The term mainland suggests some immense solidity, as opposed to the fragmentation of land into islands. An island is limited and has a periphery, but the mainland is thought of as an indefinite mass, which goes on to the horizon. Mainland is always a relative term. The American continent was perceived by the first European explorers as an island in the way of China, and they pushed inland to get to the end of it. The state of Maine takes its name from “the main,” the mainland as opposed to the many islands the explorers found off the coast. One geographical dictionary gives this example of the use of the term: “Two islands, north of Newfoundland, were given over to the fiends from whom they derived their name, the Isles of Demons. The passing voyager heard the din of their infernal orgies . . . ‘and all who dwelt there have fled for refuge to the main.’” Mainland is used by residents of Hawai‘i for the continental United States, and used frequently in the summer colonies on Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Fishers Island in the common phrase “I’m going over to the mainland to buy . . .” As Elizabeth Bishop once wrote about her New Haven, Maine, home, “The cows come here and get island sick & have to be taken for a trip to the mainland.” There is some question as to whether the word comes from the Greek monos (single) or megas (big). Donne’s “no man is an island, alone unto himself, but every man is a part of the main” presents the paradox of the human condition, the mystery of whether, or how, in the mass of humanity, there can be such a thing as an individual.

Susan Brind Morrow