Recently, I got an email from someone who is interested in donating some materials by Ellen James, a poet who lived in Boothbay Harbor. She asked about biographical material in the collection, so I began doing some research. As often happens to me, I got sucked into the lively correspondence Ellen James exchanged with other poets, her doctor, and Dorothy Healy (the first curator of the MWWC). James’ correspondence and her life story drew me in, and I thought I would offer a glimpse of the life of this little-known Maine poet.
One of the first letters that got my attention was from James to Dorothy Healy. Written on June 13, 1977, when James was about 92 years old, it begins: “Dear Mrs. Healy, I can’t tell you how happy I am that you are glad to have ‘Ellen’ live with you. While I do not share Sue [McKonkey]‘s special admiration for her, I did want her to have a good home permanently.” It is a funny way to begin a letter about yourself, but as I went through her papers, I saw other examples of Ellen James writing about herself in the third person. From the text of this letter, it also seems that she had an interesting relationship with her body, mortality, and the spirit world.
Later in the letter, she tells Dorothy Healy that she will “try to remember any more ‘remarkable’ things” in her life. She finished, “Certainly one was a French cook in the Middle West in the latter part of the 1800s. It never had occurred to me until just now how strange it was. There were no French about mid Missouri at that time.” This is the place where I became hooked and wondered about this woman’s life. So I kept reading, and the letters just kept getting better. The next letter in the folder, written on a Wednesday in 1977, begins more cordially, describing her current circumstances. The letter then drifts into a late-night insight of a very personal nature:
“I was thinking of all the piles of stuff I had collected and kept…. Now WHY had I kept that…all these years? It was because it meant that Miss Juliette had cared for me…. Then the idea came that I had clung to every least sign of affection because I had never been cuddled as a child…. To wait until one is 92 to think of a thing like that, missing the outward signs of being loved, seems absurd, but it is true.” She goes on to talk about wanting to put her arms around a woman she cares for, that she has been misunderstood in her life. She refers to herself as “decidedly not a lesbian,” despite people’s perceptions of a woman who has lived with other women her whole adult life.
This photo is of James [standing, left] with her longtime companion Sidney Baldwin [seated] and their housemate Frances Seagraves.
It is a strikingly intimate letter, full of personal revelation and tenderness. I felt as if I were peeking inside Ellen James’ diary when I read this.
Other letters are funny and irreverent about death. Her letter to Dorothy Healy on September 26, 1977 begins cordially, and then asks, “By the way, why don’t you drop the ‘James’? Is it a question of my advanced age? One of my poet friends was shocked at the idea of 91, said she knew I was quite a bit older [than her], she thought about ten years. That seemed a good idea, so I decided to be no more than ten years older than the person I was talking to. Of course, when it is a question of something that happened to me say 50 or 75 years ago, one must be more explicit, like dancing at President Taft’s Inaugural Ball, for instance.”
She continues on to discuss her cat, writing, and her thought process. She ends her letter with a very candid look at mortality, “And besides, I don’t have any extra time right now, to wait around and make friends as…a lady should. My doctor … says I’ll live to be a hundred. Maybe so…. I must admit that all this about the poetry and meeting you makes me want to postpone the start of the new phase of life I was looking forward to so eagerly. I know I’ll still be in contact with you afterward, but you may not know it, and besides I want more on this plane!”
In several of her letters to Dorothy Healy, Ellen James discusses “messages” coming to her from the other side, or from people who come to her. James writes about her spiritualist beliefs without any fear of judgement from Healy, but she attempts on numerous occasions to explain her experiences of contact with spirits. In other letters, she describes experiences that might be frightening to others in such beautiful detail that you can tell she has made her peace with death.
In the above letter to her doctor, James mentions seeing him yesterday and offers a beautiful account of what she believes might be a stroke: “I struggled to speak at all, the words were wrapped up in something that I at last identified as transparent gelatine. Each word in my mind was wrapped up in it, and there was a little hole in the side or I could not have spoken the word. The lower part of my mind looked like an attic that had been cleared out and was in perfect order and clear, but the upper part was full of dust and fog and a lot of confusion so one could not see anything clearly. That was where the words were, It was queer.” Reading this reminded me of a TED talk I saw by a neurologist who was aware of what was happening to her while she had a stroke. It was quite moving and amazing. This letter had a similar effect on me.
James’ poetry was less interesting than her letters, but it wouldn’t be fair to do a post about a poet and not include some of her poetry. She participated in what she called a “Round Robin” with a number of other poets, where they sent each other work and everyone in the group made comments about the poems to help the poet revise her work. There were some nice samples of this process in the collection. The connection of the group made it possible for people to offer both praise and criticism.