By Steve Fuller
Special to The Ellsworth American
ELLSWORTH — Author of more than 30 books. Editor of one newspaper, and author of a weekly column in another for more than 60 years. One of the Maine Press Association’s inaugural inductees to its Hall of Fame. Cited by Maine’s top bestselling author to date as the best teacher he ever had, and hailed as the “quintessential Downeast storyteller.”
What person could boast such a resume and accolades? Stumped?
John Gould is perhaps no longer the household name that it once was in this state (nor does he enjoy the same niche, “I read…” bumper-sticker status that his contemporary Ruth Moore does), but his literary legacy lives on.
Remembered after his death in 2003 for his ability to turn “the eccentricities of small-town Maine into droll commentaries on human nature,” his writings resonated with readers near and far — and are now being given a new, literary lease on life.
Born in Massachusetts in 1908, Gould’s family returned to his father’s ancestral state of Maine when he was 10 and they settled in Freeport. The writing bug bit early, and Gould was published in both Youth’s Companion and the Rural New Yorker.
As a sophomore in high school he started writing for the Brunswick Record, where he continued to write while a student at Bowdoin College, and eventually went on to write for both the Boston Sunday Post and Christian Science Monitor. It was the latter where he had a weekly column for 61 years, from 1942 until he died in 2003.
His earliest books were published in the 1940s while his final one — a firsthand account of living in a retirement home, from which he was kicked out of after the book came out — was published in 2000. Throughout his writings, there was what publishers described as “acerbic Yankee wit” and “salty reflection.”
Gould recounted with amusement in 1995 for an Associated Press reporter how, while living in Friendship near where Andrew Wyeth would paint, he would put up a sign near his house at the start of the summer tourist season that said “Exhibition of Art.”
“People would come boiling in here thinking they were going to see Wyeth, I guess,” Gould told the reporter. “Then, on the barn, there would be a sign that said, ‘Today is Art’s Day Off.’ They’d drive out of here in high dudgeon.”
While perhaps not in high dudgeon, those seeking to read Gould’s works in recent decades may have found themselves at least in a state of semi-frustration as they have had to look in old bookshops and search online booksellers to find copies of his works. In recent years, however, Down East Books has been republishing some of his books for contemporary audiences to discover.
Ten have been republished so far, from 1941’s “Pre-Natal Care for Fathers” (republished in 2017) to 1987’s “Old Hundredth” last year. The latter is a collection of 49 essays inspired by Maine’s changing seasons. Three more books are set to be reissued this year, including 1951’s “Neither Hay Nor Grass.”
Though editors reported that his writing resonated with readers from Missouri to South Carolina, his work was firmly grounded in Maine. For his part, Gould said telling the stories he did was simply a reflection of the life he and those around him lived.
“We don’t write books in Maine,” he wrote. “We live books. We go hunting and fishing, we tend out on Grange meetings, we socialize as time permits, and after we’ve done enough living in Maine the pile is big enough and we send it to a publisher.”
In one of his first columns for the Christian Science Monitor, Gould told of how he took a plain old bucksaw and gave it a fancy black walnut frame with inlaid cherry and basswood — just because he could, and had the extra wood lying around. He paired that story with one of a neighbor who put up a Christmas tree in August after cutting down the perfect fir tree while building a woods road, all because he did not want the specimen to go to waste.
“Hasn’t conformity to rules of behavior taken a lot of snap out of life?” Gould pondered. “Who dares to paint his steps yellow, simply because he likes yellow? What housewife dares to hang the wash on the front lawn? It just simply isn’t done — is it?”
Gould took pride in the place in history held by his adopted home state, but even there found a way to mix in his trademark humor. In the essay “History and Folklore” in “The Jonesport Raffle,” Gould bemoans the fact that Benedict Arnold is remembered today almost solely for his act of treason during the American Revolution — rather than his earlier march in 1775 through the western wilderness of Maine to launch a surprise (and ultimately unsuccessful) attack on Quebec City.
Arnold’s March, as it came to be known, was a “physical ordeal that must have made Valley Forge seem like sunbathing in Yucatan,” Gould wrote. Marveling at how the men and the bateaux they were in made it over the Chain of Ponds and upstream along the Dead River, Gould gets in another dig at George Washington: “Their records say the soldiers’ boats ‘shipped some water.’ They sure did, and nobody stood up in the boat to have his picture taken.”
Gould received accolades and honors in abundance. He was inducted into the Maine Press Association’s Hall of Fame in 1998, in the first class of inductees which included James Russell Wiggins of The Ellsworth American and Guy P. Gannett, founder of Guy Gannett Communications.
On Aug. 17, 2002, under Governor Angus King, the state of Maine observed John Gould Day. A proclamation drafted for the event, in addition to hailing Gould’s “erudite and witty social commentary” and his status as a “distinguished newspaperman,” noted that Gould in his writings had “captured the unique Maine character and language on paper as few others have been able to do.”
Famed horror writer Stephen King, a 1966 graduate of Lisbon Falls High School, apprenticed at the Lisbon Enterprise where Gould was the editor. Years later, King recounted how Gould took his first feature article for the paper and in a matter of minutes weeded out extraneous words. King described watching that editing process as a “revelation.”
King said the elder writer taught him more in that brief session than anything he would learn in his high school or college classes: “John Gould taught me more than any of them, and in no more than 10 minutes,” King wrote in his book “On Writing.”
The literary critic Mark Kramer hoped readers might get to enjoy Gould’s talents with paper and pen even after the author had passed.
“If there is reincarnation,” Kramer wrote, “I’m selfish enough to wish that the next time around John Gould would come back as a writer again.”
Editor’s note: Steve Fuller wishes to disclose that his paternal grandfather held something of a long-term grudge against Mr. Gould after the author’s dog once bit him, now more than half a century ago. While the elder Mr. Fuller might have argued that Mr. Gould had the meanest — rather than the fastest — hound dog in the state of Maine, this writer declares publicly that he holds no grudge against Mr. Gould.