Eleanor’s road trip remains emblematic of much of Maine’s lesbian history: hidden in plain view. Now that Maine has adopted a law legalizing same-sex marriage, perhaps it’s time to unpack the closet and take a little road trip through Maine’s lesbian history.
Reversing the direction taken by Hick and the First Lady, our first stop will be in the south… South Berwick, to be exact, where we find the home of Sarah Orne Jewett, one of Maine’s most celebrated authors. Jewett’s 1896 collection of short stories, The Country of the Pointed Firs, about a fictional fishing village called Dunnet Landing (said to be modeled on Tenants Harbor) is considered an American classic, a distinctly female contribution to a catalog of testosterone-charged war epics and whaling sagas. Critics have noted that Jewett’s villages appear to be peopled almost exclusively by women, the men all being dead, away at sea, or senile.
But then Sarah always did prefer the girls. Her early poetry testifies to heartbreaking attempts to secure the affections of young women, but few of these girlfriends could support themselves as Jewett did, and perhaps even fewer were willing to forego the joys of motherhood for a same-sex relationship. It was not until she met wealthy widow Annie Fields (pet name “Fuffatee”) that she was able to consummate her longing for a life partner, living in what was known as a “Boston Marriage” from 1881 until her death in 1909.
Next stop is Portland, where we drop in on the Maine Women Writers Collection, housed in a wing of the library at the University of New England. And here we have struck the mother lode: The collection houses not only writings by Jewett, but it also has inherited the library of lesbian author May Sarton, who moved to York in 1973, the same year her most famous book, Journal of a Solitude, was published. The roster of her library reads like a Who’s Who of Second Wave lesbian-feminist writers. In 1965, when Sarton published her lesbian novel Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, an entire generation of young women responded to her courageous call by discovering and celebrating their own Sapphic voices.
The Maine Women Writers Collection houses another treasure: the first lesbian novel ever published in America. Who knew that the woman who would donate her mansion for what would become the Portland Art Museum was also responsible for Ethel’s Love Life? Published in 1859, the book describes how a naïve, young fiancée finds herself passionately involved with another woman, making the remarkable discovery that, “Women often love each other with as much fervor and excitement as they do men.” Author Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat may have been writing autobiographically, because later she published a book of lesbian love poems, taking care to closet her dedications.
It’s time to head north, this time to Southport Island, summer home of Rachel Carson. Wait a minute—Rachel Carson? Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, the book that warned of the dangers of pesticides and saved the planet? The founder of the environmental movement? That Rachel Carson? What’s she doing on a lesbian road trip?
It appears that Ms. Carson had a lifelong history of passionate attachments to women. At the age of forty-five, she began spending her summers on Southport Island, where she developed what biographers coyly call “an intimate friendship” with her neighbor Dorothy Freeman, who was fifty-five, a grandmother, and in a long-term marriage she had no intention of disrupting. Rachel, with a history of financially supporting her mother, a disabled niece, and the niece’s out-of-wedlock child, appears to have been very comfortable with the arrangement.
But was it lesbian? The “intimate friendship” spanned the last ten years of Rachel’s life, and during the winters when the women lived hundreds of miles apart, they wrote letters to each other several times a week. These letters, published in 1995, make mention of the need to destroy certain letters immediately upon reading and discuss the need for Dorothy to enclose an extra letter that might be suitable for Rachel to share with her mother, in case she were to ask. There is a breathless series of letters leading up to a rendezvous in a Manhattan hotel, where Rachel jokes about how she will feign a chilly greeting for the benefit of the desk clerk.
Intimate friends or lesbians? You say “potato” and I say “potahto.”
On to Camden, home of tomboy “Vincent” Millay, known to the rest of the world as Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. One evening, at a party at Camden’s Heritage Inn, where her sister was working, young Vincent regaled the summer people with a rendition of her poetry. She apparently made an impression on one of the guests, a woman named Caroline Dow, who took the working-class Vincent under her wing and began introducing her to a network of other powerful and—significantly—unmarried women. Dow took her protégée to New York, bought her a wardrobe, coached her in social graces, and pulled strings to get her into Vassar. At Vassar, Millay’s lesbian affairs were so flagrant, Dow, possibly fearing for her own reputation, sent Vincent a letter threatening her with complete withdrawal of her patronage if she did not break them off. It is after this point, Millay began to show an interest in men.
And now, the last stop on the tour… Mount Desert Island. In the town of Northeast Harbor is a charming white house with a sign on the lawn that reads, “Petit Plaisance.” Appointments can be made to tour this home of author Marguerite Youcenar, the first woman ever to be inducted into that bastion of literary male chauvinism, the Académie française. Yourcenar, a French citizen, was on a visit to the States to be with her lover Grace Frick when war broke out in Europe. Stranded here for the duration, she acquired a teaching job at Sarah Lawrence and settled into a domestic routine with Grace. The two would travel up to Mount Desert Island in the summers, eventually establishing a year-round residence. Yourcenar and Frick were partners from 1937 until Frick’s death in 1979. Bar Harbor was also summer home to the family of celebrated lesbian author and Parisian salonist Natalie Barney, who brought her lover, poet Renée Vivien, for a visit in 1900.
And this concludes our road trip, which is by no means comprehensive. How many other celebrated Maine so-called spinsters, like Rangeley’s famous hunting guide “Fly Rod” Crosby, or Brunswick’s noted botanist Kate Furbish, might have led closeted lesbian lives? It’s cause for celebration to be able to reclaim this history, with hopes for the day when all of Maine’s brilliant lesbians can live openly and with pride.
[Originally published in The Portland Phoenix, June 24, 2009.]