Thursday, July 24, 2008

Newt Hinckley Visits With John Gould at Friendship Back River


My friend Carly sent this spoken-word record to me, and I was stunned.

The two faces on the cover were distant and somewhat obscure in that old monochrome photograph.

What gets remembered and passed down through the years are the things that people think are important. And thus, all sorts of greatness gets tossed away and forgotten. This is one of those albums. There is nothing on here that is truly important or vital. That is one of its greatest virtues – it seems an accident that Newt just happened to be passing by the workshop on his way to dig a hod of clams. And old John Gould just happened to have a tape recorder to turn on as they sat for a spell and talked.

That’s all this is – 45 minutes on 33 ½ inch vinyl of conversation. These two old timers trade town gossip, exchange pleasantries, gently mock the summer tourists, and ruminate on the lost gems of their own history.

The record itself appears to have been a private label release by the Friendship, Maine Folklore Society. No doubt John Gould was affiliated with them. He is the brains behind the operation, but is much more than a simple rustic farmer.

In reality, Gould was a celebrated writer, historian, humorist, and essayist. Born in 1908, he penned some forty books and wrote a weekly column for the Christian Science Monitor for sixty years, from his farm in Friendship. His writing covered the totality of life in the Great Northeast, from sweet memories to trying times of hardship and darkness. He had the detailed focus of a veteran newspaper man, flavored with wry humor and rustic folklore. In one of his last books, at the age of 92, he turned to the bittersweet adventure of growing old, candidly chronicling his move from farm to retirement home. He died in 2003.

Listening to John Gould, I can’t help admiring him. His measured enthusiasm for life is infectious. And, although I never knew him, I get the sense that he moved forward through life with grace and curiosity and intellect. In him, I think I see some of the balance between the rural and the urban life that we have lost, that has eroded thanks to stereotypes, cultural polarization, the loss of dialog, and the decreasing social value placed on learning. Gould exemplifies the Jeffersonian archetype of the scholarly farmer, and I think we have tragically lost that ideal.

Overshadowed by the more talkative Gould, Newt Hinckley is the great mystery of this album. What his story is, and what his fate was, I do not know. I’d have to find someone from Friendship who could fill me in.

In researching this on the web, I basically found nothing. An ebay search revealed another album, with Hinckley reciting a story written by Gould. If any other such recordings exist, I would certainly love to know.

I wondered through the course of listening to the album how much was staged. Gould certainly sounds like he was playing a part. That seems to make sense – the learned historian adopting tropes in the way a historical re-enactor dons colonial garb at an old stone fort for an ice cream social. Except…he was the real deal. What’s so jarring, I realize, is that I expect artifice. I am consciously seeking out the hidden structures that lie behind all media, the structures we were taught about in school. The same structures and biases that we aren’t taught enough about, that some take for granted, that we must be vigilant against. And probably there are some hidden structures here. But – what a cynic it seems I have become.

The conversation reminds me of listening to my aunts and uncles talk and tell stories. My father’s two brothers get fired up at Christmas and launch into rambling narratives about Old Man So-and-So who lived in Old Somebody’s house down by that dirt road that leads to Somewhere. My mom’s brothers and sisters are that way too, though louder. It’s my dad and his two brothers, though, which really makes me think. So few of that family left alive, and fewer still that I have any memory of. Their stories are populated by such ghosts! These specters vaguely cling to life in each one of those three men. A jumbled piece of story survives. Put the three guys together, and you have the sum total of a little world of people that we will never know.

I’m astonished how quickly we forget. The family that built the farmhouse I grew up in, for example – they’ve been gone for decades. Nobody even remembers their names. They probably aren’t even recorded anywhere. Or, if they are, maybe in a few letters in some attic, or a yellowed deed in a town hall basement to a hayfield that long ago became a forest. And in that forest, near the cliff’s edge, the winding road and the stone wall lanes and the cedar posts, still standing, carrying the remnants of rusty barbed wire in between the thick tall trees. Maybe a deed could explain who owned something, but not why.

My grandfather, who grew up on a farm in Pontiac, Illinois, came east to Amsterdam, New York. There he met my grandmother and started a family. But nobody knows why. I guess that’s what I see in this simple little conversation – a reminder of the lost opportunity to chronicle the why of things.

Crackle and pop. Hiss of vinyl. Hello and goodbye, John Gould.

Download the album here

John Gould on Wikipedia

An Interview with John Gould


Anonymous said...


Thanks for such a great blog. I'm priveleged to say I knew Mr Gould, and he was every bit the Maine farmer, worldclass intellectual, brilliant wit and national treasure you have so astutely inferred. This LP is a real collectors item, and you are one of the lucky few to have heard and appreciated it.
In his overalls, billy goat beard and pipe, he was a real star in humble Friendship. Give me a shout if youd like a quick tour this July. A wise ghost still haunts the fountain at Archies, and it certainly isnt that poser Casper.

Jon March

Susan Hinckley Opasik said...

Hello, JD.

I happened upon your blog while Googling my uncle--Newt Hinckley. My comments here cannot do justice to the comic genius of this illustrious member of the family. I can relate one story, though, from a particularly fine childhood summer spent at Spofford Lake NH that delights me still: the image of Uncle Newt water skiing behind our neighbor's mahogany Chris Craft while wearing a woman's one-piece bathing suit--modesty panel and all--with two oranges filling out the top half. This act was designed to outrage members of the exclusive beach club next door. Whether it did or not is immaterial. To my young eyes it was a joy to see!

Newt has been active in historical re-enactment for quite a while, playing a deacon or abbe. I think he even went to France as part of a ceremony to honor Lafayette. Back in the mid 60's, using the byline Titus A. Drumm, he had a column in a Maine newspaper wherein he skewered each of my family members. What fun to figure out who was who. I must dig out that copy--where is it???

He and my dad, Gardner Hinckley, had a lobster trap business in Waldoboro years ago. Newt had a Friendship sloop, too. Their experience in one of the races is epic.

Newt is in Jefferson, Maine, and anticipating a November birthday. I am no longer a child so I can tell you he's getting up there.

Oh, the venerable John Gould. I read with relish his regular columns in the Christian Science Monitor and even wrote him once on a momentous anniversary heralded by the paper. In my letter I identified myself as Newt's niece, of course, and also reminded him that when he visited my folks in Durham NH he pinched my mother's behind going up the stairs.

Men. Great men! How rewarding to see your reverence for each of them.

Best wishes,
Susan Hinckley Opasik