By Will Grunewald
Great Gott Island native Ruth Moore long harbored literary ambitions but didn’t see her first novel, The Weir, published until 1943, the year she turned 40. In the meantime, she graduated from teachers college in upstate New York, investigated false murder charges against black defendants in the South for the NAACP, served as a personal assistant to a successful California author, and worked in New York City as an editor at Reader’s Digest, where the process of condensing book chapters helped inform her lean writing style.
During Moore’s many years away, the year-round population dwindled on the island her family had inhabited for generations — her parents left in 1929. The Weir, about feuding families on an island where the longstanding way of life is slipping away, opened with an epigraph: “That was the place that you were homesick for, even when you were there.” Moore’s second novel, Spoonhandle, was about divisions among islanders driven by an influx of summer-folk wealth. It sold more than a million copies and spawned a Hollywood adaptation — 1948’s Deep Waters, which Moore hated. Still, the movie helped fund her return to the place she was homesick for. Almost. With no year-rounders left on Great Gott, she settled in Bass Harbor, a short boat ride away, then went on to write 11 more novels, becoming one of the country’s most prominent midcentury authors. “I think one reason she’s so good is that she has such affection for the people she’s writing about,” E.B. White commented. The South had Faulkner, New England had Moore, and the two were often mentioned in the same breath.
But her literary celebrity gradually faded, owing in part to the vernacular dialogue she employed — thick Maine accents on the page — an approach that fell out of vogue. She died in 1989, and by then her oeuvre was mostly out of print, though not forgotten by everyone.
“I’ve always just known about her,” Islandport Press publisher Dean Lunt says. He’s from the fishing village of Frenchboro, on a small island not far from Great Gott. “I sailed by the old Moore family house my whole life, so I felt a little kinship — growing up on islands, one-room schoolhouses, all that stuff.”
He started his Yarmouth-based press 20 years ago and always had in mind to revive some of Moore’s titles if the chance arose. Gary Lawless, owner of Brunswick’s Gulf of Maine bookshop and boutique press Blackberry Books, had worked with Ruth Moore on a poetry collection before her death and reissued some of her novels in small runs, a passion project. Earlier this year, he turned over the task of publishing and distributing Moore’s works to Islandport, a bigger shop with broader reach. Lunt plans to republish two novels a year for three or four years, starting this fall with The Weir and Spoonhandle, plus Voices off the Ocean, a new collection of excerpts and poems intended as a digestible intro to an author Lunt thinks will still resonate.
“She really gets at the universal within minutiae,” he says. “She’s not doing sweeping epics. It’s life on a wharf, and you draw conclusions from that.”