Farmer Boys

It’s been seven decades since John Gould and E.B. White published their respective odes to rural living. But the two prolific Maine writers have inherited quite different legacies.

John Gould, E.B. White, Farmer Boys, Maine Books, Down East Magazine
Photographed by Mark Fleming
By Jim Baumer

These days, Lisbon has just one undisputed favorite literary son, and that’s Stephen King. But if, like King and I, you grew up around Lisbon in the mid-20th century, the writer you looked up to was John Gould: essayist, humorist, and one of the state’s best-known writers for 60 years. In his book On Writing, King recalls apprenticing at the Lisbon Enterprise, where Gould was editor. For all his high school and college writing courses, King writes, “John Gould taught me more than any of them, and in no more than 10 minutes.”

For sheer output, Gould gives his protégé a run for his money: Between 1942 and his death in 2003, he wrote more than 30 books and a weekly column for The Christian Science Monitor that ran for 62 years (!), making him the country’s longest-running syndicated columnist. He also contributed to magazines like The Saturday Evening Post (and, in his later career, this one). With a wry observational tone, a contrarian streak, and homespun humor, Gould wrote about day-to-day occurrences in his life and the lives of his small-town neighbors — sort of a literary predecessor to Garrison Keillor, but with Yankees in Lisbon rather than Norwegians in Lake Wobegon.

An even better comparison might be to E.B. White, a contemporary who wrote in a similar vein: meditative, witty, and often concerned with the seeming banalities of daily life — especially in his column for Harper’s, called “One Man’s Meat,” which White filed from his home in Brooklin. In 1942, as Gould began penning columns for the Monitor, White was publishing a collection of his pieces, structured around observations of life on a Down East saltwater farm. That book, One Man’s Meat, was already in its second edition in November of 1945, when Gould published his own collection, Farmer Takes a Wife, full of his droll reflections on Maine farm living. Farmer Takes a Wife was a fast bestseller.

But today, on the book’s 70th anniversary, the only circulating copies are yellowing in libraries and secondhand shops. A decade since Gould’s death, only his final book — a fictionalized account of the indignities of retirement homes — remains in print. One Man’s Meat, meanwhile, has become a modern Maine classic, in print more or less continuously for a whopping 73 years. So why has White stayed relevant for 21st-century readers while the legacy of the equally charming Gould seems to be fading?

There are business-end explanations: White’s granddaughter, Martha White (herself a talented writer), has been a formidable keeper of her grandfather’s literary estate. Gould lacks a similar advocate, and without one, the consolidation of the publishing industry hasn’t been kind to the back catalogs of even once-popular writers. But there’s more to the contrast than just industry goings-on.

Both Gould and White share a reverence for Maine customs and culture. Gould moved from Massachusetts to Freeport at age 10, while White spent boyhood summers in Maine, then moved from New York at 39. White writes as a self-aware outsider — bemused, sometimes self-effacing — while Gould is more of a docent, guiding readers through rural Maine while dabbling in rural Maine’s vernacular. His large kettle is “big enough to scale a hog in.” Sharpening his ax on an uneven grindstone is like “riding a buggy over plowed ground.” It’s oversimplifying to say that Gould is a bit cornpone while White is urbane, but Gould in 1945 was already a nostalgic. Describing his great-grandfather’s “swing-dingle” logging sled, he pauses to exclaim, “How America has disintegrated when a swing-dingle must be explained!”

Gould and White both render the minutia of farm life with bone-dry senses of humor. “Nobody ever stopped to count the parts to a cream separator, but they run high,” quips Gould. “Having once given a pig an enema, there is no turning back,” observes White, “no chance of resuming one of life’s more stereotyped roles.” But Gould’s wry observations are embedded in chatty tales about family and friends — folksy Uncle Timothy, generous Native American neighbor Samoset. There’s an oral history feel to Gould’s storytelling. White — co-author of the nearly century-old and still bestselling Elements of Style, with its mantra, “Omit needless words” — doesn’t lavish space on character building or local folklore. His essays tend to be pithier. Some are just lists of stray thoughts and aphorisms — a bit like today’s social media updates and perhaps more approachable to readers accustomed to truncated communication.

Finally, Maine today is a different place than Gould represented in his vignettes. Much of the agrarian character that permeates Farmer Takes a Wife is gone now, as full-time subsistence farms have faded from Maine’s landscape. That White was a hobby farmer — of which Maine still has a large and growing number — might help explain why One Man’s Meat retains a measure of timelessness while Farmer Takes a Wife feels dated.

Still, Gould writes an unvarnished, unsentimental account of forgotten traditions and characters once found in every small New England town, and Farmer Takes a Wife deserves a place in the canon alongside One Man’s Meat and other Maine classics of the era: Louise Dickinson’s We Took to the Woods, Elinor Graham’s Our Way Down East. Seventy years after the book that made his name, it’d be a shame to keep John Gould down on the farm.

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