Maine Journal, Part I

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “The State of Maine: Not all lobster bibs and brisk swims.” This “Maine Journal” in his Impromptus is a supplement to the piece.

Last fall, I was at a luncheon in Houston. One of the people I met was from Maine. He had lived elsewhere in his adult life, but he had grown up in Maine. We talked about that state a little — I have a little experience with it myself. He said, “The Maine I grew up in was nothing like Maine now. The state has experienced a sad decline. There’s a host of problems: drug addiction and family breakdown and all the rest of it. Today’s Maine is more like Appalachia, I think, than like the Maine of old.”

Really? I thought I should poke my nose around Maine, for a magazine piece. I have come to do that.

When you emerge from the plane at the Portland airport, there’s a bowl of candies waiting for you. Very civilized.

You are greeted, not just by candies, but by a sign that says, “Portland, Maine. Yes. Life’s good here.”

The state at large has a slogan: “Maine: The way life should be.”

There are a few states in our Union where state pride is strong. Texas is the obvious example. But Maine is not far behind. Mainers — or Mainiacs, as they sometimes call themselves, fondly — are very proud of their state. That pride is almost Texan.

At a Portland hotel, the sign does not say, “Have a Great Day.” It says, “Have a Great Maine Day.”

Very Maine-like.

By the way, Maine people are Mainers, Mainiacs — or “Downeasters.” Down East is the cherished magazine of the state.

I was taught by a couple of students of C. Vann Woodward, the historian of the American South who had much of his career at Yale. He was from Arkansas. He would refer to Connecticut as “the Deep North.”

Mainers have a couple of outstanding linguistic habits. They don’t say “Maine” but “the State of Maine.” Example: “That’s just the way we do it here in the State of Maine.”

Also, they won’t say they’re from Bethel or Brunswick. They’ll say they’re from “Bethel, Maine,” or “Brunswick, Maine.” They do this when speaking to one another, mind you — not just when they’re away, talking to non-Mainers.

At the rental-car agency, a man hands me a bottle of Poland Spring — Poland Spring water. It comes from right here in Maine — the State of Maine — and it comes from the town of Poland. There are many such place-names in this state: Poland, Maine; Norway, Maine; Mexico, Maine; Peru, Maine; China, Maine; etc.

On my journey, I will see several branches of the Norway Savings Bank — a bank founded, not in Scandinavia, but in little Norway, Maine. And I’ll tell you something funny, and a little embarrassing.

When we first moved to New York, we saw out our window the Jamaica Savings Bank. I said, “Oh, that’s kind of interesting: a Caribbean bank right here in Manhattan.” Turned out, “Jamaica” referred to the section of Queens.

Bottled water is a major industry here in Maine — and, sadly, this is not a state overrunning with major industries. The economy could use great liberalization (even more than the American economy in general — and the world economy, for that matter).

You can find an idyll here in Maine: a Maine where life is the way it should be, as the slogan says. Scrappy kids romp through blueberry patches, go for a swim, and scarf lobster. Did you ever read Blueberries for Sal, the classic Maine children’s story?

Life can be idyllic, sure, but there is also the “other Maine” — the Maine lamented by the man at the Houston luncheon. Maine is not to be romanticized, romantic though it can be, especially if you’re on the coast.

Want a taste of the romantic Maine (before we get to the nitty-gritty)? Okay. On the southern coast, I’m at a lobster shack, powering down the most delicious lobster roll — and an even better piece of blueberry pie. It’s twilight. The lighthouses are glowing, the foghorns are mooing (or whatever they do), the seagulls are cawing (or whatever they do), the waves are crashing on the rocks.

It’s almost a parody of Maine, an Epcot Maine, a Maine out of Walt Disney. Fabulous. And it is very real. (Along with the “other Maine.”)

The demographics of Maine are interesting. It has the lowest population density east of the Mississippi. Some 1.3 million people live here, and they have a lot of room. Vast stretches of Maine are essentially uninhabited, I believe. Montana-like.

Maine is the whitest state — about 95 percent are Caucasian.

It is the oldest state — having a median age of almost 43.

It is the least religious state.

Couple of fun facts: Maine is the only state whose name has one syllable. And it is the only state that borders just one other state. (That would be New Hampshire. Otherwise, Maine is surrounded by Canada and ocean.)

My friend Tucker Carlson, the journalist and entrepreneur, has long lived part time in Maine. He sums up the state for me, or at least makes a remarkable, pithy, and memorable statement: “Maine is like Oregon: a poor, rural, conservative state, dominated by Portland.” In fact, Portland, Ore., was named by a settler from Portland, Maine. He won a coin toss with a guy from Boston. They went two out of three, actually. If the other guy had won, the Oregon city would be Boston.

So strange, and so American.

I’ve barely begun, but maybe that’s enough reading for one day. See you tomorrow for Part II.