Maine

John Steinbeck Gets Lost in the Magic of Deer Isle, Maine (And Gets Lost, Too)

Of all the places John Steinbeck visited during his famous road trip across America, the island of Deer Isle stood out as mysterious, evocative and easy to get lost in.

Deer Isle

Deer Isle

If you haven’t been to Deer Isle, it’s a large island off the Blue Hill peninsula, accessible by a high iron suspension bridge over Eggemoggin Reach. The island is home to fishermen, farmers, stonecutters, artists and summer visitors, as it was in Steinbeck’s time, and is made up of the towns of Deer Isle and Stonington.

“This Isle is like Avalon; it must disappear when you are not there,” wrote Steinbeck in the travelogue about his 10,000-mile journey, Travels With Charley In Search of America.

John Steinbeck  was born on Feb. 27, 1902 in Salinas Calif.. At 58, he had left his home on Long Island in the fall of 1960, accompanied by his poodle Charley. He drove a green pickup truck fitted with a custom camper shell. According to Steinbeck's son Thom, Steinbeck took the journey because he knew he was dying and wanted to see the country one last time. (He had a heart condition and didn’t die until Dec. 20, 1968.)

Steinbeck explained in the book why he started out in Maine:

I wanted to go to the rooftree of Maine to start my trip before turning west. It seemed to give the journey a design, and everything in the world must have design or the human mind rejects it.

Steinbeck had a lousy sense of direction, and described how he got thoroughly lost in Bangor. He remembered he needed to et back on Highway 1,  found it and drove 10 miles in the wrong direction. He got lost in Ellsworth, something nearly impossible to do in 1960. Then the roads narrowed and the lumber trucks roared past him. He was lost all day, even though he found Blue Hill and Sedgwick.

His literary agent had insisted he visit the island of Deer Island. He was immediately struck by the place.  “One doesn’t have to be sensitive to feel the strangeness of Deer Isle,” he wrote.  Everything stood out, he noticed, and the people had the same quality. “I would hate to try to force them to do anything they didn’t want to do.”

Stonington especially intrigued him:

Stonington, Deer Isle’s chief town, does not look like an American town at all in place or in architecture. Its houses are layered down to the calm water of the bay. This town very closely resembles Lyme Regis on the coast of Dorset, and I would willingly bet that its founding settlers came from Dorset or Somerset or Cornwall. Maine speech is very like that in West Country England, the double vowels pronounced as they are in Anglo-Saxon, but the resemblance is doubly strong on Deer Isle. And the coastal people below the Bristol Channel are secret people, and perhaps magic people. There’s aught behind their eyes, hidden away so deep that perhaps even they do not know they have it. And that same thing is so in Deer Islers.

In Stonington he ate a lobster and bought a kerosene lamp at a store that was half hardware, half ship’s chandler. Then he drove on along the coast, to Aroostook County and along the perimeter of the United States.  The book was published in 1962 to much acclaim.

John Steinbeck in 196

John Steinbeck in 1962

Steinbeck never said Travels With Charley was completely factual. He left out many things. Blogger Bill Steigerwald carefully traced Steinbeck’s  journey and learned something new about his stay on Deer Isle: He caught part of the Nixon-Kennedy presidential debates there on Sept. 28, 1960. In a letter to Adlai Stevenson, Steinbeck wrote he was distressed the candidates were so courteous to each other.

He did include an anecdote about Mainers that may or may not be true, given his frustration with the directions he received when he got lost.

He was told never to ask directions of a Maine native. “Why ever not?” he asked. Came the reply:

Somehow we think it is funny to misdirect people, and we don’t smile when we do it, but we laugh inwardly. It is our nature.

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Carole Reynolds Castano

    Carole Reynolds Castano

    February 27, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    John Steinbeck was told never to ask directions of a Maine native. “Why ever not?” he asked. Came the reply:

    Somehow we think it is funny to misdirect people, and we don’t smile when we do it, but we laugh inwardly. It is our nature.
    Ah, yuh, been to Maine….

  2. Dana McPhee

    Dana McPhee

    February 27, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    One of my favorite books – thanks for the reminder to read it again for the nth time…

  3. Dana McPhee

    Dana McPhee

    February 27, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    One of my favorite books – thanks for the reminder to read it again for the nth time…

  4. New England Historical Society

    New England Historical Society

    February 27, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    You’re welcome! It’s one of ours, too!

  5. New England Historical Society

    New England Historical Society

    February 27, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    You’re welcome! It’s one of ours, too!

  6. Debby Kinmonth Hearn

    Debby Kinmonth Hearn

    February 27, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    Thank you for giving a little bit about John Steinbeck, and I can’t wait to buy Travels with Charley.

  7. Molly Landrigan

    Molly Landrigan

    February 28, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Lovely, picturesque Maine villages but didn’t know about John Steinbeck’s love of the Isle. Thanks.

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  9. Rich Boulet

    February 15, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    What a nioce read. Here is a slight goegraphic correction: “Scattered across the island are small, picturesque towns of Brooklin, Blue Hill, Deer Isle, Sedgwick and Stonington.” Close. All of these towns are on the Blue Hill Peninsula, which by most definitions includes Deer Isle, however Brooklin, Blue Hill and Sedgwick are on the mainland, not the island.

  10. Cindy J

    February 15, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    Always like that book. Growing up with Deer Isle in the 50s and 60s anything about the island is of interest. Just don’t let the word out how nice it is.

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