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Why George Wasson is Worth Remembering

George_Savary_wassonHISTORY MATTERS

I have a fascination for long-forgotten local writers, perhaps because I expect to become one soon enough. In this column I’ve unearthed the bones of James T. Fields, BP Shillaber, James Kennard, TB Aldrich, Sam Walter Foss and others. But I never tripped over the remains of George Savary Wasson (1855 – 1932) until last week. He’s so forgotten, he doesn’t even show up on Wikipedia. (Continued below)


Wasson was a prolific maritime painter and he mostly painted small wooden boats. Born in Massachusetts, an experienced sailor, he discovered Kittery Point around 1887 and lived there for nearly 30 years, hanging around at Frisbee’s Market (established 1828) with the village fishermen. Wasson also wrote four books. His first book was called Cap’n Simeon’s Store. The restaurant behind historic Frisbee’s in scenic Pepperrell Cove was originally named for Wasson’s book. Who knew? Under new ownership, it is now called Cap'n  and Patty's.

George_WassonApparently Pontine knew.  Actors Greg Gathers and Margueritte Matthews kicked around the idea of adapting Wasson’s book into a theatrical production for years. It was no easy task. They bought a copy of Cap’n Simeon’s Store and were quickly washed overboard.

“We both found it dishearteningly difficult to read,” Greg says.  “It is cover-to-cover dialect, thick with unfamiliar idioms. We'd get to the bottom of a page and wonder -- what are they talking about?”

Wasson’s next novel, The Green Shay (1905), is more dramatic and more accessible. So the Pontine artists sawed and hammered and painted, adapting the two books into a single play for modern audiences. When it opens this weekend at their West End Theatre, George Savary Wasson sails again.

Learning to speak Kittery

Neither eBay nor Amazon had a used copy of Wasson’s Kittery classics for sale when I looked this week. You can buy a digital print-on-demand version for about $25, or you can read him for free on Google Books. Like Greg said, the reading is tough sledding. What Wasson did is absolutely brilliant, but he takes no prisoners. Wasson reproduced the unique terms and speech patterns of the Kittery sailors he knew, transcribing them with scientific precision. To an outsider, however, it’s like eavesdropping on a foreign language. Here’s a sample passage picked at random and copied exactly from The Green Shay:

“I up and told him right off, ‘Set-fire, you! ‘s I, ‘what you cal-late us folks ‘round here is, anyways? Jest only a reg’lar click of millionees, or what? ‘s I.

I can follow this if I work hard. As a student of literature I read Chaucer in the original Middle English. I read Beowulf, Milton, and every Shakespeare play. Wasson might be a genius at reproducing Kittery-speak, but you might prefer a copy of Hunger Games.

Wasson kept a four-by-seven inch pocket notebook in which he transcribed

conversations at Frisbee’s store. Over the years he captured the colorful language of the fishermen like a field researcher recording the final words of a nearly-extinct tribe. As with any foreign language, the more one works through Wasson’s books, the more familiar the language becomes. His first book received critical praise. Literary giants including Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and Henry James were impressed with the authenticity and humor of the dialogue, but the books were not big sellers.

Jacob Bennett of the University of Maine studied two of Wasson’s actual notebooks with hundreds of pages of transcribed dialogue. Bennett examined the “phonological, morphological, and lexical characteristics” of Wasson’s novels. He concluded that the dialogue was truly authentic. Not fun to read, but highly honest and accurate.

For old Kittery Pointers, a “hooker” was a schooner carrying lumber, while a “kellick” was a stone used as an anchor. To “brace up” was to get married and to go “booking” was to attend school. A boat that broke to pieces on the rocks was “stove to flinders.” But we also hear familiar sounds of Maine dialect when Wasson’s characters exclaim “He was some middling smart” or “I like to froze out there.”

We can also see in these Kittery sailors, the essence of what is known as Yankee or Downeast humor. “She steered like a hen-coop,” a fisherman might say of his new schooner. Or perhaps she sailed “as slow as a toad in a bucket of tar.” Returning from a poor day of lobstering a Kittery captain might say: “Tat won’t buy baby no frock.”


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