Comparing experience: the diaries of two Maine women

July 16th, 2014 by Sophie Glidden-Lyon

Despite the fact that Portland native Mary T. Perley rarely wrote more than one or two lines in her diaries per day, which span the decades between 1860 and 1904, it is clear she led a rich life. With an appetite for learning and close with her four sisters and three brothers, Mary traveled extensively throughout her life, taught herself French, attended plays and concerts; she also attended the 1888 International Women’s Council in Washington D.C.

The contrast between her diaries and those of Lucy C. Williams is stark. Lucy was writing on Vinalhaven in the 1980′s and 90′s, and her diaries paint a much more isolated and unhappy picture than those of the well-traveled Perley. As I worked on processing Mary’s small collection of journals, I found myself wondering at the differences in their lives. Mary had seen her fair share of tragedy, having lost both her husband and young son, and she never remarried, but this did not stop her from engaging fully in the world, in a way Lucy – who also faced loss in her personal life – never seemed to manage.

Mary T. Perley

The first of Mary T. Perley's two diaries,

Age could certainly be a factor. Mary was a good deal younger than Lucy when she began traveling, but she was 54 when she went on a three month trip to Bermuda in 1885 – a time when Bermuda was not a plane ride away – and at the time of her last entry in 1904, she was 73 and still traveled up and down the eastern seaboard to visit friends. Rather, I think it was a combined barrier of class and depression that kept Lucy so isolated. She often wrote of her worries over heating bills, and relied heavily on her garden, as well as the support of her community, to keep herself afloat during long Vinalhaven winters. Mary, on the other hand, was the daughter of a Portland area judge and counted people like U.S. senator William Pitt Fessenden, who was also Secretary of Treasury under President Lincoln, amongst her traveling companions. Despite living during a time when women were not even allowed the right to vote, Mary was likely afforded a good deal more privilege and agency than Lucy.

An open page of Mary's diary
Mary’s second diary, opened to February, 1898

Comparing the two women feels a bit like apples and oranges, considering the different eras in which they lived (although Lucy was born only 8 years after Mary’s death), but as I read Mary’s sparse entries, I found myself thinking about Lucy a lot. Her diaries were often extremely personal, leaving the impression that the pages of her daily planner were the one place she felt comfortable sharing these thoughts. I doubt she talked openly of her depression to many people. Mary was the opposite. As I mentioned, her entries rarely exceed two lines and, for the most part, simply relate an event – a visit, a letter, an event. On the day of her husband’s death, she wrote only, “Alone today and forever on Earth.” Perhaps she was not a particularly emotive person, but my speculation is that whatever thoughts she had concerning the events she recorded were thoughts she shared with the many people in her life. Lucy had an extremely layered internal life, while Mary was perhaps more the extrovert, spending all her time out in the world and surrounded by people. Ultimately, both collections provide remarkable insight into the lives of two Maine women who lived generations apart and both are valuable examples of why it is so important to be saving the diaries and journals of ordinary people.

Up to the light: the photographic slides of Lael Morgan

July 3rd, 2014 by Catherine Fisher



So, I’ve just laid down my gloves. Over the last couple of weeks, the soft, white cotton gloves that we use to protect precious materials from the oils of our hands have touched nearly every one of the thousands of slides contained in the collection of author, journalist and photographer, Lael Morgan. Her papers also are rich with correspondence, clippings, manuscripts, photographs and scrapbooks, but the slide portion of this processing project is a big one.

Morgan was born in Maine (1936) but has based most of her professional life in Alaska and California. These slides, now slipped into rows and rows of little pockets on pages of archival protectors, show the places she visited, the people she met, the moments she captured on film and wrote about during the mid-1960s to the early-1990s. Her stories and images have been published in the Juneau Alaska Empire, the Fairbanks News Miner, the Los Angeles Times, Alaska Northwest Publishing, the Washington Post, New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, and National Geographic Magazine.

Now, I have to say, even with the fun of the special white gloves, tucking slide after slide into the archival sheet protectors was, at times, a tedious endeavor, and so every now and then I had to lift a sheet up to the light to catch a glimpse of the stories living in there. Just to take a peek, make a quick scan, but try not to get so drawn in that I strayed from my task. But that was a challenge. Each tiny slip of film framed in cardboard is a portal to this explorer’s wide-angle view of the world—miles of ragged snow and ice dotted with dog sled teams, icy waters rocking hand-hewn whaling boats, and wide open ocean with fish processing ships—or her artistic zoom-lens focus on the hands of a basket maker, the drying hide of a polar bear, the eyes of a child in a fur-lined hood. From the most remote of villages in the Aleutian Islands to the Bering Sea, Borneo, Fiji, Tonga, Italy and California—these plastic pages with bits of film connect us with the eyes, mind, heart and hands of Morgan.


Over the course of working with the slides, I was especially struck by the absence of judgment that I found in Morgan’s images. I must confess that, in a kind of morbid curiosity, some of the slides I held up to the sunny window bore labels such as “polar bear hunt” and “cock fight” and “oil rig,” and I approached them with my own trepidation and politics. No such bias of hers is present in these images, however. Her work is respectfully curious, bearing positive witness to whatever fills her lens. A good example for me.

And speaking of the labels, so many images come to us without any identifying information, but Morgan is such a pro. She not only wrote captions on most of the individual items but also organized her papers so thoroughly before passing them to us, typing out lists and pages of information to help us navigate the rich evidence of her huge life. That she lived all of this astounds me. A woman who sailed halfway around the world with her husband on a 36-foot schooner, authored countless articles as well as 10 books (whose subjects range from Alaskan Native Peoples to Alaskan gold rush prostitutes to the art of tatting lace to a bio of an Eskimo film star), taught at two universities, edited and published a weekly newspaper, founded a publishing house, and been a private detective, Morgan has lived large. These slides tell us as much about her as they do about their subjects. Makes me want to set up a projector and take it all in…

To learn more about Lael Morgan, visit laelwarrenmorgan.com.

Susan Conley returns with her novel Paris Was the Place

June 18th, 2014 by Catherine Fisher

On a very lovely day in May author Susan Conley stopped on her way to the Black Fly Writing Retreat in Grand Lake Stream to read from and discuss her new novel, Paris Was the Place. As author of both a novel and a memoir, the latter being the award-winning The Foremost Good Fortune (2011), Conley had some engaging things to say to our group about place, about belonging, and about the “middle ground” (as she calls it) created when elements from real life are woven into a work of fiction.

The bulk of Paris Was the Place takes place in a Paris that is “more of a real Paris than a romanticized Paris. It’s not meant to be a postcard of Paris that perpetuates the myth. Still, there is a lot of enjoyment of Paris and a lot of savoring of it,” Conley said. “The characters also go to India for a brief stint,” she added.

The narrator, a 30 year-old American woman named Willow, called Willie, has moved to Paris to be with her brother and volunteer teach at a refugee center for immigrant girls seeking French asylum. She also teaches poetry full-time at the American exchange college there. From the author we learned that there is a rich middle ground between the fictional story and Conley’s own life experience. “This is not an autobiographical novel at all, really, but there are a lot of things in here that did happen to me. I have taught refugees – I do that in Portland through the Telling Room, an organization I’m very involved with. I have lived in France, and I have taught poetry, but I have never taught refugee girls in France. The refugee center is based on a lot of research but it is entirely fictive.”

Conley is a skilled and experienced teacher, and we were in such good hands as she took us on an illuminating journey through three incarnations of the book, showing us the progression of one particular passage through two drafts and on to the third and final version. She hand wrote the entire first draft in a collection of notebooks, and it was enlightening for her, too, to revisit that early prose as she read it, remarking on the multiple chapter drafts and the notes to herself, one of which said, “I feel like I’m finished with the first draft.” That was in 2010.

She then read the same passage from the second, printed out and copyedited version, dated 2011, with thoughtful comments from her editor at Knopf, with whom she also worked on The Foremost Good Fortune.

Before moving on to the published version, Conley explained her motivation for walking us through these drafts. “I thought this might be interesting because a couple of things happened structurally with this novel. The first is that it moved from a whole draft in third person to the final version in first person. A writer friend in Portland, Lewis Robinson, inspired me to make that shift. When he asked me if I was going to change it to first person, I said no, but it stuck in my head.”

Cally Gurley, Director of Special Collections at UNE, wanted to hear the first version again for comparison, wondering which parts of the final book had come out early on.

“I think for me, writing any kind of book–forgive the rather obvious analogy–is like building a house,” Conley said. “You put up your outside walls first and the structure is very rough. That’s sort of what the first draft was, sort of a sketch. And then you’ll notice that in the second draft, I focused on place and gave it a really specific location.” She really wants us to be in that little alley with the narrator as she makes her way through in the first chapter, before she knows what she’ll find at its end. From the published form:

“A high cement wall runs along the start of Rue de Metz—a one-way alley off Boulevard de Strasbourg. Four blue suns have been painted on the wall and the bodice of a woman’s lime green dress. The end of the wall is a deeper cerulean, and the graffiti here looks done with chalk—spaceships and loopy sea creatures and messy stars.”
– Paris Was the Place

All the way along, Conley knew that she really needed to capture place, even before she knew the title of the book, and she sees the first two drafts as writing she needed to do in order to start to understand it.

“I named the novel after a line from a Gertrude Stein essay,” Conley shared, “a line I only discovered when I was furiously writing the final draft in a cabin near Southwest Harbor. ‘And so when hats in Paris are lovely and french and / everywhere then France is alright. So Paris was the place.’ I thought, oh, that’s it, I finally have my title. But when I landed on that title it called for a whole reexamining of the book, to really map place in the book. I got a little crazy and created multiple maps in my little writing studio and made sure I knew every street corner and every metro stop. I felt like I had to live up to the title. But I’m always interested in place as character. [In The Foremost Good Fortune] I made China come alive as a character in that memoir. I wanted to bring the reader to China and then here I wanted to bring the reader to Paris.”

It’s in the final version that, while still focusing on the setting, Conley introduces the characters more quickly than she had in the previous drafts. “Conflict is the engine of fiction. There’s only so long you can wait before you start to introduce conflict. I felt like the guard [in the first chapter] was sort of hinting at that, and then Sophie, who runs the detention center, starts to lay out some of the dilemmas, and that had to happen pretty fast.”

Beth Dyer, Reference & Instruction Librarian here at UNE, asked Conley if she also had been to India. “I would imagine it would be hard to write about a place that you’ve never been. That would be a real leap,” Beth said.

“Yes, I had been to India for only about six weeks in the early ‘90s, but it’s one of those places that stayed with me really vividly and I really wanted to write about it. When I think of the kernel for the novel, it was actually a woman on a train in India…I had really wanted India to be a dominant setting in the book but it didn’t work to have both Paris and India be so big. How much can I ask of you as the reader? I ask a lot of you in this book, because I have three fairly distinct plot lines. So I thought, ok, this has to be a true research junket. She goes to learn what she needs to learn about this poet that she’s researching and she gets out and she still has her mind blown.”

Beth then asked, “In India, a sort of goal of Willie’s was to deliver the letter to the grandmother, and I couldn’t help wondering if the woman she gave it to might not really have been the grandmother. It seemed she kind of stopped at the first old lady she saw. But she felt good about it.

“That’s really cool to hear,” Susan said. “I like that ambiguity, actually. That character was inspired by a granny I met in a remote parish in India where I stayed for a week or so. She had a long white braid and she would come and sit by us at the little tiny store, almost like a canteen, and in one of the pictures she had taken my sunglasses and put them on, and she thought was a hysterical thing. That’s in the book, actually. Gita’s grandmother is wearing those sunglasses.”

Another group member said, “I’m curious about Willow. How would you describe her? What were you hoping to achieve with her? There were times when she didn’t behave like I thought she would.

Conley agreed. “No, she doesn’t behave like I thought she would, either. She screws up and you could almost lose your patience with her. I was interested that people could really screw up and that they could also be forgiven. Another inspiration for this was work I used to do for the Maine Humanities Council at the Long Creek youth prison. I had a grant to teach poetry to the male youth there. We’d meet in a library and everything was locked and all of the furniture was bolted to the floor. There were several times when the kids would be let out on work duty and they would just disappear. A volunteer/guard would take them out to do litter pickup or something and the kids would just disappear so easily. I was fascinated by that. What do you mean, you lost him? What do you mean, John is gone? And I thought, who is culpable? Did the guard help? It’s so easy for people to just disappear for a while, so that’s why I let Willie do that…I think Willie was naïve and she thought she was highly principled.

MWWC curator Cathleen Miller asked Conley why she chose Paris in the first place. What was compelling about telling the story in Paris?

“That’s such a good question. Aside from the obvious conceit that I lived there,” she began, “I wanted to do two things. I wanted to talk about the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment that was growing in France in the late 1980s. It’s gotten so much worse, so I thought it would be interesting to go back to the beginning of that. Similarly, there is the specter of AIDS in this book. I wanted to capture that at that time, it actually was possible to fool yourself about whether AIDS was happening. If there was someone in your life who had AIDS, you could really allow yourself to think that they were just sick. That happened to me. There have been a few reviewers who have thought that wasn’t possible–how could she not know? But we don’t know what we choose not to know. Particularly I thought, get them to France, keep them out of the mainstream, keep them out of what might be happening in the States. I’m really interested in what happens when we move around, when we get dislocated. I think we change. I think we might be more open, we might be more associative.”

Conley closed by saying what a great thing it is to be a writer in this state. She has a work of nonfiction in progress and a novel set in China on the horizon, and she added, “I grew up in Maine in Woolwich on the river, and I feel like I have a Maine story in me, too. I just haven’t gotten there yet.”

To learn more about Susan Conley and her work, visit susanconley.com.

Extra! Extra! Read All About It: Newspaper Clippings in the Maine Media Women Records

May 27th, 2014 by Gabrielle Daniello

I have the good fortune to be processing the collection of the Maine Media Women, a statewide organization dedicated to supporting women who work in communications. Materials from 1952, when MMW was founded as Maine Press Radio and Television Women, to the early 2000s document the organization’s history and shed light on the challenges women have faced in this field. A lot could be written about these challenges and about the fascinating women of this group, but what has snagged my attention at the moment is the role of the lowly newspaper clipping. Brittle, yellow, often crookedly cut, many collections have them, folder after bulging folder of clippings, and this collection is no exception.

Maine Media Women sponsored a scholarship program, hosted lectures and workshops, and found other ways to facilitate networking and educational opportunities for its members. (They still do. Check out the present-day incarnation of the organization at http://www.mainemediawomen.org/) Much of this is documented in the usual ways – meeting minutes and agendas, correspondence, newsletters and other publications, and, of course, in newspaper clippings. Where the correspondence about a particular event might be messy and perhaps incomplete, the news item that describes the event is tidy, succinct, and complete.

Perhaps the newspaper clipping represents the public face the organization (any organization) hopes to present to the world. It is the event encapsulated and idealized, minus the drama of pulling the event together – the worries about attendance, the logistics, the behind-the-scenes tension and the post-event dissection of what went wrong, what went right, and what could have been done better. This drama comes out in the archival materials: the letters, the emails, the financial reports.

Another aspect of the newspaper clipping phenomenon that intrigues me is the irony: the paper on which most newspapers are printed is an inherently unstable medium that deteriorates quickly, and yet people save clippings to document their lives (or the lives of organizations) for posterity. Once committed to newsprint, what was fleeting or personal becomes part of the historical and public record, bearing witness for all to see and read that this particular thing happened at this particular time.

As a processor and as a researcher, I admit that I prefer the scrawled note on the back of an envelope or the hastily typed memo to the tidiness of the press clipping. The former seems more real, the latter – the clipping – more processed and therefore somehow less true. But thinking of the two kinds of material as mirror images of each other gives me a greater appreciation for the yellowed scraps of newsprint and reminds me to listen to the collection. It is through the scraps of paper, the memos, the photographs, the newspaper clippings – in short, through all the items in an archival collection – that an organization speaks to us and tells its story. Both sides of the story – the idealized version that persists in the pages of the paper, and the passing, untidy version of the story that is revealed in the other documents.

 

Preserving Ordinary Lives

May 20th, 2014 by Sophie Glidden-Lyon

What deserves preservation? Any archive has a mission statement so to speak, a set of criteria used to decide what materials should be sought out, saved, or passed on. Here at the Maine Women Writers Collection, the goal is two fold – to preserve the work of new, established and historical women writers, and to encourage the use of archives in scholarly work, particularly in women’s and gender studies. The beauty of a collection with these goals is that while the collection houses the works of people like May Sarton and Sarah Orne Jewett, it also provides space for the voices of women like Lucy C. Williams to be honored.

There are many obvious answers to my original question. Manuscripts and letters from well known authors are vital to collection like this, but what do we risk losing if we don’t also save material like Lucy’s diaries? Her life was not full of excitement, she was never published, and I would venture to say she never would have considered herself a writer. However, having now read through decades of her diaries, I would argue that her daily entries are anything but ordinary. Her writing has provided insight into a particular time and place, into the life of a Maine islander, of a devoted grandmother, of a woman struggling with depression and isolation.

Over time, I’ve found myself more and more captured by the aspects of archival work that don’t have much to do with the famous stories. I don’t think the value of material like Lucy’s diaries can be overstated. There is so much to be learned from the words of ordinary people, especially considering it is the average person who creates the bulk of archival material, and who would contribute a lot to historical narratives given the chance. The words of ordinary people – the people who took part in movements, but didn’t lead them, who lived through the events we think of as historical moments – those words shape our understanding of those events as much as the people we consider big names. Reading how Lucy dealt with the HIV-related death of her grandson’s partner, for example, told me worlds about the AIDS epidemic, although she likely would not have considered herself a part of the much larger community that was dealing with the catastrophe.

That the MWWC was founded with the intention of providing space for writers who were otherwise sidelined due to their gender makes it a remarkable place. That it has evolved and expanded to include women like Lucy makes it all the more special. She never made a name for herself, but that doesn’t change the value of her writing. In fact, I would challenge anyone to find any ordinary person’s diary that doesn’t give us something priceless, that doesn’t contribute to our understanding of any given historical narrative. Lucy’s life, simply because it is a life, is worth preserving.