Second entry today... I'm just back from an excursion to see the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association building here in Portland, Maine, on Congress Street. As it was completed in 1859, Mathew--who left Portland for Boston in mid-1861--would certainly have seen it, and very likely have been in it. It's not the one that Mathew writes to his brother about giving "Spiritualist sermons" in, in 1856--that was an earlier building, which since has been replaced. Only the shops below were open, this afternoon--the library opens at 4:00 p.m., and I may or may not go back down.
This was my old stomping grounds, as Mathew Franklin Whittier, from 1839--when he moved there with his young wife, Abby--until he left in 1861. But a large swath of Portland, including this downtown area along Congress Street, was burned to the ground in a huge fire, in 1866. The only two structures that I'm aware of, which survived, are this Mechanic Association building, and the First Parish (Unitarian) Church. The streets are the same, but nothing else along them remains as it was.
I felt immediate recognition for the church, and even had what may be some full flashback glimpses ("may be," because I can't prove them), when I visited the interior. Abby and I would have attended that church, at least on occasion--perhaps, when an Abolitionist was preaching. I got the sense she was nervous about it, and wanted to sit as near the exit as possible! This would have been quite reasonable, inasmuch as they burned churches hosting Abolitionist meetings back then.
I didn't feel much of anything regarding the MCMA building--though I haven't been inside, yet. It would have been new, for Mathew--he might or might not have been attending meetings there, in 1859/60. Mathew was writing the reviews for their lecture series, which were being published exclusively in the Portland "Transcript" (a newspaper Mathew wrote other material for, as well). They were unsigned, but I can make a very strong case that he was the author. So he would have had some association with that group; but I don't know whether there would be any record of him in their library. That, aside from simply putting myself back in that building to see what happened, was the purpose for my trip, today.
But that route, along Congress Street, takes me along a great many other landmarks from Mathew's life. Except, while I am on the physical coordinates of these past-life experiences, nothing is left to trigger the memories. Just being on the same plot of ground, doesn't seem to be enough. At one location, further up the street, I did get a "hit" on just the layout of the street. But not here--not where Mathew worked, and lived with Abby during her last several months of life.
As I leave the parking lot, at the intersection of Pearl and Congress Streets, Mathew kept a flat there, above a grocery store, in 1852. I know it because there is a brief newspaper article about the fire which destroyed it, in April of that year. But I get nothing, internally. Time and again, the same reaction--no emotions, but I have a hunch as to which corner it was on. Always the same corner--always the same hunch. Is it because I'm just being consistent with my first imagination? I can't tell.
Proceeding down Congress, I pass Exchange Street. Writing as "Quails" for the Boston "Weekly Museum," Mathew talks about visiting Edwin Plummer, the editor of the newly-established paper, the "Eclectic." He and Plummer walk to his flat on Pearl and Congress. I can stand right there, on Congress, looking down Exchange Street, trying to imagine walking up that way toward the flat. But I get nothing. It's the same street, but all the buildings have changed.
A few blocks further, and I come to Monument Square, which in Mathew's day, was called Market Square. It once held the lovely little 3/4-size neo-classical City Hall, looking like a tiny Greek temple, at the back of the Square. "Whittier's Hotel," aka the American House, stood on the right, directly on the spot where the Portland Public Library is, today. That hotel was, apparently, the last place that Mathew ever saw Abby, alive. Her sister came to take her back to her parents' house, just days before she died. I think it was a last-ditch attempt to save her. That hotel burned to the ground in 1852.
Nothing. I stare at the square (with its huge Civil War monument)--nothing. I try to imagine the scene as it is in depicted in period photographs--nothing.
Further down, I pass by Longfellow's house (his family home in Portland), with the Brown Library behind it. Nothing.
Finally, I come to the MCMA building. Maybe a dim sense of recognition. Never very much.
But on the walk back...something is stirring. Deep, deep, deep, inarticulate emotions. A rumbling, like an earthquake threatening...
It doesn't break through, of course. If it did, perhaps the next instant would find me crumpled on the brick sidewalk, sobbing. I don't know. I can't let that up. I do suspect it's all-or-nothing. Because there is nothing left, there, to recognize on Market Square except the empty triangular space.
Stephen Sakellarios, M.S.
Music opening this page: "Song For Lynette," by Eric Johnson,
from the album, "Venis Isle"