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A return to the sea part IV: of clam chowder and writers

April 16, 2013

Continuing right on, for a change, we shall now examine the town of Brunswick, Maine. Unless you’ve lived from the area or visit Maine regularly, you may well have never heard of it. It’s a small town, twenty thousand, no bigger than my hometown of Beloeil back in Canada. Such a small town, in fact, that Matt, when I was making my travel plans, that I might not find much of interest in Brunswick.

He was, to put it lightly, way off the mark.

Now, after finding that providential Tim Hortons late at night on arriving from Boston, I actually wake up fairly late the next morning, mostly because  I had barely slept at all on the way to Boston. After breakfast (included with my hotel room, yay), I decide to go out for a walk in town.

It is, in fact,  a small town. No question on that one. It looks in many ways like most every small town in the North-East.  New England coastal town, even, with the usual assortment of Victorian-esque houses.

Just another small town. What else can I say? Plenty, it turns out.

Just another small town. What else can I say? Plenty, it turns out.

Friday is, apparently, farmer market day in Brunswick, judging by everything going on in the park in the middle of town. I wander there a bit, but find nothing that really draw my attention. (Or maybe I actually got some lemonade? It has been over a year, I can’t quite recall that level of details.)

Now, as it happens, Brunswick does have attractions. Quite a few, in fact. It does host one of the highest-rated liberal arts college in the United States (Bowdoin). It has a 19th century house that’s been preserved in the condition it was in back then (which I ended up not visiting, sadly). And there is a local quip that Bowdoin both began and ended the Civil War. There is a beautiful river through town, the Androscogin.

Pictured here. That's a brewery on the other side.

Pictured here. That’s a brewery on the other side.

There is another interesting museum in Brunswick (quite a few other, actually: Bowdoin has a well-furnished museum of fine arts, and an arctic exploration museum, to name two). But the one I have in mind on that morning is something else entirely: the Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain museum. The man is a noted hero of the civil war (whom more dramatic historians have at times credited with changing the course of the war at Gettysburg), whose name I happened to run into in a novel a few weeks before coming to Brunswick. (He was also closely involved in the final surrender of the Confederate armies, hence the “ended at Bowdoin” part of that quip).

It’ san old house, right next to the university (Beautiful campus, incidentally. I’m jealous), with a rather unusual history (it used to be a one-floor house. Then, to make it two house, they actually lifted the original building off the ground and built a new ground floor underneath). Sadly pictures inside the house (being restored to what it was like at the time) are not allowed.

Fine. We'll have an outside picture then.

Fine. We’ll have an outside picture then.

Now, the part of my trip in that house, despite the lack of pictures, is probably the biggest turning point of the trip. The illustrations are from later in the trip (the sunday, in fact), but relevant.

So there I am, visiting that house, which is a beautiful house (part of it remind me of my grandparent’s old home, a former summer house on the shores of the Richelieu river). There are quite a few interesting relics of the civil war. And then, in the middle of a room, the tour guide stops and mention in passing. “Before Chamberlain lived here, this was the room Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived in while he taught at Bowdoin.”

Wait, back up and say that again? Longfellow? Are you kidding?

No. No, she's not. He's even got a plaque on the sidewalk of fame!

No. No, she’s not. He’s even got a plaque on the sidewalk of fame!

As readers of my blog know, I’m really into North American myths, legends and folkore, and as the man who created both the legends of Paul Revere  (real man, legendary ride) and Evangeline, Longfellow is a pretty noteworthy name in that field. Probably second only to Washington Irving on the “major creators” list, with Nathaniel Hawthorne rounding it up.

About Hawthorne…

There's also a school named for him (and a library named for the two of them)

There’s also a school named for him (and a library named for the two of them)


They were classmates at Bowdoin, it turns out.

I’m already figuratively floored at that point. So of course that’s when my guide goes for the real Big Item. See, Chamberlain, while studying at Bowdoin, used to listen to the wife of a professor read passage from a novel she was in the process of writing at the time. A little trifling book. By which I mean, one of the best-sellers (and I’ve seen “The best-seller”) of its century. “The little lady that wrote the book that started this big war” (yes, I know the quote is apocryphal, and probably inaccurate). In other words, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin right here in Brunswick.

That’s the point where I stopped being floored, and was just in full out awestruck mode. Two of the biggest creators of North American legends. And the writing of one of the most significant and best-selling novels of the entire nineteenth century. As a writer and foklore enthusiast, this is the part where my visit to Brunswick starts being less a simple visit, and more like a pilgrimage.

Which is why, despite horrid weather, I spend a large part of the followign sunday looking for a certain building in town. (It’s sadly not open to visitors).

So it's not quite *Tolkien's* house, but still way up there on the awesome-o-meter.

So it’s not quite *Tolkien’s* house, but still “the house where Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is just a little significant. 

I continue wandering town for the afternoon, stopping for lunch at a small restaurant. Of course, being that this is Maine, I end up with clam chowder in front of me: I haven’t eaten any in years, but I used to love it, so might as well get some more gain. It turns out to be an excellent idea (and the tuna sandwich I get afterward isn’t bad either).

Unfortunately, it is October, and the days are in fact getting shorter. It’s not long after diner before it starts getting dark, and the museum starts getting closed, meaning that I lose my chance to visit the old house (as the wedding is Saturday and the house is closed Sunday).

I head back to the hotel around then. We’ll pick up with the next part of my adventures in Brunswick whenever I next write about this.

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