Yes, the road.

Yes, the road.
Eagle Nest, New Mexico. “People like to drive because driving is actually and symbolically an almost perfect mechanism for escape…there is probably no human being who does not have troubles, real or imagined, from which he at times feels the need to flee.” George R. Stewart.


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Brooklin, Maine, United States
We own a 1975 GMC Sierra Grande 15 in Maine and a 1986 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe 10 in West Texas. Also a pair of 1997 Volvo 850 wagons. Average age in the fleet is 28 years--we're recycling. I've published 3 novels: THE LAW OF DREAMS (2006), THE O'BRIENS (2012), and CARRY ME (2016). Also 2 short story collections: NIGHT DRIVING(1987) and TRAVELLING LIGHT (2013). More of my literary life is at I was a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study for 2012-13. I'm an adjunct professor at Colorado College and in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. In 2015-16 I was a Fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The Autoliterate office is in Car Talk Plaza in Harvard Square, 2 floors above Dewey Cheatem & Howe. SUBSCRIBE TO THE AUTOLITERATE DAILY EMAIL by hitting the button to the right.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Textile Town: Biddeford Maine Part 1

Biddeford, Maine has always fascinated me. As a kid who grew up in Anglo Montreal and spent summers at Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport (a couple miles from Biddeford, and a world away) it was always curious to hear more French in the Shaw's grocery store nearby Biddeford, Maine, USA than in the Steinberg's epicerie in, say, the Montreal neighborhood of Westmount. And even to my Irlando-Anglo ears, the French we overheard in Biddeford sounded old-fashioned, countrified, twangy--quite different than the various forms of Mo-ral-all-accented French we heard and spoke chez nous. Hearing French--often Acadien, even calcified forms of chiac--in the aisles at the Shop n' Save began a lifelong fascination with the complicated history of "Franco America", which is also the history of Canada, and of Quèbec. Class, ethnicity, nationality, religion, issues of identity, economic history---these themes all play out in the history and morphology of New England mill towns. Biddeford is on the Saco River, only a couple miles up from the coast. The Saco in one of those New England river valleys that industrialized early (but a bit later than Lowell and Lawrence on the Merrimack R. in Massachusetts) and got a big boost during the Civil War. Uniforms and blankets. The textile mills drew people off the farms of Quebec and New Brunswick. There was hardly any industrial economy in Canada at the time; to participate in the wage-world people had to head south, commonly to the textile and shoe mills which had first located along New England's narrow, hard-charging rivers which supplied the industry's first industrial-scale energy, powering turbines and then hydroelectric plants to zoom the power-looms and spin the lathes. It helped that some of the first railways in Canada were built to connect the St Lawrence Valley with the year-round ocean port at Portland, Maine: thousand came down to Maine riding the Grand Trunk Railway on cheap fares and were met by hiring  agents at the gares in Lewiston and Biddeford. And of course the French Canadians weren't the only ethnic group seeking an American toehold in the textile towns: they fought it out--some times literally--with Irish, Italians, Portuguese. Main street merchants were often Jewish, Greeks ran the restaurants, ye olde Yankees tended to own the mills.
Jacques Downs in Cities on the Saco has written one of the few excellent local/regional American histories. As a genre, much local historiography is tedious and sans idèes: but Downs wants his readers to think, not merely reminisce, and illustrations are excellent. Should you decide to read the great Franco-American writers, you could start with Clark Blaise (fiction, memoir) and David Rivard (poetry). The list is long, and of course Jack (Ti-Jean) Kerouac has a honored place on it.
The Autoliterate notion is to run a "Biddeford" series of posts. If you follow the blog, you know AL is interested in the morphology of North American towns, and very curious about vernacular architecture, and landscape, and the way we live now--or lived then.
Today's post focuses on the mills which were Biddeford's raison d'être. They occupy both banks of the Saco River--in Biddeford, and across the river in the town of Saco; as well as on Saco Island.
Other post in the series will look at houses; commercial buildings; the peculiarities of the town of Saco (mill towns were usually on a river, and rivers were often the boundaries of different & fiercely independent New England townships, which was convenient for purposes of social segregation. If the mill 'hands' could be kept on one side of the river, the managers could occupy on the other, with separate school systems, etc.
There's something about getting out and walking the streets of a town you have known all your life--as an outsider--that is exhilarating and inspiring. Biddeford has certainly seen more than its share of hard times. Thousands of workers invested blood, sweat and tears in this place, and maybe many of them never got much to show for it, or nowhere near as much as they deserved.

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