John Gould still waits to welcome you home

Even 80 years after his first essay ran in the Monitor, and 19 years since his death, John Gould’s stories reward readers abundantly.

Peter Main/The Christian Science Monitor/File
John Gould in Gorham, Maine, in 1987. He also lived in Lisbon Falls and Friendship.

Here’s how I came to love John Gould.

I first encountered his “Dispatches From the Farm” on my grandmother’s refrigerator door – a sure signal to a kid that whatever was under that magnet would make you laugh, especially if someone reads it to you.

Those early Gould stories felt to me like home, even if home was nothing like a farm in Maine. Each column invited me into Mr. Gould’s life and made the smallest detail of a day worthy of attention: why oatmeal long-simmered in an iron pot beats “instantized” rolled oats; why apple pies must have lard crusts; why you wrap a hot brick in flannel on a cold night and put it in your bed.

Such issues were Mr. Gould’s world and his genius was to make them ours. His essays creep up on you and often end with a twist. Few writers have told so many stories about events of so little consequence with such telling effect.

The act of reading Mr. Gould – a few columns or 62 years’ worth, plus 30 books – is like taking a long walk in deep woods. Either way, you wind up thinking more about the power of an unruffled sensibility, keenly observant, unburdened by self-importance, eager to see what’s round the bend.

I warmed to any story about a moose, and Mr. Gould wrote plenty of them: the moose that liked peanut butter; the moose that watched wrestling on TV; the cow moose that brought her calves by the back porch for a visit. The bull moose that stopped by a window in Mr. Gould’s forest camp every morning for a week to see how the dishwashing was coming along.

But every few years, Mr. Gould would take his moose stories beyond the laughs. After moose had been hunted to near-extinction in Maine, the state abolished moose hunting in 1935. By the 1970s, hunters were clamoring to repeal the ban, and moose hunting was reinstated in 1980. But Mr. Gould persisted in trying to persuade his fellow Mainers otherwise. “There isn’t a moose in Maine today that can’t be hit with a baseball,” Mr. Gould wrote in 1983. Shooting a moose is about as sporting as “winging dear old grandma as she stands at the sink paring potatoes.” He’d worked on that phrase for years, it seems. In 1980, it was “equal to shooting your own grandmother while she sat on the front porch rocker knitting a mitten.” In 1977, “fully as inspiring as petting somebody’s pet pussy cat sleeping in the sun on the stoop.”

He wrote essays the way he split wood: with studied precision. The humor that runs throughout his writing isn’t just ethnic Maine humor or “ha ha” humor. It’s “welcome to my home” humor. Welcome to where I live.

“He had such a powerful mind, and a gift with languages,” says longtime friend and Maine humorist Bob Skoglund (“The humble Farmer”) in a phone interview. “He could take something that happened 70 years before and make it relevant to something today.” Humor opened the door to write about any topic, he adds. “Gould would say, ‘It’s all how you handle it.’ You can say most anything, but if people are laughing, you’ve kind of got them.” 

Maine writer Stephen King, also no stranger to the art of drawing readers into a story, credits Mr. Gould with teaching him how to write. “Gould taught me everything I needed to know about editing: stick to the story and eschew the fancy stuff,” wrote Mr. King in an email. “He was my best teacher. God bless him. Sane, straightforward, no – ” and here he used a term familiar to any farmer. 

Mr. Gould started developing his own style of taut storytelling laced with humor at an early age. He submitted his first piece for publication (and payment!) to “The Youth’s Companion” before he started elementary school, wrote Robert Domingue in his unpublished biography “John T. Gould: The Venerable Raconteur.” 

After the Gould family moved to Freeport, Maine, John connected with nearby newspapers. As a sophomore in high school, he became The Brunswick Record’s Freeport correspondent – a connection that helped finance his years at Bowdoin College. 

That’s also when he discovered Maine-born author Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson), a popular 19th-century humorist of the American West. With his newspaper earnings, John bought all of Mr. Nye’s books, which he studied to understand how to tell a story and how to make it funny. 

Mr. Gould’s grandfather lived on the family homestead in Lisbon Falls, 10 miles from Freeport and accessible by trolley. Summers of hunting and fishing with his grandfather provided grist for decades of writing. The Gould view of the world that drew in so many readers was shaped by his early interest in writing for others, a near-perfect memory, a passion for accurate observation, and a deep-settled goodwill. 

“He had an irrepressible wit; it was unstoppable!” says Sherrie Bergman, a Bowdoin College librarian for 20 years and the closest Mr. Gould ever came to having a writing assistant. “John’s vocabulary was vast, from another generation,” she says, “and sometimes sent me scrambling for a dictionary – in German as well as English.”

Mr. Gould didn’t record his impressions in diaries or journals. He never had to. “My father’s greatest gift was his memory. He never forgot anything,” says daughter Kathy Christy in an interview at her Standish, Maine, home filled with furniture her father made of wood from the woodlot of the Lisbon farm. To keep a journal “would be to write for himself,” she says. “Every line my father wrote was to be published.”

The last essential step in Mr. Gould’s writing was to read it aloud to his wife, Dottie. Her word was final, says Ms. Christy. If Dot didn’t approve, John would rewrite. (Note: Dorothy Florence Wells was first in her high school class in Arlington, Massachusetts, and won a full scholarship to Radcliffe College – which her father would not allow her to accept.) 

Mr. Gould’s connection to The Christian Science Monitor, like so much in his writing, was emphatically local. The Gould farm in Lisbon Falls was two miles down the road from the farm where Erwin Canham, the storied editor of the Monitor, had lived as a child. In 1942, Mr. Gould sent a few essays to Mr. Canham, who eagerly published them. Soon, Mr. Gould was receiving more mail than most other Monitor writers combined.

Readers had a say in the Gould opus. Any lapse in grammar was quickly noted, either in letters to The Home Forum editor or directly to the Gould household in Lisbon or Friendship. And a column on the night that Stubbie the cat was tossed out of the house and landed on a skunk prompted such an outcry that Mr. Gould quickly composed a “Dispatch From the Farm Cat”: “I am well and active and I want you to know that,” it read.

His Monitor connection ended with his death in 2003. In his last conversation with his daughter, both became misty-eyed. Ms. Christy says her father told her, “Kathy, don’t cry. I’m only crying because I have more stories to tell.”

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