Carolyn Chute, the working class revolution, and the historical record

August 13th, 2013 by Cathleen Miller

This summer, as has become my custom, I chose a collection that I have been wanting to process and began, once again, to get back to my roots as a processing archivist.  After all, working with collections is the love that got me into this work in the first place, and while it is exciting to plan events, meet authors, acquire papers, and do a host of other administrative work for the Maine Women Writers Collection, I always find myself longing for the hours of unfolding, sorting, and making sense of materials that come to us.  To many of you, this might sound like the definition of boredom, but for an introvert like me, this quiet thinking time is pure joy.  Delving into someone else’s world through their letters, ephemera, and other materials that define their lives and work engages the same part of my brain that enjoys a good work of fiction.  While I might get wrapped up in the papers for a while, later I step back and start to think of the collection from the point of view of a researcher–how to best describe what is there, whether it needs better organization for access, etc.  So I get to divide my time between right and left brain, observation and analysis, concrete and abstract.  It is this balance that gives me pleasure.

Earlier this summer, I was doing a survey of unprocessed collections to prioritize our processing for the year, and I became rather captivated by a group of correspondence from Carolyn Chute that Peter Kellman donated to the MWWC a few years back.  It seemed like a good summer project–not too big, not too complicated; something I could process and describe in a short time.  I looked at the collection when it came in and we did a quick survey of it when we accessioned it, so it was really a matter of taking letters out of envelopes, unfolding paper, sorting, and describing the contents.  I had no idea how engaged I would become with the content of the collection.

As I unfolded and surveyed the letters and missives from Carolyn Chute and the 2nd Maine Militia, I was increasingly impressed by how ahead of her time Carolyn Chute was/is.  In letters from the mid-1990s, Chute was writing about corporate personhood, how citizens need to take power back from corporations, how we need to support the local economy and the working people of the state of Maine.  Here you will see some of my own politics, which is inevitable, but it simply struck me how it took so many people so long to catch up to this point of view.  I found myself nodding in agreement a lot more than I expected.  This is the part of the work that is the most fun–when you’re engaged and surprised and really with the creator of the stuff you’re processing.

Growing up working class in rural Pennsylvania, I have some experience of the right-wing groups that Chute references in her invitation to the Border Mountain Militia (p. 1, above).  I grew up with guns and learned how to shoot them when I was a young girl, and along with that was the constancy of religion.  It was always inseparable.  So, for me, these papers offer a really interesting perspective.  Chute’s militia is of the “No-Wing” variety, and the values that she espouses in her writing reflect that unique view.  Reading deeper in, what I find challenging and important in these materials is the way that people like me, who have left rural America and are now doing middle class work, are critiqued in Chute’s narratives along with all of the lefties, righties and others.  Chute’s work challenges our culture’s held assumptions about meaningful work, class, and who and what matters, and it makes us uncomfortable.  While I find myself conflicted as I read, I also have a great deal of respect for the voice that Chute offers.  Her work is serious, gritty, smart, and challenging; but also tender and funny and full of such heart.  I find it hard not to fall under her spell.

I look forward to making these papers accessible to researchers in the coming months, and to getting to know Chute’s work more intimately in the process.