Saturday, December 09, 2006

Writing for a region

America was once a nation made up of distinct regions and cultural mores. While there are still some unique distinctions based upon our geographic location, more often than not, corporate homogenization has defanged our quirks built on place and made us all the same flavor of tapioca pudding.

Just as our regions were once unmatched and particular, so was the writing of each region’s poets and storytellers. The Oxford Companion to American Literature defines regional literature as “…a kind that finds the dual influence of romanticism and realism, since the author frequently looks away from ordinary life to distant lands, strange customs, or exotic scenes, but retains through minute detail a sense of fidelity and accuracy of description."

Examples of writers, who gave voice to their own region, were Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor in the South. In the Midwest, the poetry of Carl Sandburg helped define the working class neighborhoods, existing alongside the railyards and industrial areas of Chicago. Mark Twain was responsible for much of our understanding of life on the Mississippi River, although Twain actually born in Florida, but moved to Hannibal, Missouri at the age of four.

A contemporary writer still rooted in his region, with its flavor finding its way to the pages of his books, is essayist, poet and novelist, Wendell Berry. Berry has helped keep agrarian values alive with numerous books firmly grounded in the Kentucky soil bordering the Kentucky River, where he resides.

John Gould was one such writer, creating a body of work about his adopted state of Maine that is unmatched by few, if any. Gould, whose column ran regularly in The Christian Science Monitor for sixty years, was first introduced on October 21, 1942, as a “country correspondent whose writings naturally have a distinct flavor of the soil.” I can’t think of a clearer description of Gould and his more than half-a-century’s worth of work compiled in Dispatches From Maine 1942-1992, which I’m currently reading.

I have taken an interest in the late writer’s body of work, partly because he lived in Lisbon Falls, which is where I was born and grew up. In fact, the road where he lived for six decades bears his name. For a number of years, he ran The Lisbon Enterprise, back in the days when hometown newspapers where ubiquitous. The Enterprise actually had a short run as a statewide newspaper, which many contend was Gould’s undoing.

In 2005, shortly after I released When Towns Had Teams, I was invited by Norm Fournier, a local journalist and publisher of some local renown, who had taken over the paper from Gould in the 1960s, to drop off a copy of my book and to chat.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit with Fournier, as he spoke to me about the life of publishing and shared many a story of his days of working with Gould, when he first joined the paper as a reporter. Fournier, who cut his teeth at the old Portland Press Herald, back in the day when newspapers actually had some journalistic standards and scruples, is a throwback to an era long gone and a link for me to men like Gould, who I never developed a personal connection with. It was an honor to sit in Fournier’s office, the former office of Gould, on Union Street in Lisbon Falls.

While many non-Mainers just assume that Gould was a native of the Pine Tree State, he actually was born in Brighton, Mass.. His father, Franklin, was born in Lisbon, but took off for Boston in 1893 in search of fame and fortune. In 1916, Frank Gould moved his young family back to Maine, eventually settling in Freeport.

In 1929, Gould purchased the family homestead on what is now Gould Road, but wasn’t able to build a house until 1946. It was this home that readers of his columns came to know and many would come to visit, when traveling to Maine. Like L.L. Bean’s in Freeport and Cadillac Mountain, in Bar Harbor, Lisbon Falls became a distination, as visitors would find their way to the farm on the ridge to catch a glimpse of the popular “columnist from Maine.”

In a letter to The Christian Science Monitor, written in 1957, one such visitor recounts a journey from Buffalo, New York, to Maine, expressly for the purposes of visiting Gould at his home. Writing about dropping in “on our friend in Lisbon Falls and telling (sic) him of our gratitude for his weekly grist.”

The visitor and his family was welcomed by John’s gracious wife, Dorothy, and Gould was shortly along, having gone “over the knoll, gathering blueberries.” The family spent lunch with this internationally-recognized writer and author, swapping converasation, before they were on their way. He ends the letter by noting that, “John Gould is more than a wit, more than a humorist. He is a delineator of nature, human and otherwise, seldom equaled and never excelled. Our nation needs more John Goulds.”

This was 50 years ago, but it might have been 500. We rarely visit anyone today, whether friend or family, let alone a total stranger, particularly one with some measure of celebrity. Actually, our recent history instructs us that only bad things can come from the intersection of the rich and famous (in Gould's case, probably more comfortable, than rich) and the hoi polloi.

We may have lost our moorings as a nation and a culture, but as long as we have the recollections and a reflections of a better and more civic time, courtesy of writers like Gould, then those of us who long for such things can still find respite from the maddening mores of our boorish times.

**Here is an additional article from the Portland Phoenix, written by Lance Tapley (which ends with an interview), back in 2001. At the time, Gould was 92, living in an assisted living facility (a previous one, of which he wrote a scathing book about) and still full of "piss and vinegar."

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