Why George Wasson is Worth Remembering
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

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.”


Pontine performs works by George Wasson

The last Wassonite

David Kaselauskas runs about 800 lobster traps out of his Kittery Point home. He used to run 1,400 pots, he says, but at 69 he’s not quite as young as he used to be. The business isn’t what it used to be either, he says. The lobsters are moving north to colder cleaner waters. The fishermen don’t buddy-up at the general store and swap colorful tales like they used to. It’s just not as much fun. But still, Dave’s only retirement plan is to die fishing aboard his boat, the Jersey Girl.

Dave winces when I mention Yale. Sure, he admits, he went to med school there for a piece, but he moved on. He studied toward his PhD in marine bacteriology at the University of New Hampshire.

“The big mistake I had was that my landlord was a lobsterman,” he says. “and it was like heroin going out with him. I just couldn’t see myself getting trapped in academia.”

Dave started a family and taught chemistry at Portsmouth High School for 13 years, fishing on the side, before he took to the sea full time. Like George Wasson, David was not born in Maine. He hails originally from the tobacco fields of Connecticut. Forty-five years of fishing and his Kittery colleagues still call him “The Carpetbagger.”

David lives next door to the former Wasson home on Pepperrell Road. He can see the house to the west over the top of his big-screen TV in his “man cave” on the water. David first got serious about Wasson seven or eight years ago, he says, when the late Kittery historian Joe Frost planted the seed. David began tracking down Wasson’s many paintings – visiting galleries and private homes and snapping photos. His Wasson catalog now fills a fat spiral-bound notebook. David met historian Richard Candee when he outbid him for a Wasson painting on eBay. It was Candee who encouraged Pontine to bring Wasson back to life by introducing them to Kaselauskas, now the most ardent living fan of the largely-forgotten artist. When I met him, Dave gave me a signed copy of one of Wasson’s books – signed by Dave, not the writer.

“Dave was our go-to guy,” says actor Greg Gathers. “He has been incredibly generous with his research materials. His passion for the subject has been very contagious.”


It’s all about the boat

Like David Kaselauskas, George Wasson was an educated outsider who chose the sea over scholarship. His father, David Atwood Wasson, was a Unitarian minister and poet who hung out with the Transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts. As a boy, Wasson lived for a while in a house owned by the famous writer Henry David Thoreau. He recalled Thoreau coming over to fix the pump in the kitchen sink. When George was 18 his father took him to Germany where the young man studied art among the great painters of the region. But George longed for the coast of New England, and was happier traveling the rivers of Germany in a flat bottomed boat that he built himself.

Wasson always had a boat. During his early painting years in Boston he kept a small yawl-rigged yacht that carried him and his painter friends on trips to the Penobscot where he eventually returned. During his Kittery years, Wasson sailed the Piscataqua and the York Coast in the Bonnie Doon and later the Lorna. As a boat builder and accomplished sailor, he had a designer’s eye, and his notebooks – seven of them still exist – are crammed with detailed drawings. It was after his marriage in 1885 and his father’s death in 1887 that Wasson fell in love with Kittery Point where he knew every boat and boat-owner by name.  Although he arrived in the white suit of an educated yachtsman, Wasson soon learned to dress like the locals. It was his ability to blend in that allowed him to capture the language and stories of the endangered village fishermen. He never revealed their actual names in the imaginary village of Killick, and by protecting their privacy, he was able to remain their friend.

Maine writer Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, a friend of George Wasson, recalled his special love of sketching wrecked ships. “If a vessel was driven ashore  at any point between Great Boar’s Head and York Nubble,” she wrote, “whatever the weather, George Wasson might be there sketching the wreck and the sea as he saw it in the storm.”

Wasson’s lack of fame, Eckstorm notes, may be just the way he wanted things. “It was largely his own choice to remain unknown,” she wrote.

Wasson often preferred the company of his fishing friends to hanging out with rich and famous people like the Howellses and Decaturs nearby. And he preferred the open sea over the company of men, with the exception of his two sons David and Lewis. But tragically, after a brief military career, Lewis died of tuberculosis in 1913. David became a successful journalist and even spent time as an editor of the Portsmouth Herald. He died of meningitis at age 27 two years after his brother.



Slipped his moorings

After the death of their two sons, unable to live among the memories of their life in Kittery Point, George Wasson and his wife Amalie moved to Bangor in 1916. Wasson painted, and carved, and sailed, and wrote as long as his fading eyesight allowed. His final book about sailing on the Penobscot appeared the year after his death in 1932.

Wasson was a good writer, his friend Fannie Eckstorm noted, because he was a good painter. And he was a good maritime painter, she said, because he knew how to sail and to build boats. Wasson knew what a boat looked like below the water and he was an expert in the design and rigging of small ships. He worked quickly, often completing a painting in a single day. And he was his own best critic. Unhappy with a painting he did for a captain at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, legend says, he placed it on the edge of four chairs, took a running leap, and jumped into the middle of the canvas.

His legacy, what survives of it, grows stronger as one heads Downeast. Wasson did for the Penobscott, someone once wrote, what Mark Twain did for Mississippi. As he lay dying in Bangor in 1932, his doctor reportedly said, “I hear they’ve got you hauled up in drydock.” Wasson replied, “Yep, hauled up for good this time.” The artist slipped his moorings at high water, by a friend’s account, and disappeared with the tide.

“To me, the real hook is the window Wasson gives into our own neighborhood as it was about a hundred years ago,” says Greg Gathers, who is about to bring Wasson’s work to the stage.

“Wasson gives us a fly-on-the-wall perspective,” Greg says, “and it's completely unsentimental – very much ‘warts and all’–there's no nostalgic veil in the way.  I also really respect the great lengths he went to in reproducing the local dialect and culture; his stories feel very authentic.”

For lobsterman David Kaselauskas, the connection is visceral. He sailed in one day from the south and settled. He shares the same view of the harbor, fishes the same waters, and has become part of the village history. The goal the two men share has nothing to do with wealth or fame. Their goal is always the same – to spend one more day on the sea, return home safely, tell tales, and cast off again.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site SeacoastNH.com. Robinson is the author of America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812. His new e-book novella, Kill All the Vampire Writers, is available instantly on Amazon.com.