The Maine Diaspora (Updated and Uplifted!)

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I mentioned this week that, while I don't claim expertise on Maine politics -- in particular the dynamic between the Republican candidate who holds the lead in the race for governor and the Independent and Democratic and candidates chasing him -- I happen to have known Eliot Cutler, the leading Independent, for many years and respect and like him a lot. These three candidates, plus two more Independents, debate one last time tonight. For more on late endorsements, and the way Cutler's recent experience in China is being cast as a minus rather than a plus, see here and here.

PointedFirs_Jewett.gifI quote the note below, from reader Carrington Ward, not so much about this race but about the larger predicament of places like Maine -- ones that many people identify with strongly but have had to leave for economic reasons. (See also: Ireland, Scotland, West Virginia, etc. ALSO see apology/update note at the end.*) I've edited the note to remove most specific comments about candidates in the race and focus on the longer-term point:

>>As I'd imagine you've learned -- perhaps from Mr. Cutler -- being 'from' Maine is not as convertible a currency as being 'from' Chicago or -- all due respect -- California. Marshall Dodge termed the rule 'seven generations in the ground.' I hear he 'got' the pine tree state fairly well, for someone from the lower 47, though in this case he may have missed some of the particular subtleties of citizenship.

That said, I have six generations of family resting in the hills of Vermont, with the 7th, 8th, and 9th generations happily scattered across New England's flatlands. Between that, and growing up in Kennebunkport -- an admittedly dubious distinction -- I've managed to 'pass,' at least amongst Maine's diaspora. In the worst case, at least I have the background to steer the 'roots' conversation into a spirited discussion of which states, exactly, constitute the 'lower 47.' (In the end that question is tough to adjudicate: Mr. Allen bought seniority for Vermont, but it's arguably a counterfeit claim). Regardless, I tend to feel a great degree of cultural kinship, and I tend to suspect that David Hackett Fischer managed to overlook the Yankee Highlanders. Brahmin.

Which leads me, meanderingly, to my point.....There's a serious question I share with my acquaintances among the Maine diaspora. How the hell can I get back home?
It feels, or it felt, like home... but there's no work there. If I wanted to spend the rest of my life abusing fish, as a carpenter, or working the soil, I bloody well shouldn't have taken off for Boston, for Minnesota, and for Chicago to pursue excellence in education. Not to mention the more important point -- the fish are gone, construction's tight and seasonal, and the growing season is terribly, terribly short. As with most diasporas, Maine's is abroad for a reason.

Which is one reason that the current election season seems so terribly dreary. [A lot of the specific run-down on candidates omitted.] Neither established [Rep or Dem] candidate seems likely to have the world-view or life experience to grasp the very significant opportunities the state could pursue in the near future. They'll putter along with wind, water, and energy, but it's hard to imagine that they have the outlook or the entrepreneurial spirit to bring in venture capital, to manage relationships with the Europeans and Canadians, or to build the heavy infrastructure necessary to capitalize on the new energy markets. A shame, because, for once Maine is actually advantaged by geography. A further shame, because Maine's Christmas future may be more of the same: Bangor as a well-appointed drunk-tank for belligerent transatlantic flyers, Portland as, well, Portland Maine, and the small towns and hamlets still recruiting ground for reservists and combat troops.

I'd been interested to follow Cutler's campaign for quite a while.... Your description resonates, most of all your description of his hunger and his ambition on his home state.<<

*UPDATE: I received a number of irate notes from Mainers about my having quoted this reader's note and having included a cover shot of Carolyn Chute's The Beans of Egypt, Maine.

I have learned over the years that there is no second-guessing what people say they are sensitive about, so: sorry to have seemed dismissive. I feel fully entitled, myself, to make fun of America, the American press, the place I'm from (SoCal), the place I live (DC), the generation I'm in (dreaded Baby Boomers), and any other place or institution I'm part of. But I can get annoyed at foreign lectures about the failings and vulgarities of America. We're usually thickest-skinned about areas where we feel confident -- and most sensitive about the traits we're already worried about ourselves. (Mainstream press irrelevant? What do you mean? We're as central as ever!!) Economically this is always true of industries, states, regions, or countries that already feel hard-pressed. I know West Virginia, for example, well enough to have a sense of its prides and insecurities. Not Maine - so I believe you when you say that Carolyn Chute makes you mad! I've replaced her with Sarah Orne Jewett, stalwart Atlantic Monthly writer.
 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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