The literary residents of Maine

Published June 28, 2013
Nearly 30 years ago my brother Rob gave me the book “The Passing of the Armies” written by a Union officer in the Civil War, describing the final days of the campaign of the Army of the Potomac leading to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. I had never heard of that officer despite many years of reading Civil War history, but when I watched Jeff Daniels bring to life Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the movie “Gettysburg,” I remembered that Chamberlain was that obscure Civil War officer and author.
I thought of Chamberlain during my recent trip to Maine, as we drove to Rockland to board the Victory Chimes and, passing near Brunswick, saw a sign for Bowdoin College, where Chamberlain taught, leaving his professorship to practice the art of war, which he learned from books.
“There are things worth more than life and peace,” he wrote to his wife, Fannie, in a letter, explaining why he felt compelled to serve. He was wounded six times, once almost fatally, had six horses shot out from under him, and was promoted to brevet major general. He almost died after being shot through both hips leading his brigade at Petersburg on June 18, 1864, and was seriously wounded again on March 31, 1865. “Gettysburg shows how he prevented the Union left on Little Round Top from being turned in a daring maneuver he learned in his studies, and the sequel, which covers the war before Gettysburg, shows Chamberlain quoting Caesar before entering the battle of Fredericksburg. One must always be wary of getting history from movies, but if nothing else Daniels’ fine portrayal can inspire you to delve further into the background of this fascinating man, who after the war was elected to four terms as governor of Maine, was president of Bowdoin College and helped to plan the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1913. Chamberlain died the following year at age 85.
Now back to our trip. As we drove, I pondered other people who lived in Maine, and I was surprised to recall quite a few, some authors of fiction, some characters in fiction. For example, one of my favorite authors of historical fiction is Kenneth Roberts, a native of Kennebunkport. Roberts wrote many novels of the Revolution, the French and Indian War, and other historical periods, and his history was accurate enough that Mark M. Boatner III in the entry in “Encyclopedia of the American Revolution” detailing the siege of Ninety-Six, S.C., writes that Roberts’ “picture of the siege, from the Loyalist viewpoint, is better ‘history’ than most histories.” Much of Roberts’ fiction was set in Maine or featured characters from Maine, one work titled “Arundel,” a city near Kennebunkport, following the career of a Maine soldier who marches with Benedict Arnold on the campaign to Quebec during the Revolution.
Another Maine author was a surprise to me. During our cruise on the sailing ship Victory Chimes, I learned that E.B. White lived in Brooklin, a few miles east of where we anchored one day. Many readers know White through “Charlotte’s Web” and “Stuart Little,” of course, as had I for years, but I have found equal joy in White and coauthor William Strunk Jr.’s “The Elements of Stye.” That book and William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” guided me with sound advice and humor when I began writing at The Review, and I still consider those books the best resources for writers of all levels.

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