A Bit More About John Gould

[I’m “off the air” for a few days, holed up at an undisclosed location. It’s what guys like me call “vacation time.” While I’m away, I’ll leave you with the transcript of my talk on former Lisbon writer, John Gould, held at the Lisbon Historical Society, Wednesday night.–the j(b)e.]

John Gould is one of a handful of Maine authors that once were known statewide and beyond for their literary contributions. Today, few people outside of a demographic that is likely to be weighted towards card-carrying members of the AARP know who Gould is.

So, who was John Gould?

A thumbnail bio reads like this:

  • Between 1942 and 2003, he wrote more than 30 books.
  • He also maintained a weekly syndicated column for The Christian Science Monitor that ran for 62 years, which makes him America’s longest-running syndicated columnist.
  • He wrote a best-selling book, the book that put him on the map for many, Farmer Takes a Wife. That book reached best-selling status 71 years ago.
  • Gould’s final work, Tales from Rhapsody Home, or What They Don’t Tell You About Senior Living, was released when Gould was 92-years-old. For his efforts to put the spotlight on how many seniors were being mistreated in the twilight years of their life, and paying for that “privilege,” he and his wife Dot got booted out of the home where they were living at the time.

You could say that Gould was the Garrison Keillor of his time and generation. His wry observations, mixed with a contrarian streak, offered a portrait of small-town Maine that few others have been able to capture—Ruth Moore (another forgotten Maine writer) is someone that comes to mind. Ironically, Moore’s book of letters contains several between her and Gould, as he was also fond of corresponding in a fashion that once marked how we kept in touch, long before social media made button pushing the bomb.

Nice turnout at the Lisbon Historical Society to hear about John Gould.

Nice turnout at the Lisbon Historical Society to hear about John Gould.

I’ve now written two essays about Gould—one found in my book, The Perfect Number: Essays and Stories, Volume 1 that came out in 2012, and the one that came out last November in Down East Magazine, comparing and also contrasting Gould with another contemporary, E.B. White, he of Charlotte’s Web fame, along with other popular titles.

Yet for all of Gould’s considerable talent and popularity, White remains fairly well-known with his books being readily available. John Gould’s work, save for a handful of titles, is now out-of-print.

When I was first doing some preliminary research on Gould back in 2011, considering at least an essay to try to resurrect some interest in a writer I first heard about when I was in grade school, I spoke with Gary Lawless, the co-owner of Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick.

Lawless had published one of John’s books (I don’t remember the title). Like often happens with small press publishers like Lawless’s Blackberry Press, the distribution wasn’t as wide and the sheer numbers less than possible as with some of Gould’s prior national publishers, like Little, Brown and Company,  W.W. Norton and others.

I’ve gotten to know Lawless over the years from convincing him to carry my own books, and he and I will often talk about the state of publishing. He mentioned that John wasn’t the easiest guy to work with and that he was critical of Gary’s efforts to distribute his book.

I’m sure this was born of frustration, as Gould’s lifetime paralleled the subsequent zenith of publishing, and then he began experiencing firsthand its descent into its current digital Balkanization. Once, publishing was a vehicle that kept writers like Gould in business and able to make a comfortable living, rewarding him for a talent that is still all-too-rare—the ability to use words to tell stories. And fortunately for Gould, his place in history allowed him to clunk along to the end, not needing to scramble about holding all manner of other gigs in order to keep writing.

I could go on about Gould as an author and about his myriad titles from Farmer Takes a Wife forward, but tonight, I wanted to touch on another aspect of Gould’s life that I rarely hear anyone talk about. That being his newspaper background and days as a publisher. There’s a reason for that and you’ll recognize it by the end of tonight’s short talk, which I want to wrap up in another 10 minutes or so, and then I’ll open it up to some questions if anyone has any.

Gould actually self-identified as a newspaper guy.

He began his newspaper career in 1922, when he was still a freshman in high school, writing the Freeport news for the Brunswick Record. He continued with them right on through his time at Bowdoin and then worked full-time for the old Boston Post.

Later, he’d cover news and opinion for the Brunswick Record through 1939.

In 1942, he launched a weekly column for the Christian Science Monitor, and continued it up until shortly before his death in 2003.

Much like Norm Fournier, he was interested in covering the things that make small towns tick, as well as the things that happen behind the scenes. Newspaper men like Fournier and Gould never get rich and probably barely scraped by at times—yet they felt a calling to cover the news in a manner that made journalism an honest calling—unlike the ideological hackery that passes for journalism today, with reporters in the bag for Candidate Clinton. But I’m not here to prove that point (I’ll leave that up to you to do your own research on that).

Gould was the publisher of a statewide weekly called The Lisbon Enterprise, from 1958, through 1965. He was a Goldwater Republican, and it was his support of Goldwater in 1964 that ultimately proved to be his undoing. Kind of like if we still had a newspaper here in town and the editor week in and week out tried to counter the tide of fluff pieces in purported bastions of journalism like the New York Times and the Washington Post, portraying Mrs. Clinton as far superior to Mr. Trump, with the media casting him as a buffoon, unhinged, and all manner of other ad hominem attacks.

My point is that John Gould was no shrinking violet. Later, Fournier would continue that journalistic tradition. Gould believed what he believed and even if he went down with the ship, he was going to write and publish what he thought was right, not what was politically expedient.

For several years now, I’ve watched my former town of Lisbon turn into a shell of its former self. The economic vitality that the town once had is long gone. I actually tacked that subject in another essay. A lot of damn good it’s done me to care about John Gould and the economic fortunes of Lisbon. While my Moxie books, about some bitter soft drink that a cult following lionizes, have sold in the thousands, my book of essays have garnered sales of slightly more than 200 copies. Writing about what needs to be written about doesn’t guarantee riches, that’s for sure. Fournier warned me about that back in 2006 or 2007.

Now, Lisbon has no one writing about what’s happening. Fournier and Gould, of course, are long gone. Instead, we’re treated to a bunch of blathering on Facebook that rarely contains even a glimmer of truth and is at best, mere conjecture.

Look at the Worumbo Mill. Has anyone bothered to write about how a once-vibrant textile mill fell into disrepair and eventually, the choice of last resort was to demolish it? Anyone with an ounce of care and concern for this town can’t drive by the site without wondering what might have been if someone, or a handful of community leaders could have mustered a vision and set about saving it. Look at places that have rescued former mills—Fort Andross in Brunswick and the former Pepperell Mill complex in Biddeford. Heck, the Bates Mill in Lewiston was slated for demolition, but a group of leaders got together and managed to resurrect one of L-A’s architectural gems.

Using Gould and Fournier as guides, I’ve attempted to offer a narrative about the town that’s fallen on ears that lack the capacity to hear. I’m not sure why that is, although I have a few theories.

Let me end tonight with a passage from the essay I wrote about John Gould in 2012 (from The Perfect Number: Essays & Stories, Vol. I).


2 thoughts on “A Bit More About John Gould

  1. As I read through your first paragraphs I was thinking, Gould and White were also newspaper men at heart. White honed his art in a NYC that had literally dozens of daily newspapers, morning and evening, seven days a week.

    And then, there it was, you said the exact thing. But as I tip-tap, I remember another newspaper man who seems an odd comparison, but maybe not: George Orwell.

    Paul Fussell wrote of Orwell that he had a power (and Fussell stressed it was a power, not a gift or a talent) for facing unpleasant truths. Straightforward writing without affectation was a hallmark of all three men, and Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” should be taught to anyone calling themselves educated, just as White and Strunk’s Elements of Style is essential.

    As you alluded to in how the Goulds were treated after publication of his last book, Gould, too, knew every lesson those works, saw clearly and spoke truthfully, albeit with a dry, wry twist of Yankee humor that White and Orwell lacked.

    Enjoy the vacation.

  2. Good piece Jim. Thank you so so much for your thoughtful and well researched info on John Gould.

    Traveling to the Botanical Gardens last week with a few of my friends we noticed a wall standing and they commented on how stark and sad it looked. I exclaimed that it looked like the Parthenon. Now wasn’t that a dumb comment! I guess I perhaps looked at it as what was and maybe what could be. The mills have stood vacant for so long. Perhaps my more positive outlook comes from a new positive turn my life has taken of recent.

    I grew up in a Ware, Massachusetts, a town full of Woolen Mills and a shoe shop that employed many residents of the town. Those mills are no longer but have stood vacant for many years. One of those residents was my Dziadek, a Polish immigrant who never learned English. My dad dropped out of high school in the late thirties to work there and to help support the family.
    I am proud to say he was one of the first people in America to graduate with a GED just after WW II and became an educator for 35 years.

    I was at the Cumberland Craft Fair this weekend and ran into a man who knows Ware well. He told me they are revitalizing the mills. I was pleased to hear that. Like you Jim and many others we do love our hometowns and want them to prosper and be beautiful and respected. They are a part of us. And that never goes away.

Comments are closed.