Exploring The Lobster Coast with Colin Woodard

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In November, the award-winning author, journalist, and culture critic Colin Woodard joined us at Chewonki to speak to Maine Coast Semester students about Maine history and identity. He’s the perfect person to do it; he dissected Maine in his bestselling book The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier, exploring his home state’s history and environment, probing the tension between coastal Mainers and newcomers “from away” and the locals’ stubborn inclination toward self-rule.

Students read The Lobster Coast before Woodard’s visit and enjoyed dinner with him in the Wallace Dining Hall before he spoke in Chapin Hall. He explained that Massachusetts rule over the District of Maine from the 1650s to 1820, “created all the dynamics and resentments” that still shape longtime Mainers’ attitudes.

“If you are a Mainer,” said Woodard, “you recognize intense pride, deep insecurity, and questions of self-worth.”

This creates both good and evil, he said; it conserves unique traditions and time-tested values but can also fill people with “suspicion and an oppositional attitude” toward new ideas and strangers.

After the Civil War, Maine suffered an economic cataclysm, Woodard told the audience. “People were no longer building ships of wood, no longer needed ice, were no longer moving goods by ship, and the great granite cities were built…many coastal people were leaving” to find opportunity elsewhere, just as immigration was sweeping Northeastern cities. 

“There wasn’t anything to attract people to Maine,” Woodard explained. “So the isolated places in Maine stayed isolated…Essentially, nobody came in. We had the same people and landscape for a very long time.” 

That lasted until the 1960s, when an influx of back-to-the-landers stirred the pot, creating new friction, still in play, between multi-generational Mainers and young newcomers.

“The tragedy is, you can have an economy tied to an area’s resource base at the same time that you protect a cultural landscape and grow,” said Woodward. “But it didn’t happen here because people didn’t trust, understand, or even speak to each other…”

Asked what has happened since the publication of The Lobster Coast in 2004, Woodard described mixed progress. “A few things have changed,” he said. “The divide has been bridged” in some coastal Maine sectors. For example, fishermen and scientists have come to recognize their shared interest in the crisis of the rapidly warming Gulf of Maine.

Maine Coast Semester students and faculty asked Woodard about a wide range of Maine issues, from the historic 1980 Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act to the current flow of Somali and Sudanese immigrants arriving in the second whitest state and the oldest state population in the nation. This is coming at a time when Maine needs young workers “to keep the economy growing,” he said. Once again, who is a Mainer and Maine’s identity as a state are being redefined.

Woodard made an ardent plea for public trust, communication across groups, and commitment to the common good. Too many Maine communities are “fractured…disconnected…trying to do great things but lacking the ability to come together, to get consensus.” He called for “civic leadership” on the state and regional level to galvanize a new era for Maine.

Maine Coast Semester Head of School Dr. Susan Feibelman and Guest Speaker Colin Woodard

It was a fascinating evening of discussion, and we appreciate Colin joining us for this critical aspect of place-based learning.

Colin Woodard, who grew up and lives in midcoast Maine, is working on his sixth book, about the creation of America’s national myth. He has reported from more than 50 countries and seven continents; is a state and national affairs writer for the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram; was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize finalist and received a 2012 George Polk Award for investigative reporting; is a contributing editor and writer for Politico, Washington Monthly, and the Chronicle of Higher Education; and reviews books for the Washington Post. His 2011 book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, was named one of the best books of the year by the editors of The New Republic and The Globalist and won the 2012 Maine Literary Award for Non-Fiction.

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