BEST OF BARNES: THE SELECTED ARTICLES AND PHOTOGRAPHS OF JACK BARNES, edited by Susan C. Conley, Nightshade Press, Troy, Maine, 1996, 168 pages, $14.95.
Anyone who has read Jack Barnes knows that he’s intimate with Maine’s literary landscape, the characters who people it, and the unique backdrop that sets it apart from the rest of the world. Over the years, his “About Books” column in the Maine Sunday Telegram has given voice to countless Maine writers — writers whose works otherwise might have gone overlooked in a society whose tastes have leaned more toward the commercial fare found on nationwide best-seller lists.
Barnes is a champion of Maine literature, a knowing and steady guide, and reading his first collection of articles, “The Best of Barnes: The Selected Articles and Photographs of Jack Barnes,” is a pleasure.
Edited by Susan C. Conley, “The Best of Barnes” is like reading a compilation of 34 minibiographies, a tapestry that includes Carolyn Chute, Sanford Phippen, May Sarton, E. Annie Proulx, John Gould and Terry Gerritsen. These writers — as well as the other writers found within this collection — are part of our neighborhood but, as with our neighbors, we sometimes forget their personal stories and how they came into our lives. This fine compilation not only reminds us but becomes by book’s end an important source of Maine culture and history. We remember how Phippen came to write his first collection of short stories; we recall the rage that propelled so much of Sarton’s writings; and we feel for poet Donald Hall, whose wife, poet Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia.
In the chapter devoted to Chute, Barnes writes most movingly, suggesting that the real pathos behind Chute and her work “has to do with a small gravestone that is propped up against the wall in their living room near a wood stove, a grim reminder that her little son by Michael died because of government bureaucracy and their poverty. Carolyn was in labor over two weeks before the child was born dead from dehydration. `I lost my medical card because we made about $80 a week, so I had to go to the clinic; but the clinic was too crowded. I went into labor, but the doctors said to go home and wait ’til the pains progressed. The pains were excruciating and exhausting. They were close together but not close enough. This went on for almost two weeks. During this time I called twice to see if they would admit me. But they acted like I was getting excited over nothing. Finally the Gorham Rescue Squad insisted on taking me in regardless. I had a temperature of 104 and the baby was dying. His name was Reuben. He was beautiful.”‘
Reuben, of course, was the name of a character in Chute’s first novel, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine.” After reading Barnes’ essay, that character now has added significance.
This is why “The Best of Barnes” is so important; it not only provides invaluable information about Maine writers, but it also offers insight into our culture and into ourselves, for it is through literature that we often learn more about our lives and our places in this world.
But consider yourself forewarned — the book is flawed by extremely poor copy editing. The errors are so many, and so annoying, it is as if the publisher rushed the rough draft into print. Richard Foerster, a poet from York Beach, has the misfortune of having his name misspelled throughout the article devoted to him. This is unacceptable. Barnes and his readers — not to mention the writers profiled within — deserve better.
Chris Smith is a free-lance writer who lives in Brewer.