Carolyn Chute's Wicked Good Militia

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

By Dwight Garner
February 24, 1996 2:11PM (UTC)
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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

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

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."

Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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