Yesterday, my first full day in Portland, Maine, I impulsively decided to drive to the last place I may have ever seen Abby--"Whittier's," or the American House Hotel, downtown. It was raining, and there was still snow and slush on the ground, so it was hardly ideal conditions. Not knowing the streets yet (except as they were in the 1800's), I let the GPS guide me. I got to what is now called "Monument Square" (because of a huge Civil War monument in the center of it), and found an illegal parking space at the head of a line of cars, all of which had parking meters except mine. So I didn't dare stay long, but I got out and walked on the cobblestones for a bit. The Portland Library, on one side of the Square, is directly on the land once occupied by the American House, which burned down in 1852.
Although the Google Street View panorama of the place looks clean, modern and inviting; and although a farmer's market is held there in the summer; to my eyes, it looked run down and seedy. Very sad. Our favorite city hall, by architecture a 3/4-scale Greek Revival temple, was long gone. No cognitive memories were triggered. The best I can describe the feeling, is to compare it to a scene in Lord of the Rings, where the dwarves return to their ancestral mountain, only to find that their relatives are now moldy, dusty skeletons.
Too late. Much, much too late.
My emotional reaction to Portland was shaping up to be one of saddened disappointment, the feeling of "Why did I do this?" and "What have I gotten myself into?" But then I realized that the emotions are Mathew's. It is he who is disappointed. The reason is that for the past eight years, as I immersed myself in newspapers of the 19th century, I felt as if they were current--as if those places, and those people, still existed. I slipped right back into the period, as it were, subjectively. But now, faced with the physical evidence of their long demise, I have all the subjective world of Mathew Franklin Whittier operating in my subconscious mind; but it is jarringly confronted with current-day reality.
But then, that evening, I partook of a communal meal with the guys who inhabit this house and adjoining complex. Most of them are from the area; and I realized that the accents, speech patterns and attitudes felt deeply familiar. Of course, I know what a New England accent sounds like. I've watched "This Old House," like everybody else. I know they don't pronounce the letter "R," and so-on. But this went far deeper. There are phrases that get drawn out--I knew exactly where they would occur. I was anticipating speech patterns, not from intellectual knowledge, but from deeply-ingrained familiarity. Like Lex Murphy in "Jurassic Park," as she recognizes the UNIX operating system: "I know this."
I am both an outsider, externally, and an insider, internally. Of course, the guys only know that I have studied the life of poet John Greenleaf Whittier's younger brother. Whether and when one of them will get on my website and discover that it goes far deeper (and crazier), and what kind of shit would hit the fan if they did, I have no idea. Maybe they will have gotten to know me personally a bit before that happens, and will take it in stride.
Another thing that's happening is that I am realizing just how much of Mathew's personality and writing was specifically of New-England. They are generally somewhat gruff and no-nonsense; but despite the outward show, they have tender hearts. They say what is necessary to say; they don't like chatterboxes, or hypocrites. If you are straight with them, and you don't bore them with endless verbal fluff, you will get along okay. And they have a wry sense of humor. They are both liberal, and conservative at the same time. It's hard to explain. There is a right way to do things; but there is allowance for eccentricity. In fact, I think it is a plus for you, if you are individualistic. But a smart individual, despite his eccentricities, will know the correct Maine way of doing things.
Mathew's writing is shot through-and-through with these attitudes and values. For example, if you look it up, you will see that some astute historian has attributed an unsigned parody of The Raven, called "The Vulture," to a British writer named Brough. Look it up on Wikipedia, and you will see that opinion expressed. But that poem is about a moocher, i.e., a bore--and bores were Mathew's pet peeve. Now I understand why. In New England, the only thing worse than a bore, would be a hypocrite. Why the experts decided Brough wrote it, I'm not sure, but I can essentially prove that Mathew was the real author.
Having lived in the South most of my adult life--where being a bore is essentially a virtue (in any business transaction there, it is rude to start talking business before ten minutes of shooting the breeze has elapsed), I have to be careful not to become the bore that I always disliked, now! I find myself holding my tongue quite a bit. Silence is punctuated by the occasional wry comment here--not the other way 'round, endless commentary punctuated by occasional silences.
I have several logistical things to take care of today, and over the next few days. But I'm also studying the map, and beginning to plan out a few excursions. I don't have to look for work right away, so I'm going to put that off a month or so, while I do some hands-on, on-site research. I'll record my reactions in a diary, which I intend to fashion into my second book; but I'll also share some of them, here. I'll use direct quotes from the diary, and from this blog, to form the bulk of the text. I'm not trying to prove that I was Mathew Franklin Whittier. That's done, now. My future audience, if audience there is, will have read the first book. This is strictly my reactions to being on-site, plus, of course, any additional historical information that I happen across.
Stay tuned. This may be boring, but it may get quite interesting, indeed.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Music opening this page, "Brilliant Room"
by Eric Johnson, from the album "Up Close"