursing home are corrupted by greed and power, causing her to think she is in a “concentration camp for the old…dying for lack of love.”

Sarton’s novel raises the question of what defines a human being within such extreme circumstances, suggesting that “courage when there is no hope” is a sign of character. It also raises the issue of what people need from others at different stages of their life. Without others to respond to us, do we lose our very identity? Caro’s moments of relief come when the minister and his daughter, the Thornhills, take an interest in her and when a new caretaker, Mrs. Close, treats her like a human being. Contact with nature, too, enhances her feelins of being alive.

Ultimately, however, those consolations are brief. Our society does not provide well for the aged, psychologically or economically, and Caro is forced to resort to violent strategies as she confronts deprivation and death.

The Beans of Egypt, Maine
By Carolyn Chute

When asked how she came to write this novel, her first, Chute replied: “This book was involuntarily researched. I have lived poverty. I didn’t CHOOSE it. No one would choose humiliation, pain, and rage.” The suffering and rage May Sarton found in old age, Chute finds in the lives of the poor in rural Maine.

The Pomerleaus and the Beans share a “right of way,” a dirt road that conveys no privilege to its inhabitants. On one side are the Beans in a turquoise trailer and on the other the born-again-Christian Pomerleaus, looking condescendingly through the ranch house picture window at the squalor and teaming life of the Beans. But the mental illness and paralysis of will in their well-built home is similar to the decadence of the Beans, and it comes as no surprise that Earlene Pomerieau becomes a Bean by marriage.

Chute describes her world of poverty with an absolutely accurate eye for detail. Individual scenes have dynamic and memorable action. The sense of a world teeming with life and activity comes from Chute’s animation of every possible thing. She erases the boundaries we normally accept between humans and animals, between animate and inanimate objects. However, as in a cartoon, history is absent. Very little changes in the lives of Beans and Pomerleaus, even though the novel covers Earlene’s growing up and Rubie Bean’s fifteen years in jail. Childhood is not portrayed idyllically, nor is the future hoped for or feared. Beans and Pomerleaus seem trapped within a timeless world of poverty. Even the surprising reformation of Rubie at the end of the story does not promise a better life for the Beans of Egypt, Maine.

The Passage of Time, The Meaning of Change
Additional Maine Writers

GENERAL:
An Anthology of Maine Literature, ed. By Robert A. Lecker and Kathleen R. Brown Fox

MAINE: HISTORY & THE NATURAL SETTING:
The American Notebooks, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Portland Illustrated, by John Neal
The Maine Woods, by Henry David Thoreau
Arundel, by Kenneth Roberts

POETRY:
Samuel Sewall Sails for Home, by Robert Chute
Selected Poems, by Marsden Hartley
Complete Poetical Works, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Collected Poems, by Edwin Arlington Robinson

FICTION:
Kalsa Kilponen, by Rebecca Cummings
Octavia’s Hill, by Margaret Dickenson
The Girl Who Would Be Russian, by Willis Johnson
Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King
Inside Vacationland: New Fiction from the Real Maine, ed by Mark MeInicove
The Police Know Everything, by Sanford Phippen
The Pearl of Orr’s Island, by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Tales of the Night, by Sally Sayward

“The Passage of time, The Meaning of Change: Perspectives by Five Writers From Maine” was developed by Kathleen M. Ashley, Associate Professor of English, University of Southern Maine and Bradford Dudley Daziel, Director of Liberal Arts, Westbrook College. The development, design, and production of this material were made possible by grants from the Maine Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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