- by Carol Standish
Down East Books reprinted two books about Maine rivers this year, Kennebec - Cradle of Americans by Robert P. Tristram Coffin ($16.95, 240 pp) and Rivers of Fortune - Where Maine Tides and Money Flowed by Bill Caldwell ($17.95, 240 pp). The books were originally published almost fifty years apart, Coffin’s in 1937 by Farrar and Rinehart as part of the scholarly history series, Rivers of America, Caldwell’s in 1983 by Guy Gannett, the publisher of the newspaper for which he worked.
Coffin, a descendant of the earliest English settlers, grew up on a salt water farm near Brunswick. A Pulitzer Prize winning poet, an acclaimed historian and essayist. He combined his writing with teaching and settled in at Bowdoin College. During his career he wrote 37 books of poetry, history and fiction.
He writes like a dream, retaining the Victorian ear for cadence and balance in a sentence. His observations and their precise expression are heartbreaking. Describing an imaginary bird hunting scene he says, “Guns roar, ducks squawk. Sharp bodies hurtle over with taut wings that bite into the air, flame jets, and the lovely wings that can think in every feather crumple and shatter…”
Using the tool of historic research, Coffin reconstructs the daily lives of the hunter-gatherers, traders and trappers, farmers, sailors, fishermen and lumbermen who people the Kennebec River valley, exalting the virtues of the place and its people. “A person cannot live among…so much granite and pungent bayberry and sweet fern and clean evergreen without getting clear and goodsmelling inside.” But the book is also an elegy. In 1937 the river was thoroughly polluted by industrial and human wastes. The farms were deserted Fish and game, ships and commerce had disappeared. Coffin extols the virtues of the good old days and pleads for a river clean-up. “After all, the best crop a river can raise is a civilization.”
Caldwell has long since swept the mist of sentiment from his eyes. He is a dollars and cents man and he writes with a sort of private amusement about the shenanigans of the C.E.O.s of the past from a scrap dealer’s purchase of Bath Iron Works at auction to the accumulation of stupendous wealth by the slum lords of the Biddeford and Saco during the textile factory boom.
Like the good newspaperman he was, Caldwell ranges all over the state, looking for his stories of the various ways in which various waves of immigrants exploited the rivers first for survival and then for personal gain. From the mundane evidence of bills of lading and grocery lists, he gives us glimpses of everyday life in logging camps, on ship board, in factories, as well as how the fabulously wealthy gained and lost their fortunes. In 1860, for instance, Bangor was a boom town boasting the Devil’s Half Acre, a waterfront concentration of bars and brothels and just across town, it was all “high hat and high brow,” where elegance and culture reigned. “Big money had flowed up the Penobscot” just 64 years after “the first ragged settler had thrown up the first crude shanty.”
Coffin’s book is billed as a cultural history. It is in fact, a beautifully written, nostalgic paean to the pastoral way of life in which the saltwater farm with the river at the bottom of its fields, provides all the nourishment and opportunity a man needs to prosper—a lovely picture painted with a very broad stroke.
Caldwell’s book is essentially an anecdotal economic history of the region. He presents the minute details of the quirky business enterprises which thrived and failed along several Maine rivers. The peculiar focus of each book limits its appeal. Read together, each broadens the scope of the other, filling in the blanks, as it were. The contrast in style of the two writers and the way their minds work to form content is intriguing in itself. So when you’ve turned the last page of the second book, you know a lot more about Maine rivers—in both fact and essence—and had a very enjoyable read in the bargain.