In the same year as Maine’s bicentennial, Chris Potholm ’62, P’95, DeAlva Stanwood Professor of Government, begins his fiftieth year teaching at Bowdoin. An expert in Maine politics and a long-time Registered Maine Guide, Potholm reflects on the “wild, wild East” spirit of the state, and what’s kept him in Maine and teaching at Bowdoin.
What is a little-known fact about Maine politics that our readers might find particularly interesting?
One of the things that’s always intrigued me is that, if you look at the environmentalist movement in Maine, you tend to think that it’s led and dominated by Democrats. But, in fact, in the 1970s and ’80s it was the Republicans who took the lead in protecting the environment. Even today if you ask a question like, ‘Do you donate to or belong to an environmental group?,’ you are still going to get a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats to answer that with a ‘yes.’
What might be top of mind for Maine political insider today, and five or ten years from now?
When I was doing the research for The Splendid Game, I went to the Muskie Archives and I looked at some early polling from 1954. The two biggest issues were jobs in Maine and keeping Maine kids in Maine. A few years ago, when Governor LePage came to our class, the class asked him a similar question. His answer: number one was jobs and number two was, “How can I keep you students here in Maine?” This fall, Governor Mills visited our class. Same thing. Jobs. Keep the young people here. She said that the state needs refugees; we need young people. We can’t keep our economy going, can’t keep it vibrant otherwise. She added a new part to the answer, though—addressing the opioid crisis.
You taught government 2035, Maine Politics, this fall semester—and many semesters before that. Is there something new that you came away with this year based on classroom discussion and your interaction with students?
Not something new, I’d say, but a reaffirmation of one of the axioms that we have in that class: “the wild, wild east.” The extent to which Maine still has a frontier mentality. That the people who came to Maine originally were trying to get away from the Puritans or they were trying to get away from the French in Quebec.
There’s something about the wild, wild east, even if it’s just in our minds. Two groups of students this year did investigations of not just the role of government in lobstering, but the political third rail of touching anything where personal freedom is involved. It’s that Maine mystique. You can’t go too far in politics if you don’t accept the fact of individual freedom, personal freedom. Look at gay marriage—why would it be accepted here [when it wasn’t elsewhere]? At the end of the day it was, “stay in your own lane, live your own life.” That originally [resulted] from the Puritans. We don’t want to live in Plymouth, okay? We don’t want to have to go to church for twelve hours. We don’t want some preacher telling us what to do.
Do you have a favorite course that you’ve taught at Bowdoin?
A few years ago, I introduced a new course called Women at War that’s been extremely exciting. It’s been so rewarding to come into class and have something new to talk about and new to research. I feel so blessed that every day I get to do some reading, I do some writing, and I teach. Then I get feedback. I learn. I wake up at 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning and I can’t wait to go to class.
It's very exciting. All the alumni I talk to, they always want to know what Bowdoin's like. And, I say, if you could just come to a faculty seminar and see the faculty—we have such great faculty in the government department, and all through the College, doing interesting things, and studying things that we never would have thought of [years ago]. The point in the liberal arts education isn't so much the information,it's how you learn to acquire that information and to deal with it. There's a dynamic to learning that transcends the subject matter.
Why has it been important to you to teach at Bowdoin?
I taught at Dartmouth and Vassar. I loved my time there. I came to Bowdoin to live in Maine. And if you’re going to live in Maine, where's the best place to be teaching? I think it’s Bowdoin. I came back, fell in love with Harpswell, and it's been heaven ever since.
There is another part, though, with irony. The unhappiest period of my life was the first five months I spent at Bowdoin as a student. I tell my students that. I was miserable because I came from a blue-collar background. I was used to a big urban high school.
All of a sudden I came to Bowdoin and oh, my god. Plus, [the pressure from] my parents. I was the first one to go to college in my family. I had to be a doctor. Well, I went to the first lab and I wanted to throw up, and I said, “This is never going to be me.” And I share this with the students because I think the metaphor is very powerful and, for me, persuasive. Sometime in that [winter], my roommate and I wandered around through the Bowdoin Pines. It was a Saturday night. It was a blizzard. We’re walking along and then, somewhere off in the distance, there was a light. A metaphor came to me that somehow in my life, there’d be a cabin amid the blizzard. The cabin is there, will you be ready when you see it? So, even if you’re miserable, you have to be ready for whatever that opportunity is that you’ll come across. That’s sort of been the lodestone of my life. The irony of it is, of course, that I had those [unhappy] five months, and then I’ve had fifty years of pleasure being here.
Looking back at your fifty years in the classroom, what are you most proud of professionally, as a teacher and as a scholar?
I am personally proudest of my books that became my lectures, and my lectures that became my books. I’ve always thought it important to say something in the wider world—you’re putting your ideas out there and then you’re bringing them to the classroom. A constant flow, reading, and writing, and learning, and then teaching. That constant of keeping your mind open and working to stay relevant.
Each generation of students gets farther and farther away from what you learned when you were their age. I had an example last semester in my Women in War class. Even five years ago, if you made an analogy, “Oh, that’s the Joan of Arc of…,” 90 percent of the students would know exactly who you’re talking about. I had a student from India recently say, “Who’s Joan of Arc?” And I said, “Oh, well, she was the Rani of Jhansi.” Someone from her culture. She said, “Yes, oh, I get it.” Well, then the rest of the class wanted to know who the Rani of Jhansi was. So, now, it’s making whatever you think they ought to know relevant to students from all over the world. I find it exhilarating and exciting. But, it is a lot of work because you can't just stay with the old things. You have to bring [the old things] in, in a way that makes them relevant for the student from Sri Lanka, and the student from Singapore, and Nigeria. That’s one of the biggest challenges and one of the biggest benefits, of the new Bowdoin in terms of the student body.
What inspired you to become a Registered Maine Guide?
Well, I was very fortunate. I grew up in Connecticut, on the coast. And the guy that taught me how to fish and hunt and trap was Native American. Huntly was his name. I talk about him in Tall Tales from the Tall Pines. He gave me a sense of how important that natural world was for so many people for so long.
I had relatives in Portland, and we would come up for Christmas every other year. The high point of that Portland trip was going to L.L. Bean at night. And in those days—I think we met L.L. once—but if you went there at nine, nine-thirty at night, the trappers would be coming in with pelts. They’d be sitting there and they’d all be smoking pipes. Well, imagine bringing in a dead animal into, into L.L. Bean now! I mean I’m nine years old, and there were these registered Maine guides and they had these red patches. And when they said the deer were moving around, people would say, “Oh, they are? Where are they moving around?” I think it was that. Dick Morgan [the late professor] became a Maine Guide before me and he said, “My god, we could become Maine guides.”
So, it was a childhood dream to be guide. And the book, Tall Tales, it’s fiction, but every tale in it is a true story from a Maine Guide’s perspective. After I wrote it, I realized that I had really done a sociological study, without meaning to, of the life in Maine, what I call “beyond the streetlights.” And whether it's in rural Maine or down in southern Maine or western Maine, there’s a whole fabric to it, this wild, wild east thing is still alive. The values, and the comraderies, and the enmities, they’re all of that same nature. And 400 years ago, they were the same.
Do you have a favorite memory from your time as a guide?
I have a feeling how satisfying it was at the end of the hunting day. You might have been out in the woods for eight hours, and you hadn’t seen a deer but you had seen this, that, and the other thing. Just the satisfaction of that exhaustion—you didn’t have to bring something back, but it was great when you did. That feeling of satisfaction, of having engaged all of your senses. And when you’re on the trail of a deer, you can’t be thinking about any other worries. I mean, that’s it. That’s what you’re trying to do. I don’t hunt anymore, butI still go out and try to duplicate that feeling of living as one, however briefly, with the natural world, and getting so exhausted that everything else fades away.
What does Maine's bicentennial mean to you?
I think that’s where the whole wild, wild east [concept] comes in. And, no matter how much Maine changes, that underlying frontier element is still there. And 1820 we break away, and we break away for reasons that are still valid today. You look at Maine’s political history and that impulse is always there and it erupts from time to time.
Another thing, and it sounds Pollyanna-ish, and of course, I’m not an expert on all the other states by any means, but I do think Maine has been blessed with honest and well-meaning politicians. We all have our favorites and the ones we don’t like, but if you look at the 200-year period, there’s some pretty impressive people in there. This was always amazing to me when I was polling. Who are our models? Margaret Chase Smith; Ed Muskie; George Mitchell ’54, H’83; Bill Cohen ’62, H’76, and so on. These are people who played national roles.
When you go back to the nineteenth century, people from Maine were on the Supreme Court, they were vice presidents, they were this, they were that. Enormous, important roles. But, they weren’t the kind of Senator Byrd from West Virginia—grab everything and bring it back to Maine. When I polled, I always thought, “Gee, there’s a hidden thing.” If we can just find a politician who said, well, “I’m not going to play the national game. I’m just going to bring back everything I possibly can to the state of Maine.” And I never in any poll found a majority or even a plurality of Maine people who agreed with that. They were willing to sacrifice economic benefits in order to have their [representatives] be at the national level. And I think that’s pretty extraordinary to have gone on for 200 years. We expect our senators, especially, and even our congressmen, to play important national roles, and not always do what’s purely in Maine’s interest if it isn’t in the country’s interest. And that’s a luxury, if you think about it, for a poor, underdeveloped, elderly, spread-out state.
It's one of the biggest disappointments of my political life to see that [philosophy] of national interest over party and under such siege. At no time in my life has it been like this. The Senate was always the place where, “Okay, we’ll let them have their say, and now, let’s try to make something work.” They didn’t always make it happen, but that ethos was there. Unfortunately, I don’t see that today.
Where and why would you be optimistic about Maine’s future right now?
I think if we could just prioritize technological advantages. We could, if we just invest in the future of people, especially the people who have been left behind. You can telecommute from Moosehead Lake to anywhere in the world. But you have to have the [infrastructure] to do that. And Maine people—you know, there’s a saying that I’ve always treasured, which is from the coast but it applies to [the whole state]: “She’ll fish.” They’ll stick something together; she’ll fish. In other words, Maine people can do a lot with a little. They stitch it together. “We’ll try this. If that doesn’t work we’ll do this.”
So, [I’m optimistic about] Maine people and their ingenuity and their hard work and their willingness to do [anything], if we can just give them the tools. When companies come here and don’t succeed, it’s because of transportation costs or other factors. It’s not because of the Maine workforce. Companies love coming to Maine for the Maine workforce because Maine people work so hard.
If you didn’t live in Harpswell, but you stayed in Maine, where would you live and why?
I think that’s the toughest question because, when we moved to Maine the first year we lived in Bowdoin housing, and we looked in Topsham, we looked in Bowdoin, Bowdoinham, and Freeport. And one Friday night, we saw a tiny ad in the back of the paper for two and a half acres of land on the water. And that Saturday morning we drove out to Harpswell. First thing we saw was a moose walking across the road. Couple hundred yards farther there was a Native American woman living in a big yellow school bus. She was cooking outside. I turned to my wife and I said, “My god, you know we’re home.” It was something that spoke to us. And, you know there’s a fisherman. There’s a clammer. There are kids. There are retired grandmothers and grandfathers living there. There’s a mixed society everybody thrown together. It’s just a marvelous place.
[Around the holidays], we went to the Little Harpswell School. And they got it just right. It brought tears to my eyes. The little kids get up and they say, “Harpswell, my Harpswell, why would I ever leave?“ And I said, “That’s right.” I couldn’t give a reason to leave.
Is there a way that you can sum up your love for Maine?
It's the totality of the experience. The good and the bad. That spirit within. That “can do; we can do it” spirit. And then the effort to be one with the natural more than in other places. I’ve never gone out and walked through the woods that I didn’t feel better when I came home.
I did politics for forty years. Flying down from Bangor to Portland the night before the election, and looking down seeing all those little lights. And having some idea how it was going to come out, and maybe have some inflated notion that I had something to do with that. It gave me a sense of oneness. And I get that if I’m in Aroostook County. I get it in Hancock County.
I just feel at home in Maine in a way that I never felt at home anywhere else. Some people cock their heads when you wax eloquent on that because they don’t get it. But if you get it, you know what we’re talking about.
Professor Potholm’s books include works on war (Understanding War, War Wisdom, and Winning at War), on Maine (This Splendid Game, Maine: The Dynamics of Political Change, An Insider’s Guide to Maine Politics; and Tall Tales from the Tall Pines [fiction]); and on Africa (Four African Political Systems, The Theory and Practice of African Politics, and Swaziland). He is currently researching Hiding in Plain Sight: Woman Warriors throughout Time and Space.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.