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The Portland Phoenix
April 19 - 26, 2001

[Book Reviews]

Being John Gould

Talking with Maine's old man of letters

By Lance Tapley

At 92 and with his 30th book recently published, John Gould is the famous, durable survivor of a group of Maine authors whose works hit a romantic chord within the nation’s reading public beginning in the 1940s. Equally durable as a newspaperman, he has published a column in the national Christian Science Monitor for 59 years.

In 1942, his Farmer Takes a Wife, about his own marriage, and Louise Dickinson Rich’s We Took to the Woods, also about the early years of a Maine couple, were both best sellers. Other popular books in this tradition included Margaret Henrichsen’s Seven Steeples in 1953 and Gertrude McKenzie’s My Love Affair with the State of Maine in 1955. These authors all wrote about a Maine in the American imagination that — because it didn’t go so fast where the rest of the country went — recalled readers nostalgically to their family roots on the farm and in the woods, and to their ancestors on the sea.

Gould’s particular take on Old Maine has been humorous, including wry commentary on the newfangled world. “Maine’s favorite comic genius,” says a publisher’s blurb on one of his books. Like contemporary comic Tim Sample and, years ago, Marshall Dodge of the Bert ’n I recordings, John Gould is a Professional Mainer. As the state now rapidly becomes like the rest of the country, with forests clear-cut, saltwater fish nearly fished out, and family farms killed by the Midwestern monsters, the classic Maine type that Gould represents and writes about is becoming much harder to find.

His titles tell you where he’s coming from: Dispatches from Maine, Maine’s Golden Road, Maine Lingo, The Fastest Hound Dog in the State of Maine, The Jonesport Raffle. Most of his books are essays; some are novels. There’s a lot of Down East posing in them. That’s what his readers want. Maine natives don’t take offense at the Professional Mainer; they are probably his biggest fans.

But Gould’s latest book, Tales from Rhapsody Home, is different — which is a big tribute to a 92-year-old. It’s got his no-nonsense, terse, earthy Yankee humor, but it’s also a biting criticism of an “assisted-living” old folks’ home. The subtitle is: What They Don’t Tell You about Senior Living. It is being bought nationally not only by his well-established following, but also by people concerned about the treatment of oldsters in our society.

Rhapsody Home is a made-up, ironic name of an establishment where Gould actually resided, located in the Portland suburbs. He and his now-90-year-old wife Dorothy moved there after giving up their farm in Friendship. Rhapsody Home, according to Gould, went out of its way to make life uncomfortable for the usually helpless residents who paid thousands of dollars a month to endure this “peaceful” hell.

But John Gould wasn’t, and isn’t, helpless. Frail, forced to use a walker, he still has intellectual strength. His Friday piece for the Monitor may make him the longest-running newspaper columnist in America (he writes it on a typewriter for which he has difficulty getting ribbons and then transfers the copy to a computer in order to e-mail it to Boston) . He suffered Rhapsody Home for five years, complaining but getting no satisfaction from the management and local and state authorities. He left for a better seniors’ home in Rockland just before Algonquin Books published Tales from Rhapsody Home late last year.

Gould was born in Massachusetts, but his father followed family ties back to Maine before he was 10. After graduating from Bowdoin College in 1931, he went to work on a weekly newspaper in Brunswick, married Dorothy in 1932, began free-lancing for The New York Times Magazine and other publications, soon began writing books, bought and for years edited a weekly newspaper in Lisbon Falls (the now-defunct Lisbon Enterprise), and fathered a boy and a girl (now 62 and 57).

He is a classic stylist on the pattern of the formal Latin rhetoric he studied at Freeport High School and then in college. The sentences are short, carefully, rhythmically balanced, and pared of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs — a mannered simplicity. Some of his vocabulary is wonderfully archaic: “Cark and care were behind us,” he writes in Rhapsody Home. His erudition shows in the occasional German, French, or Latin quotation or mythological reference.

The style quietly charms: “I was eighty-seven and my wife was not.” Soon come the punch lines — “so we curtailed our weekly skydiving sessions” — and, likely, a laugh out loud. He gets a lot out of a little: Rhapsody Home’s bad food, for example, or the demise of an electric fan.

There is more in Rhapsody Home than witty complaint — “The cold bread is kept cold in its dainty basket by a linen napkin” — including a number of digressive reminiscences. He has an amusing tale of accompanying his grandfather when he took some honeycomb to a very old girlfriend. Some stories express a kind of hard-edged pathos; a formerly active man is getting very old. He notes flatly his “atrophic leg.”

This interview began with a brief flaring of his cantankerousness. It was conducted in the Goulds’ tiny apartment filled with knick-knacks. With a wispy, white Vandyke beard and a mustache, wearing an L.L. Bean red-checked shirt and brown moccasins, he sat in a blue overstuffed chair. Dorothy, stylish in a red, Chinese-collar blouse, sat nearby and wrote at a small desk. She, too, uses a walker.

OLD AND NEW: Gould types his column for the Christian Science Monitor, then retypes it and emails it to Boston.


This is an abbreviated transcription.

 

Phoenix: Tell me about the influences on you, how they created the particular style you write in.

Gould: What’s that got to do with the book?

 

Q: Well, your book is an expression of your style.

A: There’s no answer to a question like that. The best thing you can do is go to work for a country weekly newspaper, and where do you find one? We don’t have one today. I was ten years on the old Brunswick Record, the best training in the world for writing. Our great American writers were all newspaper people.

 

Q: What were the literary influences on your style, the authors?

A: Oh, you read everything you can get hold of and keep the best. You’ve got to have the classics. You can’t do without it. But find a school today that teaches a good course in Latin. You don’t have one. I had ten years of Latin altogether. I majored in English, but you can’t major in English without stubbing your toe on the Latin classics as well as the Greek. I never studied Greek, but I read all the Greek authors in English: Homer, Euripides, Aeschylus, and you name it.

 

Q: Do you still read Latin?

A: Oh, yes, I can. I studied Lucretius, Horace, Ovid — people nobody knows about today.

Q: Your Latin must have developed your interest in other languages because I gather from reading your book that you know German.

A: I’m competent in German and French.

 

Q: In the book there was a quote in German from [the poet] Schiller. It was in a touching scene when the United Parcel man came to the home and, as you put it, he had “a mighty smile of good cheer,” and he said: “How is everything in God’s waiting room?” And then, you wrote, you thought of a saying you had once carved over the mirror on a bar.

A: It’s a couplet from Schiller: Nur mit Humor dein Dach bestellt, / dann lacht dir froh die ganze Weld. “Order your affairs with good humor, and the world will smile with you.”

 

Q: One of your first books, Farmer Takes a Wife, was a national best seller in 1942. What do you think was its appeal? And did it have the basic appeal of the writing you’ve done through the years?

A: Yeah, I think so. At the time the world was all upside down. The American people were beginning to move around a lot. The old hometown ties had been pretty much broken. The theme of Farmer Takes a Wife appealed to people. Everybody was homesick. And it sold and sold and sold. It went into book clubs and special editions and Reader’s Digest picked it up.

 

Q: What is the theme of Farmer Takes a Wife?

A: A Maine farmer went to Boston and found a wife and brought her home. She got naturalized.

 

Q: A lot of people would say it’s John Gould’s humor that’s appealing in his books. When I read Rhapsody Home I was amused, but it was touching, too.

A: Well, of course, “the sweetest songs are those that tell the saddest thought” [ quoting Shelley]. I think I’ve suffered a little bit under the title of a humorist. You can be funny and be goddam serious at the same time.

Q: In Rhapsody it seems to me there’s an undercurrent, a subtext about the difficulties of growing old, and that is not at all humorous.

A: I think humor can be used for a purpose, and it very often is. I suppose there’s nothing any sadder than somebody who slips on the ice and breaks his ankle, but everybody laughs when he goes down.

 

Q: How about models for you — was Mark Twain perhaps a model?

A: Mark Twain, yes — but I think when you’re judging humor on the basis of the mechanics of the job [Maine-born, turn-of-the-century author] Bill Nye was a far greater humorist than Mark Twain was. He’s been forgotten because he didn’t write Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain was a storyteller, but as a humorist he’s not our best.

 

Q: Can you explain how you write something humorous?

A: It varies. There are times when you can’t make a joke. It’s a strange business. It sure is. But to sit down and analyze it, I’m not so sure I can do it — or anybody can. Freud wrote a book on the essence of humor, but he didn’t know what he was talking about. Max Eastman wrote a book, The Enjoyment of Laughter, that was a much better book, but nobody bothered to read it. Look it up in the library.

 

Q: Your Christian Science Monitor column. Some of that material goes into your books, right?

A: Some of it does, but it’s always reworked.

 

Q: What kind of reading do you do?

A: I don’t read anything anymore. I don’t have the eyesight. I read my own copy, that’s all. I think I’ve read everything that’s worth reading.

 

Q: I don’t know if you could ever get to the end of that list.

A: Oh, I don’t know. One of the publishers told me not long ago the world is no longer interested in good writing.

 

Q: Tales from Rhapsody Home has gone into a second printing. How many copies were in the first?

A: I think 10,000.

 

Q: You must have a following around the country to sell that many right off the bat. Do you get a lot of mail from readers?

A: Oh gosh, yes. I have a woman come in once a week and help me answer it. I try to answer every letter that I get.

 

Q: What do you think of some contemporary Maine authors? Have you read Carolyn Chute, for example?

A: I think she’s probably a very interesting person.

 

Q: Did you like The Beans of Egypt, Maine?

A: Well, yes and no. I like it because it’s an original.

Q: Since you started writing about Maine, the state has changed a lot. One of the big changes that I’ve noticed is that the specialness of Maine seems to be diminishing. Maine was always this mythical and beloved place in the American imagination because we were different here. But now Maine people seem to be more like other people, and one of the ways that this is happening is that some of the traditional Maine occupations have been diminished. There aren’t many loggers or farmers anymore. Instead, now there are thousands of Maine men and women working for MBNA telemarketing credit cards. It’s a different kind of person. What are your thoughts on that change?

A: You’re absolutely right, of course. There’s no other way to look at things. The state has changed. The old family farm is gone. The kind of thinking that went on with that kind of people — we don’t have it anymore. You have no more guiding [of sportsmen] to do, and the state of Maine has no reason to have guides anymore. The old Maine guide that was great copy, he’s gone. Our values have gone. There isn’t a family farm left in the state of Maine. Aroostook County is all owned by somebody over in New Brunswick.

 

Q: Does that mean that Maine people are less self-reliant and independent than they used to be?

A: Well, it doesn’t make any difference whether they’re Maine people or from Wisconsin. They’re all in the same boat. They’ve conformed, and they’ve been conformed. This is a new age, and our standards have changed. We’re in bad shape. Maine used to be composed of cheerful people, but I’m afraid we’ve lost it. They joshed. They said funny things, and they visited. I can remember going down the Main Street in Freeport and again in Lisbon Falls. People on the way to the post office at nine o’clock in the morning would say “Hi Bill!” and “What’s the word?” It’s not the state of Maine. It’s everywhere. What makes these kids go in and shoot each other and things like that?

Q: Is the change in children because there are so many broken families, or both the mother and father are working, and there’s not much sense of a family anymore or sense of community? Doesn’t that come from the basic economics of the country in the sense that people are being driven to work so hard? Driven also by wanting to buy things — materialism?

A: Driven by the cursčd thirst for gold. Credit cards . . . Of course, we don’t go deep enough to rationalize the situation that allows credit cards. I had a Ford pick-up truck, and I bought it from a fellow in South Portland. I took it in for a check-up every six months. Finally, the guy says we can’t take your check. You’ll have to have a credit card. And he named the kind of credit card I had to have. Well, with a little inquiry you get the story. The bank squeezed him. He used to take his accounts receivable and go to the bank and borrow money. And they said no, and they insisted on credit cards. Well, the banks are at fault for this [the financial situation in the country]. The old country banks where you can walk in and shake hands with the manager are gone.

 

Q: Are there some changes for the good that you’ve seen?

A: Well, I think if you’d look around you’d say no. No, of course they’re not for the best. Change is not a good thing in itself. And if it works some misery it’s a bad thing.

 

Q: Now you don’t think it’s just because you’re in your nineties and it’s the tendency of old people to . . .

A: Of course it is! [He smiles.]

 

Q: You’re living in a very different kind of place in this home than you did a few years back when you were on your farm and you were closer to nature. Do you regret that?

A: Oh, you don’t regret it. It’s a matter of memories. I couldn’t get along without sitting here thinking about what I did twenty years ago . . . Unhappiness in these Rhapsody Homes is caused not so much by what the homes do but by the fact that they don’t think about it. If you go to [the management] and say why don’t you do this, they say there’s no necessity for that. Well, it doesn’t have to be a necessity, but at least they can be nice. That’s the difference between [the home] where we are now and where we’ve been.

 

Q: Are you relatively content here?

A: Oh, sure. No comparison . . . [He reaches for a piece of paper.] Here’s a bill that a damn fool put into the legislature up to Augusta. This guy wants the kennels and the horse doctors to state their services and the costs of them. It’s stupid! There isn’t an old-age assistance home in the state or in the United States today that will do such a thing as he’s asking them to do about dogs! And you’ve got every grammy and grampy penned up in one of these Rhapsody Homes, and if they asked them to do that they’d get kicked out right away! If you go to the mayor and say “I think I’m being abused here at Rhapsody Home, see what you can do,” his first question is, “Do you have an agreement?” And of course you don’t. If you insisted on one you wouldn’t get in. Everybody in the legislature knows that the State of Maine has no authority over these places. There’s no law requiring them to do anything.

 

Q: When you wrote Rhapsody Home, did you embellish it, or was it pretty much straight in terms of the facts?

A: Everything in that book is the truth — absolutely! . . . [The state inspectors] come and look at these places and there’s nothing they can do. They’re licensed under the same rubber stamp. [Whether they’re abusive or not] depends entirely on the management.

 

Q: What was the primary problem that you saw there?

A: Hostility and antagonism on the part of management. An absolute refusal to make any adjustments. I don’t think they’re breaking any law. That’s the problem. There are no laws. There’s no regulation that requires a home like this one or any one to wash the supper dishes before they use them again. And we got dirty dishes at Rhapsody Home.

 

Q: Do we need to pass a law to regulate the homes?

A: The governor of the state of Maine doesn’t have any interest whatever in the old folks. He doesn’t even answer letters. And the director of the licensing bureau — he’s hard to find. So I think we should start at the top. We should find a governor who’s interested. We should seek some legislation. And if they’re going to make statements to dogs, then at least make the same statements to our grampies and grammies.

 

Q: And what would be the major thrust of the legislation? To have a more thorough investigation of every home?

A: You got to have some kind of a code of performance. Why doesn’t somebody running for office make a campaign on it? The mail that I’ve had [on the issue of the treatment of old people] has been voluminous, and there hasn’t been one letter that’s disagreed with me. Probably the worst situation is in nursing homes. There isn’t a nurse that won’t tell you that.

 

Q: You sound more like an activist than a dyed-in-the-wool Republican.

A: This has come about. I wasn’t in the beginning. I didn’t know. I thought we were going to a nice place. But we found out it was run by crooks, victimizing us. [A state Department of Human Services official] told me you got to bear in mind that these people who run these homes all make political contributions. And they’ve got more clout than you have. And I said wait a minute while I write that down . . . The thing is we don’t give one damn about our grandfathers and grandmothers any more. We stick ’em away into these places. We don’t look into it. And when we do find something we don’t do anything . . . I don’t like the label activist. There’s nothing I can do sitting here as an old duffer.

 

Q: Anything that perhaps I didn’t cover that you want to express to the world?

A: Well, I’ve said that we’ve come through the twentieth century all right, and if there’s anything about the twenty-first century that’s better, please write and tell me.

She couldn’t pee

This excerpt from Rhapsody Home is one of Gould’s frequent digressions, but he connects it at the end to a subject he relishes, complaint as the common conversational topic at the old-folks’ home. Here he recollects a boyhood visit with his very elderly grandfather to the home of his ancient girlfriend, Myrtle Winstead. They rode there in horse and buggy. This must have taken place in 1921. (LT)

 

“Well Myrt,” said my grandfather, “How’ve you been?”

“Miserable,” said Myrt. “Real poorly. How about you, Thomas?”

My grandfather said, “Can’t complain. But you’re the one’s been ailing. What’s your trouble?”

It was just plain fact that I didn’t know people went into details about such things, and as a polite little boy trained in euphemisms, I didn’t expect what I heard sweet old Myrtle say. There she sat, feminine as my own careful mother, pink apron indeed, and with Grandfather Thomas bending toward her she said, “I couldn’t pee!”

Grandfather, who was losing his hearing, said, “What-say?”

“I said I couldn’t pee!”

Grandfather said, “Oh?”

Myrtle said, “Went the better part of a week ‘thout.” Grandfather shook his head, seemingly meditating on the matter. Myrtle said, “I got Lennie to send Dr. Potter, and he come and put the tube to me.”

Grandfather said, “What-say?”

“Doc Potter dreened me!”

“Doc Potter, you say?”

Myrtle said. “Eyah, got more’n a quart!”

“What-say?”

“I say he got more’n a quart!”

“What-say?”

“I say he got more’n a quart!”

Grandfather said, “You don’t say!”

Myrtle said, “After that I felt some better, and I’m taking pills he left.”

 

In this way, at thirteen years of age, I learned about such things and was being prepared for old age in a retreat for senior living. Here at Rhapsody Home there is rarely an entirely good day, and if at suppertime everybody is at hand, don’t forget the day is not yet over and the ambulance is ready to roll. When the victim returns, following treatment and repairs, she will have the undivided attention of one and all. And even if, as I have mentioned already, the women are better conversationalists, the men have a stake in such things, too. When I hear these discussions, I try to smile and think of Grandfather and Myrtle, who shared, that afternoon, their woes and maladies in detail, giving both of them pleasure.

So now, as Mrs. Rancourte passes around the color photographs of the work they did on her spleen, I try to see the beauty in them. Of the dozen shots she showed us, we agreed on one in particular, which she used on her Christmas cards.

Ailments might be awkward, but they make something to talk about. I listen, here at Rhapsody Home, and I try to be sympathetic. It helps to remember dear Myrtle Winstead, Grampie’s girlfriend, who couldn’t pee.

 

—from Tales from Rhapsody Home: Or, What They Don’t Tell You about Senior Living, by John Gould. Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 182 pages, $18.95. Reprinted with permission.

 

Lance Tapley can be reached at ltapley@ctel.net.

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