When Laura E. Howe Richards received a letter at her Gardiner home telling her she had won the Pulitzer prize, she tucked it away in her home log — a scrap book.

She and her sister, Maud Howe Elliot, with contributions from their sister Florence Howe Hall, had written “Julia Ward Howe, 1819-1910,” a two-volume biography of their mother, herself a writer who is widely known for crafting the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

In 1917, no one had really heard of the prize because that was the first year it was given. It was offered in just four categories: in journalism for editorial writing and reporting, and in letters and drama for biography or autobiography and history.

That letter and the scrap book it’s in are going on display this week at the Gardiner Public Library as its “Voices of the Kennebec” program continues through Nov. 1.

The program is part of the Pulitzer Prize Centennial Campfires Initiative, in which the Federation of State Humanities Councils and the Pulitzer Prizes Board are collaborating to celebrate the 2016 Centennial of the Prizes. A grant from that collaboration is funding in part “Voices of the Kennebec.”

The Gardiner Public Library has organized a series of events to commemorate the city’s role in the prizes — in addition to the Howe sisters, poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, who grew up in Gardiner, won three Pulitzers during the 1920s for his poetry — and the role the region has played in inspiring the works of others. Brunswick native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Peter Tristam Coffin is included, as is “August Gale: A Father and Daughter’s Journey into the Storm,” a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barbara Walsh.


On Tuesday, author Deborah Gould is scheduled to give a talk at the library on her book, “The Eastern — Book One: The Early Years.” In 2014, Gould won the Maine Literary Award for Short Fiction for a chapter in the book. The entire novel was nominated this year for the Book Fiction award.

The book and Gould’s next novel are inspired by a house she bought on the Eastern River in East Pittston in the 1990s.

“There was something about it,” she said about the house last week. “It just grabs you by the throat. I felt at home there.”

Gould started researching the house’s history, backtracking through deeds. The house was home to the Thompson family for 100 years starting in 1811. Gould said she learned about them and four families who owned neighboring farms when she stumbled across the archives kept at the Gardiner Public Library, specifically the collection of Gardiner-area newspapers dating back decades, captured on microfilm and indexed.

“There were five families that were clearly in and out of each other’s lives, and that became the novel,” she said. Information about them was also found in Town Meeting reports, vital records, cemetery plots, probate filings, Grange notes and census reports. What she found, she said, was a sense of place in a five-family agricultural community and the notion that these people were working together for their mutual benefit. “Community and reciprocity are things I think we have lost in this new-fangled society.”

Just as she found that historic community, she sees herself as part of another community of people who have found inspiration in the region.


“So much of my research was done in that library,” she said, of the Gardiner Public Library. “I am, in fact, a voice of the Kennebec.”

The program’s concept, weaving together creative voices, is, she said, wonderful.

“A whole bunch of very creative people in the Gardiner area have all come from the same inspiration created by a sense of place that includes Gardiner and the Kennebec and Eastern rivers,” she said. “It’s all connected and evocative. That’s what Dawn has pulled together.”

“The idea of the program is that it’s tied to being inspired by place, and what this region has done to inspire,” program organizer Dawn Thistle said. Thistle is the library’s archivist.

Gardiner’s history and its association with the now-prestigious prizes is a story of interconnections. Richards wrote about 90 books in her lifetime. Various sources say she moved to Gardiner in 1876 with her husband, Henry Richards, when he started working at the family’s paper mill. Richards, who was one of the founders of the Gardiner Public Library, knew Robinson well. Born in nearby Head Tide, Robinson moved with his family to Gardiner when he was 2 and grew up there. He returned to Gardiner after a brief stint at Harvard College.

Robinson’s work contains many references to Tilbury Town, which many people believe is Gardiner, Thistle said. While Richards’ work is not tied to the region in the same way, Coffin’s work is. The poet and essayist captured the practice of cutting ice from the frozen Kennebec in Gardiner and Pittston in “Kennebec, Cradle of Americans.”


Brian Evan-Jones, a writer, poet and teacher, is scheduled to give a day-long writing workshop on how Gardiner and the region can enrich writing. Gardiner resident Gay Grant is expected to talk about researching and writing her book, “Destination Unknown: An Evacuee’s Story,” a personal memoir recounting a childhood in England during World War II on Oct. 25.

The program wraps up on Nov. 1 with an evening of readings from historic and new literary works inspired by Gardiner and the Kennebec region.

Even though she now lives in Brunswick, the area continues to inspire Gould. She’s working on a second novel that revisits the Thompsons and their neighbors, the Blodgett, Crocker, Call and Stilphen families later in the 19th century.

“Those of us who are drawn to this region will always be drawn to this region,” she said. “I can’t predict what they will be, but there will always be voices on that river.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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