Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Joe Gould’s Teeth

Jill Lepore. Joe Gould’s Teeth . New York: Knopf, 2016. 235 pages. $24.95 hardcover.

From a 1945 Harvard Crimson article, quoted in Joe Gould’s Teeth :

One of these days, someone is going to write an article on Joseph Ferdinand Gould ’11 for the Reader’s Digest. It will be entitled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Met” and it will present Joe Gould as an unusual but lovable old man. Joe Gould is not a lovable old man.
Joe Gould (1889–1957) is best known as the subject of two New Yorker pieces by Joseph Mitchell, “Professor Seagull” (1942) and “Joe Gould’s Secret” (1964). Flea-ridden, often homeless, possibly autistic, forever losing eyeglasses and false teeth, Gould was a New York Bohemian who claimed to be writing the longest book in the world, an assembling of words he had heard spoken, entitled The Oral History of Our Time . The secret that Mitchell revealed in 1964: as he had long suspected, The Oral History did not exist. But letters that Mitchell received after the publication of “Joe Gould’s Secret” suggested that The Oral History did indeed exist. Readers claimed to have seen and read the composition books in which Gould wrote it. Jill Lepore decided to look into the question.

The result is a scrupulously documented journey down a rabbit hole, or rather, a journey through whole warrens of archival material. Lepore places Gould as a fellow traveler in the world of modernist writing and little magazines, where his associates and patrons included E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. (As late as 1946, Pound was asking Cummings if together they could get Gould’s work into print.) More disturbing elements in the Gould story include his grim sojourns in mental hospitals (in one, his teeth were removed) and his obsession with the African-American sculptor Augusta Savage. The Harvard students had it right: Gould was not a lovable old man. And it makes a certain sense that Lepore gives up her hunt. Could The Oral History be in the possession in one of the hospitals in which Gould did time? “Shouldn’t someone check?” Lepore asks. Her answer: “Not me.”

Joe Gould’s Teeth is best borrowed from a library. It should prompt any reader to read or reread “Professor Seagull” and “Joe Gould’s Secret,” both of which appear in Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel (1992).

Related reading
All OCA Joseph Mitchell posts (Pinboard)

[The book’s title comes from an untitled E. E. Cummings poem: “little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn’t know where / to find them.” Why the library? The book is short and fast (151 pages of text, 84 pages of back matter), and it’s unlikely that I’d have reason to read it again.]

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