The voices of Maine’s women have found an enduring home at the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England.
- By: Kathleen Fleury
Photographs Courtesy Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, Portland, Maine.
May Sarton. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Anne Hazlewood-Brady. The eyes of these authors stare back from black and white photos lining the entrance to the Maine Women Writers Collection. The two-thousand square-foot center, tucked into a wing of the University of New England Abplanalp Library off Stevens Avenue in Portland, houses close to 7,700 books and 500 linear feet of manuscripts. It is a living, breathing homage to the women on the wall and to all the women writers, past and present, from the Pine Tree State.
Inside resides an amalgamation of artifacts, pictures, typewriters, letters, journals, artwork, memorabilia, and, of course, books, all cataloging the experiences of centuries of Maine women: Some famous, some unknown; some living, some long deceased; some Maine residents, some with strong ties to the state. There is the expected, such as the definitive Sarah Orne Jewett collection, along with the more unexpected. A large compilation of writings by Donna Loring, a Vietnam veteran turned Penobscot Indian representative in Augusta, and the work of Perdita Huston, a world-savvy journalist and women’s rights activist, are just two examples. In addition to formal collections, anonymous diaries, notes from women’s organizations, correspondences, and, recently added, cookbooks round out the literature to be found and studied here.
Grace Dow and Dorothy Healy, two educators at what was then called Westbrook College, founded the collection in 1959. The pair felt that the role of women in Maine’s literary landscape needed to be documented, preserved, and made accessible both to scholars, other writers, and the public. Fifty years later, the work of nearly five hundred women are represented here. The mission remains “to document the literary history of Maine’s women,” says curator Cally Gurley.
“We start with Maine’s first novelist, Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood, otherwise known as Madam Wood, who was writing and publishing at the time Maine became a state,” says Gurley. From Wood, “we go all the way through history and into the future. We are always looking for emerging writers.”
Some of those writers, Gurley hopes, will be inspired at the center itself, which offers creative writing classes to the public, along with exhibitions, lectures, and research consultations by appointment. The six-room facility serves as a place for writers to soak in the palpable inspiration of the centuries of literary history stored on the shelves. “You could go somewhere and just start writing,” says Gurley. “You could write at home. Or you could be in a place where that endeavor permeates the whole setting.”
To quote Sarah Orne Jewett: “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper — whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.” So, too, do the words — whether little or great, published or private — of Maine’s women that are part of this enduring collection.
Maine Women Writers Collection, Abplanalp Library, University of New England, Westbrook College Campus, 716 Stevens Ave., Portland. 207-221-4324. www.une.edu/mwwc
- By: Kathleen Fleury