By Tom Lamia
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” is from William Faulkner and often used to show literary cool when saying there is nothing new under the sun. I am going to use it here to make a different point—that in older societies the past is revered and relevant. One such older society is New England, generally, and Maine, specifically.
There is in my small town of South Bristol (pop. 870) a historical society; a library containing a remarkable number of local accounts of the town’s history, often told through the misadventures of its pioneers, warriors, sailors and early inhabitants; and several cemeteries containing headstones dating back to the French and Indian War in the mid-eighteenth century. Why, you might ask, is this important, and what does it have to do with the relevance of the past?
Perhaps there are a very few of you who remember Frances Perkins, whose story I told in one of my early columns. Frances was FDR’s Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet and the author of the New Deal. Frances’s family property in Newcastle (pop. 1,752), borders a small colonial-era cemetery where she is buried alongside her husband. There is a Frances Perkins Center in neighboring Damariscotta (pop. 2,104) in space that adjoins the public library. The Perkins family homestead will soon become a public trust, dedicated to the memory of this extraordinary woman.
Last week I attended a program at the library put on by the joint efforts of the Perkins Center, the Newcastle Historical Society and the Damariscotta Historical Society. The program included a film and traveling exhibit of photos and documents that will make a national tour. Frances’s neighbors will not let her be forgotten. In all of this, I learned a little more about Frances and a lot more about the role and relevance of local historical societies in coastal Maine.
As space for Maine tales is limited in a New York City community newspaper, I will mention only that the principal activity of the historical societies mentioned is the care of cemeteries. All three send their members out to tend ancient headstones, repair damage, pull weeds and trim grass. This week’s local newspaper announces that the South Bristol society will follow tradition and meet as a work party to visit two of the town’s six cemeteries. Members are asked to bring “hand clippers, gloves and a broom rake.”
Two recollections from the past are relevant. The first is the heroic action of the 20th Maine Volunteers at Gettysburg who were mustered from nearby mid-coast towns from Brunswick to Thomaston and led by a Bowdoin College professor, Joshua Chamberlain. Low on ammunition, outnumbered and threatened with being overrun at Little Round Top, they fixed bayonets and charged two attacking Alabama regiments, creating a panic that led to victory without a shot being fired. This action was the spark for the Union victory at Gettysburg. Roughly one-third of these Maine soldiers, from towns within a few miles of where I sit to write these lines, lost their lives as a proximate result of this battle. These were patriots from small towns whose family names still dominate among the local population.
The second recollection relates to small town life in a different part of the country. I was a student at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1957. There, a fellow “Yankee” student and friend, Frank Wolf (later, and still, a long-time Congressman from Northern Virginia), led me on a visit to Faulkner’s house on Oxford’s town square. Frank, a serious Christian then and now, had been befriended at church by a Faulkner relative who was looking after the house while the owner was away teaching at the University of Virginia. Frank had an open invitation to visit the house and invited me along on one of his visits. At the time, I knew from cool responses to any mention of Faulkner in the Ole Miss community that his personal esteem in the wider world was not shared in his hometown. He was an outrageous fabulist in his novels of life in Yoknapatawpha County, a thinly disguised version of his own Lafayette County—a literary device that so outraged his Oxford neighbors that not even his Nobel Prize for literature could make them proud. At UVA, however, another set of Southerners was honored by his presence. The difference? There was no mistaking Jefferson’s Charlottesville for Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. In Oxford, Mississippi, there was just too much local truth in the work of their resident genius for hometown comfort. He wrote of its past, which in 1957 was not dead, nor even past.
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