When it came time to write a history of Maine, it’s no wonder that William David Barry included a lot of fascinating tidbits about the state that he calls home.

He has good access to information. Barry, who turns 66 in August, is a reference librarian at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, and formerly held a similar position at the Portland Public Library. He knows his history. The depth of his knowledge as well as his personal interests come through in the new book, “Maine: The Wilder Half of New England.”

Published by Gardiner-based Tilbury House, “Maine: The Wilder Half of New England” takes a fresh look at the history of the place that he loves so much, and spices it with information that one does not typically find in a history book. Barry includes all the pertinent historical facts about the settlement and development of Maine, and also delves into the artists, writers and cultural leaders who have shaped the state and its legacy.

Barry, who reviews books for this newspaper as a freelance writer, even dedicates a number of pages to the state’s sporting history and its renowned leisure activities.

We spoke with him at his office at Maine Historical last week.

Q: You call Maine “the wilder half of New England.” Why?

A: There is more wilderness here than the rest of New England, and as a lifelong, half-Yankee, half-Irish denizen with 41 years living here, I would say the people seem wilder too. That is, more engaged and more sharply etched.

 

Q: This is a remarkably thorough history. Congratulations on the depth of information included here. How did you settle on topics, and what motivated your decision to include certain things and bypass others?

A: Over the course of 20 years researching, writing and editing, I made numerous changes. A few were dependent on finding images, but I got pretty much everything I needed or that I felt told the story as I felt it or have come to understand it. One could write an equally valid book using different images, but you would need to illustrate certain men, women and events in any discussion.

 

Q: This book seems unique among history books in that you find a place in here for information about arts and leisure. There is information about the visual artists Bill Manning, Marsden Hartley, the Lakewood Theater, etc. Why was it important to include that sort of information?

A: The closer in time that I write about, the less sure-footed I am. One of my earlier books on Sweetser (children’s home), for example, goes off-track when I predict good things for the incoming administration. Historians should never predict, but when you are immersed in interesting times, there is the urge. I tried to stay away from polemics.

But the painter Marsden Hartley is a major Maine and American figure, with important Maine scholars having contributed to our shared knowledge. I could not fail to deal with his place in our history. Bill Manning, our first local non-objective painter — curiously, both were Lewistonians — is closer and perhaps not such a household name. But for my money, he has made a huge impact on Maine artists and art schools. I am confident in saying so and glad to take such a debate up.

Summer theaters such as Lakewood or Brunswick (Maine State Music Theatre) are integral parts of Maine to many elements. I tried to get many aspects to form a large canvas.

 

Q: In the interest of full disclosure, I must note that you even mention me and this newspaper in your discussion about the arts and cultural reporting in the press. First of all, thank you. But more important, would you talk a little about cultural expansion in Maine — particularly among the museums — and its role in the modern image of Maine?

A: Yes, I take the people around me as part of history, and by God they sometimes do evolve. Even the occasional politician! When I took my first job at the Portland Museum of Art in 1972, it was a tiny complex on Spring and High streets, almost invisible to the public. Along with Colby, Bates, Bowdoin, UMO, USM and Maine Maritime, we have seen cultural wonders. In the 1970s, there wasn’t a Winslow Homer oil in Portland.

 

Q: Do you have a favorite artist?

A: Several, but in the book I try to identify painters, sculptors, poets and writers who flourish in Maine and use Maine as an integral, exciting part of their work.

 

Q: You also dedicate space to leisure activities, and the role of minor-league professional sports in the state’s history. Are you a sports fan yourself?

A: Yeah, born in ’46, the year the Sox won the pennant and inevitably lost in the World Series. I played ball as a kid and loved it, but after the players strike I lost interest. I watch the Sea Dogs from time to time, but my interest has faded over time. But sports have always been a healthy, sustaining part of Maine.

 

Q: Let’s talk a little about your personal background. You describe yourself as a cultural mercenary. Why?

A: I got my BA and MA in history and American cultural history at the University of Vermont, got my first job at Pineland Hospital and then right to the PMA, the Portland Public Library and the Maine Historical Society, with a co-curatorial gigs at Barridoff, F.O. Bailey, Joan Whitney Payson Gallery, the Brick Store Museum, the USM gallery and many more. My grandfather asked me what I wanted to be some years past and I answered, “a writer.” He said, “Well, Bill, that’s a nice hobby, but what about work?” I was cheesed at the time, but take it a tad more seriously in my dotage.

 

Q: Born and raised where?

A: Burlington, Vt. I grew up in North Adams and East Longmeadow, Mass.

 

Q: What do you like most about living in Portland?

A: I followed my college friend Steve Booth, or rather his boat, to Casco Bay. You will see him on his way to Portugal in his sailboat in the pages of the book. He is a Downeaster who does what he sets out to do. I do not sail as often as I once did, but Portland is a combination city-town, with no need to own a car. I met Deb Verrier, my partner of three decades, and aside from a thin wallet I have exceedingly few complaints and many extraordinary friends.

 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes