Click Here To Learn More About John McDonald
Newspapers like the one you’re holding in your hand have been around here for a long time. We’ve had newspapers in Maine from the early 1700s on. In those early days Maine produced legends like Seba Smith and Charles Farrar Browne, who honed their “media” skills at a time when honing was something people mostly did to the blade of an ax or a scythe.
Who are these two? Well, there you go. There’s a good chance you never heard of them. They never cut a rap CD or got fined by the FCC for something they said on live television so it’s, like, huh? I know we’re not a print culture anymore, but Smith and Browne where huge celebrities in their day. Meanwhile, people today conclude that if it’s not on television it doesn’t exist.
Unlike the enlightened journalists who write today’s news for today’s readers, most 19th century newspaper writers were prudish and starchy men with a writing style to match. Smith and Browne were the exceptions.
Smith, born in Buckfield in 1792, became famous for a series of letters on politics that he wrote using rustic speech and satirical comments under the pen name Major Jack Downing. He’s considered a pioneer in the development of American humor.
Browne was born in Waterford in 1834 and like others born in that remote area of Oxford County he was different. Writing under the pen name of Artemus Ward he developed a unique satirical style that poked fun at the straitlaced stuffed-shirts that were his contemporaries. He went on to become Abe Lincoln’s favorite humorist. Ward’s pieces appeared regularly in Vanity Fair and his letters to London’s Punch magazine made him popular in England, too. He died in London in 1867 when he was only 33.
Today, although there are a lot of bright, gifted and very talented people working in Maine media (just ask them) most regular people assume that if a newspaper, television or radio reporter is any good, what are they doing working in Maine?
A lot of young “talent” comes through Maine but most of these hot shots don’t stay long enough to unpack. These transients are easy to spot because they appear out of nowhere, you have no idea who they are and they demonstrate pretty quickly that they have no idea who we are.
I once wrote for a Maine newspaper that you’ve probably heard of and maybe even read, and one night I was sitting in the City Room writing a story when a new reporter sitting next to me stopped her frantic typing for a few seconds, turned to me and asked: “John, is Damariscotta anywhere near the water?”
It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t have a clue. A week before she had been writing cop stories in Fond du Lac, Wisc., (which I understand is kind of near the water) and she had never been to Maine in her life. The editor who hired her assumed that she was better than any of the other candidates mostly because the address on her resume didn’t have a ZIP code that began with “04.”
In case some of you new arrivals are still wondering – Damariscotta is by the water. In fact there are mounds of clamshells on its beaches and the beaches of nearby Newcastle which date back at least 2,400 years. So we can assume Damariscotta was on the water then, too.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is mainestoryteller@yahoo.com.
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