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Carolyn Chute's Wicked Good Militia

By Dwight Garner
salon.com
Feb 24, 1996

The author of "The Beans of Egypt, Maine" is leading an army of grave, silent woodsmen in a backwoods campaign against corporate greed.

Well, at least one debate is finally settled: Carolyn Chute – novelist, wry Earth Mother, accidental militia leader — has this election year’s fiercest and funniest stump speech.

Pat Buchanan may want a “lock and load” foreign policy; Chute invites her admirers to bring their guns back to her place to “plunk away at dog food cans” and “smell the stink of sulfur.” Lamar Alexander may tinkle away half-heartedly on upright pianos; Chute leads her gathered through a vigorously subversive rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” that includes stanzas such as “This land is Wal-Mart’s! … This land is Exxon’s!” and that ruefully concludes: “This land weren’t made for you and me.” Steve Forbes may peddle his flat tax; Chute is for flattening greedy corporations, and she draws whoops and cheers with homely, old-fashioned similes. “A corporation is like a bad chair,” she proclaims to the 100 or so people who have packed a remote former schoolhouse in this rural Maine town to hear her. “You sit on it, and if it pokes you in the ass, you throw it away.”

Welcome to the spirited second meeting of Chute’s 2nd Maine Militia, a loosely-organized and decidedly non-partisan group of pro-gun, anti-big business citizens that just may give American politics a much-needed poke in the ass.

Carolyn Chute, at age 49, isn’t running for anything, nor is her “Wicked Good Militia,” as she likes to call it, backing any candidates. But this shy, genial woman, dressed as usual in a frumpy skirt, mud boots and bandana, seems committed to reminding voters that the real divide in American politics isn’t Left vs. Right — it’s Up vs. Down. Chute likens the grim American economic climate to a “burning house,” and worries that too many people have quit trying to run rescue missions, instead standing off to the side talking about tangential issues: “gay rights, guns, welfare mums, and drugs.” Her brand of optimistic, let’s-band-together economic populism neatly skirts Buchanan’s bigotry and exploitative fear, and takes direct aim at the kind of class issues that make most politicians flee in blind panic.

Chute’s ideas are clearly resonating in ingrown, isolated rural Maine, where unemployment is high, where most have been left behind by the tech revolution, and where logging companies, Chute says, “are threatening to turn the land into a moonscape.” When you mix in Chute’s innate sense of theater — meetings begin with a bang on a tin trash can lid, the hall is strewn with placards and signs listing the sins of various CEOs, and her stern, bearded, rifle-bearing husband Michael greets visitors at the door wearing a tricornered patriot’s hat — the militia’s hardscrabble appeal is just about undeniable.

Those who’ve come to hear her, on this recent Sunday, run the ideological gamut from bespectacled former union organizers to stooped, demure local janitors. But as she speaks, Chute pointedly keeps one eye on a gaggle of big, beefy, unkempt men loitering by the door — men who seem to have sprung up directly from her now-classic first novel, a vivid chronicle of rural poverty titled “The Beans of Egypt, Maine.” (“If it runs, a Bean will shoot it,” Chute wrote of these brawling backwoods men. “If it falls, a Bean will eat it.”)

“I know some of you people here are shy,” she says, glancing over at the would-be Beans. They’re what Chute likes to think of as her core constituency — round, spikily-bearded men who’ve emerged from the surrounding woods and trailer parks, dressed in so many grimy layers of clothing that they seem almost like black denim artichokes. “We want shy people in this militia. We want you to show up when we confront politicians, and to bring your grave silence along with you. Grave silence is far more powerful than the same old voices yapping away.” The men nod and stare back at her, suddenly graver and silenter than ever.

Scaring Off Yuppies

 Carolyn Chute clearly doesn’t mind, as militia member and Maine journalist Catherine Sengel puts it, “scaring off yuppies.” In fact, Sengel feels that Chute’s focus on guns serves a pair of distinct purposes – beyond the fact that Chute’s husband loves backyard target practice. “It keeps away the same old tired bohemian intelligentsia types,” she says. “And it attracts the Mainers she really wants. Up here, the disenfranchised are generally the people with guns.”

Chute puts it another way. “It’s a constitutional and a cultural issue,” she says, in an interview shortly before the meeting. “People around here have guns, both for hunting and to protect themselves. And frankly, we don’t want the government to have guns and not us. We don’t want the government to have anything we don’t have, because government isn’t We The People anymore. And guns won’t go away, anymore than abortion ever has, or marijuana.”

Coming from anyone else — Pat Buchanan, let’s say — such a pro-buckshot posture would seem coolly cynical. But little about Chute or her life seems in any way calculated; she has lived the kind of grinding poverty she writes about in her three earthy and plainspoken novels, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” (1985), “Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts” (1988) and “Merry Men” (1994).

A high school dropout at age 16, Chute married almost immediately and gave birth to her first child, a daughter. The marriage ended in divorce; Chute survived with her daughter by working a long series of dead-end jobs – including plucking chickens, driving a school bus, and working on a potato farm, rarely making more than $2,000 a year. It was only after marrying her current husband, an illiterate jack-of-all-trades named Michael Chute, in 1978, that she completed high school at night and began taking classes at the University of Maine. She began writing stories while attending a writing workshop there, and eventually had fiction published in magazines like “Grand Street” and “Ploughshares” before beginning work on “The Beans of Egypt, Maine.” “This book was involuntarily researched,” she said in an interview at the time. “I have lived poverty. I didn’t choose it. No one would choose humiliation, pain, and rage.”

Over the years, Chute has poured that humiliation, pain and rage into her fiction. But she has retained a peppery political streak, dashing off heated Op-Ed pieces to New England newspapers, and (famously) teaching one of her dogs to growl at the mention of the name Reagan.

These days, she says, she’s rather be working on her fourth novel, which she has partially completed, than talking politics. But for now, the militia is taking nearly all of her time. “I’ve spent $1,000 on all this photocopying and whatnot, and I’m broke,” she says. “But it’s worth it. There is no candidate out there who is addressing these issues, and who isn’t taking corporate gifts, who isn’t owned,” she says. “Voting isn’t enough anymore. We can only vote for the clowns that are put up there. I don’t expect anything to change soon — we’re talking about the kind of revolution that will take place over decades, not in the next election.”

It doesn’t help the militia speed things up, some members grumble, that Chute doesn’t own a telephone, and that people are forced to write or drive out to her house to contact her. “Not having a phone is her defense mechanism,” Sengel says. “She’s too kind. If she has a phone, she’ll talk for an hour to whomever calls.”

The Big Green Paper Nipple

Thus far, the 2nd Maine Militia’s official membership totals only a few dozen, and it isn’t clear, beyond a few scheduled rallies and meetings, where exactly its energies will be directed.

Watching Chute in action, however, you quickly come to understand why she has touched a chord in so many Mainers, including a 61-year-old local boiler operator named Carl Adams from nearby Buxton. “It’s good to see people finally getting together and standing up for something,” Adams says. “It’s time to talk about some new, different ideas. This woman has the kind of spirit we really need.”

Watching from the back row with Adams, Chute’s message comes off as a funky mixture of homespun humor and more serious economic analysis. One minute she plays to the crowd, suggesting that everyone pry themselves off the “big green paper nipple” and drawing laughs with riffs on how products are getting progressively worse. “Everything’s getting cheesier,” she says, laughing. “I just bought a new snow shovel, and it broke! I admit it was a heavy snow day, but what’s going on? It was probably made in Hawaii.” In the next, however, she’s quoting economist Milton Friedman (“A corporation cannot be ethical; its only responsibility is to turn a profit”) and bashing Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

Chute passes around a copy of a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Reich, in which he advocates giving corporations incentives to be socially responsible. Chute has penciled the word “Yikes” in the margins. “These corporations don’t need incentives,” she says. “What we need to do is throw their corporate charters in the trash. People will get the idea, and you know the shareholders will.”

Chute’s politics have attracted the attention of — and have been influenced by — the ideas of the well-known Maine union organizer Peter Kellman, who heads the Maine Chapter of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, as well as the group’s national leader, Rich Grossman. All three carry a fervent populist vision, and are fond of quoting Thomas Paine citizen’s lament: “Beneath the shade of our own vines we are attacked; in our own house, and on our own lands, is the violence committed against us.”

In the end, however, it’s clear that Chute idiosyncratic views are no one’s but her own. The 2nd Maine Militia’s “first document” lists some of her bedrock objectives, including: extending the right of free speech and assembly to work sites and shopping malls; banning lobbyists from the political process; banning paid political ads in favor of requiring the electronic media to devote air time to candidates; limiting campaign contributions to $100 per citizen; and limiting the number of newspapers or magazines that can be owned by any single person or corporation to one.

The militia document also criticizes at length the Supreme Court’s ruling, in the 1886 Santa Clara case, that corporations could be granted various rights that citizens have, including free speech protections. Corporations “now dominate the public and private life of our society,” the fiery document reads, “defining the economic, cultural and political agenda for humans and all other living things.”

Chute’s distinct brand of non-partisan populism fits in well with New England’s persistent independent streak. Maine has the country’s only independent governor in Angus King, and nearby Vermont has the country’s only independent/socialist congressman in maverick Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, Chute has an earthy appeal — it’s populism with a very human face.

A Lonely, Scary Road

The militia meeting is winding down, and outside the day has turned blustery, and smoky clouds alternate with moments of what Chute has described, in “The Beans of Egypt, Maine,” as “birdless airplaneless sunless cloudless leafless sky … warm steaming blue.”

Inside, Chute is steaming as well. “Do you ever feel amazed when people tell you it’s not as bad here as in other countries?” she asks, pulling back a strand of her wispy brown hair from her eyes. “You want to ask: Where have they been? Certainly not in Maine.” But her message is, as always, ultimately consoling. “We need to stay together, to spread the truth like religion,” she says. “It’s a lonely, scary road, and we’ve got to walk it together.”

Over by the door, the largest of the grave, silent woodsmen looks up and says, quietly, “Amen.”

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