This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.
Marvin Merritt IV ’20 was born and raised on the small island of Deer Isle, Maine, where his mother’s family fished for generations and his father’s were relative newcomers, having arrived a mere half-century ago. It is the kind of place where residents tell stories, a few of which are mostly true and others less so.
Deer Island is the kind of place where it’s an oddity to meet a kid whose parents were raised in another state. When that happened to Merritt in high school, “I remember asking him, ‘Your parents didn’t have the same teachers you did?’ It was revolutionary to me that kids could have different teachers than their parents or relatives, and not all be from the same place. That’s how much I was a byproduct of this community,” where nobody seemed to leave.
The custom of spinning yarns inspired Merritt’s senior thesis project in Theater, Dance & Media (TDM). He created a two-character show called “Dear Deer Isle” that sent him on a journey back to his hometown in Penobscot Bay, population about 3,000, and helped him understand how it shaped his love of performance and his life.
“Artists have a history of telling stories with their art, and generational fishermen definitely know how to tell many stories that are mostly false, completely fabricated,” said the once-Leverett House resident. “I feel like it was a natural progression for me to get interested in this oral storytelling tradition. It was an odd marriage of these two communities.”
The production, which Merritt originally planned to stage on campus at Newell Boathouse with a team of student collaborators, was designed as a series of vignettes that cover the island’s history and Merritt’s relationship to it and the people he grew up with.
Merritt spent the summer before his senior year collecting stories about his childhood and the island from his mother, friends from high school, and neighbors, including “Grandma Tillie,” a centenarian resident who regaled him with tales about life on the island before a bridge to the mainland was built in 1939.