I have been working on this project for nearly three years now. The journey feels like a long one—with various roads, some yet to be traveled, detours, and dead ends. Largely, it has been a process of trial and error, as I learned to navigate the boundless, at times overwhelming, depths of research—within archives, old newspapers, photographs, poems, fiction, informal conversations and formal interviews—hoping to make some sense of what hermit characters mean to the state of Maine.
I found almost immediately that inconsistencies and gaps plagued—as I’m sure they do in any sort of oral history project—my attempts at concrete analysis. After quite a bit of research I still held what felt like a random collection of tales—some only half-told, others clearly fantastical, still more that couldn’t seem to pin down a single place or date, or even find consensus on what the term, “hermit” actually means.
Moreover, as Dr. Edward (“Sandy”) Ives observed, “[the mythologist] is interested in the past not for its own sake but for how it lives in the human mind,” and finds expression in our daily decisions and actions.1 This means that my job is to understand how these stories are carried in the minds of others, but for practical reasons of time and access (not to mention the porous nature of cultural boundaries), I cannot definitively claim an understanding of the “Maine” folk mind and its conception of hermits as folk characters. In short, the task of writing this thesis brought with it many obstacles, and I arrived at it unsure of how to go about writing honestly, in a way that expressed what I found and heard, rather than what perhaps I wanted such a collection of stories to be able to say.
In the opening pages of George Magoon and the Down East Game Wars, Sandy Ives addresses this all-too-familiar source of anxiety among social scientists. He asks of his own project, “To what extent was I creating the legend...by the very act of looking for it?”2 Had Ives, over the course of several years of collecting material on an infamous Maine poacher created George Magoon, the folk hero, in his own image? Was this essentially, perhaps inescapably, a self-referential project?
This is a question that I’ve asked myself repeatedly while rooting around for hermit stories. Do I alone assign them significance? This is a particularly difficult question to address for two reasons. The first is that I have not found a comparative study that surveys hermit characters in a region and so there are no pre-prepared pathways here for me to work with. Secondly, the subject matter to some extent requires and inspires a great deal of self-reflection. In terms of traditional interactions between hermits and hermit-seekers, any sort of pilgrimage to reach the hermit is simultaneously (and possibly fundamentally), a journey into the interior depths of the self. So, while looking outward, past my own experience, I find myself continually turning inward.
I therefore have chosen to highlight two landscapes, which I believe, are neither clearly distinct nor independent of one another. The first, represented by nonfiction pieces, is an identifiably real space of concrete detail (though, of course by “real” I do not mean objectively true). This is where my actual experiences and findings, along with critical analysis of those materials takes place. The other is an imaginary realm—the activity of my own mind as well as what I could glean from the collective folk mind. This parallel landscape is represented by a fictive story world that sits between and (marginally) within the nonfiction pieces. By placing nonfiction and fictional work side- by-side, I aim to make explicit the ways in which these realms are continually interacting and co-creating one another.
The marginalia, which includes real story material from my research yet places that material within fictional frames, works to accomplish a similar goal. I found seemingly endless permutations of the hermit character in Maine over the course of my research, but was analytically drawn to patterns and taxonomies, and so found it necessary to give those various examples some sense of order, imposed limits and distinctions, from which I could begin to locate continuity and meaning. However, I chose to put many of those hermit groupings in the margins of the main text and in overtly fictive spaces—made-up books and chapter titles—which are altogether arbitrary except in my own mind. This textual marginalia is placed intentionally in spaces along the main text—amending and challenging it—in order to offer further complexity and dimension.
I see the marginal text boxes throughout much of the thesis acting as characters with voices and competing narratives of their own. This attempts to mimic what I think of as the active borderlands of any writing project, and particularly this one, filled as it is with so many individual storytellers and idiosyncrasies. I hope that this chosen form offers an enhanced experience of the content. Creative play and even humor, I think, is important in a project such as this and I certainly had quite a bit of fun designing it.
Cunningham, Taylor, "“Persuading the Secret”: In Search of Maine’s Hermits" (2016). Honors College. 382.