April 2016

Kea Krause


Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore

In his tenure at The New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell wrote not one, but two profiles about a vagrant named Joe Gould, a man who claimed to be writing his epic, "The Oral History of Our Time," a chronicle about ordinary people said to be hundreds of thousands of words long, hand written, and only legible to its author. Gould was ambitious and proclaimed that he "would like to widen the sphere of history as Walt Whitman did that of poetry." Gould had friends in the literati. He counted E.E. Cummings, William Carlos Willams, and Ezra Pound as some of his contemporaries, all of whom were willing to vouch for him as a rare and wily genius capable of changing how we read about our world with "The Oral History." But there was a matter of the manuscript. Had anybody actually read it and, if so, where was it?

Mitchell's first profile of the writer, "Professor Seagull," ran in 1942 and opened with the line, "Joe Gould is a blithe and emaciated little man who has been a notable in the cafeterias, diners, barrooms, and dumps of Greenwich Village for a quarter of a century." The New Yorker published the second profile in 1964, several years after Gould's death. This piece, titled "Joe Gould's Secret," opens a bit more soberly: "Joe Gould was an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years." As evidenced to any reader, Mitchell's subject -- or perhaps Mitchell's perception of his subject -- had deteriorated. The man, who had once rubbed shoulders with and schmoozed among some of the great poets of his time, had died alone in a mental hospital in New Jersey.

As Jill Lepore sets out to determine if Joe Gould's epic manuscript actually exists in her new book Joe Gould's Teeth, she realizes this mission should have come with a warning. "There ought to be a danger sign," she writes. "Writers tumble into this story and then they plummet." Despite being uncredited and unpublished, Gould has long provided an irresistible tractor beam in which authors like Lepore (and Mitchell before) find themselves caught. Mitchell's obsession with Gould made him compromise his own reporting standards, jeopardizing his credibility and his career with The New Yorker. At one point Mitchell, without hard evidence, was willing to suggest "The Oral History" was nine million words long. Despite this estimate holding little truth (and there being no evidence that Mitchell read a single page of "The Oral History"), writer's block did not afflict Gould, an enviable trait to all other writers. As Lepore points out, "writers loved to write about him, the writer who could not stop writing."

But Gould, like his manuscript, was enigmatic. Born the son of a doctor in 1889 in Norwood, Massachusetts, Gould "frequently flew into rages," like his father. He enrolled in Harvard, but had a turbulent relationship with the university and never graduated. After a stint in the American plains working on a questionable anthropological survey and some time in family-imposed exile in Canada, Gould wound up in New York. Here he became notorious. He was a fixture in Greenwich Village bars, telling anyone who would listen about his "Oral History." Gould believed the shortcoming of historical documents was their focus on the kings and queens, the wealthy and the established, and that they omitted the lives of everyday people. With "The Oral History," Gould intended to reverse this oversight. He would interview and transcribe conversations with the beggars and barmaids, the sailors and the serfs of the city, capturing what he thought would be a more accurate account of the times. As he told a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, "I try to get the forgotten man into history."

Poets and writers like Cummings, Pound, and Mitchell were transfixed. To them, Gould was a man of mythic proportions. What were actually delusions of grandeur on Gould's behalf, they interpreted as his personality eclipsing the binding rules of society's tacit laws. There were attempts to set him up with steady work and to get his manuscript published. But despite the lore, he was a man of questionable judgment: he was a strong supporter of the eugenics movement and stalked women; he had a drinking problem and was a squatter. Or, as Lepore puts it, he "was a toothless madman who slept in the street." He was constantly in trouble with the police, with his literati brothers bailing him out for reasons still mysterious, even to Lepore. "One way to think about the legend of Joe Gould, then," Lepore explains, "is that it was a fiction contrived by men who wanted to help him stay out of an institution."

So where was the manuscript? Lepore's interest in Gould's story began while teaching a biography course at Harvard, where she warned her class to be wary of believing "you can ever really know another person." Mitchell's profiles assigned, Lepore began revisiting the story of Gould himself, knowing her students would want to know whether or not "The Oral History" was real. Rather incidentally, Joe Gould's Teeth is the account of Lepore's mission to find out what happened to the manuscript, in which she instead discovers what happened to the man, Joe Gould, himself.

Information is in good hands when it's in Lepore's. The author's research process finds a home on the page throughout the book. Her curiosity is infectious, and the dense findings she presents are punctuated naturally, with her lines of questioning and italicized passages reflecting her own thought. And the wormhole of Gould's life is maddening. He was a genius. He was a sick, tortured soul. He was a writer. He was a liar. He had a million friends. He had no friends. Gould's own letters and diaries, and those of his contemporaries, prove all these things to be true. But because she has taken her own counsel, and knows it's impossible to be fully acquainted with Gould, she sidetracks this pitfall and instead gives the reader a thorough investigation as to what happened to her subject.

What she finds, then, is the story of the failings of the public mental health system in the mid-twentieth century. Joe Gould lost his teeth not because they rotted out of his head, but because they were extracted in an institution -- a procedure common back then to ensure the safety of the doctors and nurses. Though Lepore acknowledges it's impossible to diagnose someone born in 1889, she suspects Gould was perhaps autistic, and, in declining health, that "many of his relationships existed almost entirely in his head." In an investigation of the hospital in which Gould died, Lepore discovers that the practice of lobotomizing became such a ubiquitous technique in the psychiatric ward there that between 1945 and 1955, nearly 1,600 were performed. And in the end, Lepore presents a startling hypothesis about Gould's fate.

The manuscript is still in the wind. If it existed, it did so in volumes that are now spread about New York and Long Island in attics and desk drawers, forgotten boxes and garbage dumps. Mitchell suggested in his second profile of Gould that they were locked up in the hospitals that similarly incarcerated Gould. Shouldn't someone check? Lepore wonders on the page. But the fact as to whether or not Gould's manuscript exists is irrelevant to his legacy. Because perhaps the more important part of his story is the resonance of Lepore's warning: Assuming one could ever actually know a person is a rip tide, fast and fatal.

Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore
ISBN: 978-1101947586
256 pages