It is not down in any map; true places never are.
—Herman Melville, from Moby-Dick
At the Maine Historical Society in Portland, I found irresistible a slim volume discounted from ten dollars to one. The book, a reprint of Charles W. Eliot’s 1899 John Gilley of Baker’s Island, began, “To be absolutely forgotten in a few years is the common fate of mankind.” [Eliot 1] In dry prose that set his story in bas-relief, Eliot offered the Gilley family as paragon and example: “This little book describes with accuracy the actual life of one of the to-be-forgotten millions. Is this life a true American type? If it is, there is good hope for our country.” [Eliot 4]
By the time Eliot recorded the Gilleys’ history in 1899, much had changed:
It is obvious that this family on its island domain was much more self-contained and independent than any ordinary family is to-day, even under similar circumstances. They got their fuel, food, and clothing as products of their own skill and labor, their supplies and resources being almost all derived from the sea and from their own fields and woods. In these days of one crop on a farm, one trade for a man, and factory labor for whole families, it is not probable that there exists a single American family which is so little dependent on exchange of products, or on supplies resulting from the labor of others, as was the family of William and Hannah Gilley [John Gilley’s parents] from 1812 to 1842. [Eliot 24-25]
John Gilley, like his father before him, pieced together a livelihood out of several occupations. He took part-ownership in a schooner and transported “paving-stones to Boston” [Eliot 32] by the hundred ton, which had to be loaded and unloaded by hand one at a time. When he married, he put aside long-haul sailing and bought a farm. “The farm, like most farms on the Maine shore, not sufficing for the comfortable support of his family, John Gilley was always looking for another industry by which he could add to his annual income.” [Eliot 50] Gilley set up a porgy-oil factory during the Civil War, “and during the porgy season this was his most profitable form of industry.” [Eliot 49] He also pursued the manufacture of smoked herring. “He was always confident that his milk, butter, eggs, fowls, porgy-oil, and herring were better than the common, and were worth a higher price; and he could often induce purchasers to think so, too.” [Eliot 52]
In a troublesome commentary on the way of the world then as now, Gilley only achieved lasting prosperity by means of what he owned, rather than what he did. “In 1880 . . . three ‘Westerners,’ or ‘rusticators,’ had bought land at North-East Harbor. One was said to be a bishop, another the president of a college, and the third and earliest buyer a landscape-gardener — whatever that might be.” [Eliot 60-61] Gilley ultimately sold three parcels of land to other such “rusticators” at prices that “were forty or fifty times any price which had ever been put on his farm by the acre” [Eliot 63], by which means “he became a prosperous man, at ease, and a leader in his world.” [Eliot 63-64]
In Lincolnville Beach, Beyond the Sea, a browser’s feast of a bookstore, offered two more instances of imaginative industry, one in the present and one from the past. The present instance came in the form of Beyond the Sea’s engaging, well-read proprietor; the past in a book I plucked from the shelves, Yankee Storekeeper, a memoir by R. E. Gould, written in 1946.
Beyond the Sea’s variety of merchandise reminded us that booksellers often can’t rely on selling books as their sole source of income, yet its trove of carefully chosen books, lovingly displayed, issued a siren call to us like no other. As the proprietor told us, and as her website states: “We research every book for quality and merit. We don’t have room for mediocre.” Among other offerings, she’d culled through recent cast-offs from libraries and found so many gems from times lost that she dedicated a table to them. Though Gould’s book, the first I plucked from the shelves, was elsewhere in the store, the spirit of that table inspired my purchase and enticed me back for more.
Gould had recognized the importance of display in his grocery store, too. When his rent was to go up, he exacted from his landlord better display windows in return. “I filled one of the windows with the new hardware stock, and put on my thinking cap to make use of the other.” [Gould 65]
The previous season had been a failure for apples . . . . I was thinking how lovely it would make my competitors feel if I could fill that big window with any kind of apple at all. Then a drummer came in with a bargain on prunes. . . . I dumped the window full of them when they came. . . . I retired to the rear of the store to await the community’s decision; would prunes sell when apples were scarce? In a scant few minutes a rough, tough, and nasty looking man came in and gruffly asked, “What’s the matter with them prunes?” [Gould 65-66]
When Gould assured him they were good quality, just small, the man bought one box on trial, then came back for ten more. Turned out he operated a saw mill deep in the woods and “had a big crew of men at work.’ [Gould 66]
Prunes solved a dietary problem for him, and for this service on my part he was disposed to trade with me for other items. In a few weeks he was paying me between fifty and a hundred dollars a week. It struck me that sawmill operators represented a place to expand business. [Gould 66]
And so he did. May the ingenuity of Beyond the Sea’s proprietor serve her just as well.
This is part 2 of a 4-part series on Maine. Click here for Part 1, Warning: Reflections May Be Distorted, here for Part 3, In Search of . . . Maine’s Shoreline, and here for Part 4, Hiding in Plain Sight.
The photographs are of Lincolnville Beach, Maine, and its Beyond the Sea bookstore; the beautifully restored Fort Knox at Penobscot Narrows, with views across to Bucksport and the Verso Paper Mill, which closed in 2014, costing “500 jobs and 44 percent of Bucksport’s tax base” [citation]; and Fort Point State Park, the remains of Fort Pownall, and the Fort Point Lighthouse in Stockton Springs, Maine.
The works on the listening list, by Supply Belcher, Walter Piston, and John Cage, each have a Maine connection:
Supply Belcher (b. 1751, Stoughton, Massachusetts; d. 1836, Farmington, Maine)
[Supply Belcher] was an American composer, singer, and compiler of tune books. He was one of the members of the so-called First New England School, a group of mostly self-taught composers who created sacred vocal music for local choirs. . . . Like most of his colleagues, Belcher could not make music his main occupation, and worked as tax assessor, schoolmaster, town clerk, and so on; nevertheless he was considerably well known for his musical activities, and even dubbed ‘the Handell [sic] of Maine’ by a local newspaper. Most of his works survive in The Harmony of Maine, a collection Belcher published himself in Boston in 1794. . . . The Harmony of Maine was never widely reprinted, and like all composers of the First New England School[,] by mid-19th century Belcher was forgotten everywhere except a few rural areas. [citation]
Walter Piston (b. 1894, Rockland, Maine; d. 1976, Belmont, Massachusetts)
Piston’s roots reflected a classic post-immigrant saga. Born in Rockland, Maine, he was the grandson of a seaman who made his way to Maine from Genoa in the mid-nineteenth century. [citation]
Piston was a composer who excelled at strategies others had pioneered, an artist capable of synthesis. Piston’s music was influenced certainly by the example of Stravinsky, in manner reminiscent of but also distinguished from Copland. Piston, a lifelong Francophile, admired Debussy, but in the end he developed his own eclectic and distinct American voice. His models from the 19th century were Chopin and Brahms. His America was not Copland’s vision of the West and the “frontier,” but one closer to Ives (despite the differences in their music): New England. [from American Harmonies: The Music of Walter Piston, by Leon Botstein.]
John Cage (b. 1912, Los Angeles, California; d. 1992, New York, New York)
[Cage’s work, Some of “The Harmony of Maine”] is based on Supply Belcher’s tune book ‘The Harmony of Maine’ (Boston, 1794). Using chance operations, Cage determined whether a note from the original source should stay or be removed, how long it should sound, and how it should be registered. [citation]
Belcher & Cage. How Beauteous Are Their Feet (date unknown), the Belcher work on Spotify, does not appear to be included in his volume The Harmony of Maine. The Cage work included is Some of “The Harmony of Maine” (1978).
Walter Piston, Symphony No. 4 (1950)
Walter Piston, Symphony No. 4 (1950)
John Cage, Harmony, from Some of “The Harmony of Maine“ (1978)
Credits: The quotations may be found at the sources linked in the text, at the pages indicated in brackets where relevant. With thanks to Robert Wilkinson at Solitary Walker for noting the Melville quote. The photographs, as always unless otherwise indicated on the blog, are mine.