It’s been many decades now since historians began to dismantle “Great Man” theories of history, emphasizing their narrowness and artificiality. Histories from below, social history, microhistory: All of these well-established trends have been aimed at making the historical narrative more inclusive, more fine-grained, less elitist. Yet there is still a group of people who tend to be overrepresented in historical writing: namely, writers. “The past is what’s written down,” Jill Lepore writes in her new book Joe Gould’s Teeth. “It is very quiet; only people who can write make any sound at all.”
Lepore has long been interested in gaps in the historical record and in the way some figures inevitably crowd out others. Her first book, The Name of War, which won the Bancroft Prize in 1999, reconstructed a war between New England colonists and Native Americans from the natives’ point of view; she has since written a biography of Benjamin Franklin’s sister and a “secret history” of Wonder Woman. In a 2001 article in The Journal of American History titled “Historians Who Love Too Much,” she declared that one of her aspirations is to “betray people who have left abundant records in order to resurrect those who did not.” Even when we try to turn away from the powerful and famous in favor of the marginal and obscure, we are limited by the evidence available to us. Some people speak volumes; others are silent. It’s easy to say that history should be about more than great men, but in practice we are often stuck with those who felt themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be great. It takes work to see past them, to read between the lines.
Joe Gould’s Teeth, Lepore’s eleventh book in 18 years, takes for its subject a man who could not stop writing, and who certainly thought of himself (despite much evidence to the contrary) as a great man. In Joseph Mitchell’s 1942 New Yorker profile “Professor Sea Gull,” Joe Gould is introduced as “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.” Gould was the scion of a wealthy New England family and had attended Harvard, but by the time Mitchell encountered him he was homeless, roaming the streets of New York, subsisting on plates of diner ketchup (“‘the only grub I know of that’s free of charge’”), and cadging drinks. “He sleeps on benches in subway stations, on the floor in the studios of friends, and in quarter-a-night flophouses on the Bowery,” Mitchell writes.
What separated Gould from the rest of the city’s down-and-out was that he claimed to be working on a book called The Oral History of Our Time. The book was to be, in Mitchell’s words, “a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey, the fruit, according to Gould’s estimate, of more than 20,000 conversations.” Gould told Mitchell he had been working on the Oral History for 26 years, filling up composition books he then stashed with various friends around the city. He boasted that he was setting down “the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude” and believed he was destined for posthumous fame:
A couple of generations after I’m dead and gone … the Ph.D.s will start lousing through my work. Just imagine their surprise. “Why, I be damned,” they’ll say, “this fellow was the most brilliant historian of the century.”
Mitchell’s first profile of Gould, “Professor Sea Gull,” was an intriguing and memorable piece of journalism. His second, written more than two decades later, was a masterpiece. “Joe Gould’s Secret,” published in The New Yorker in 1964 and then brought out the following year, along with “Professor Sea Gull,” as a book, is one of the greatest pieces of nonfiction of the twentieth century, and in its psychological acuity and narrative mastery it stands alongside the works of Joseph Conrad and Henry James.
“Joe Gould’s Secret” is framed as a confession. Gould had died in 1957 and only now, Mitchell tells us, can he reveal the truth he’d learned about the man he’d made famous more than two decades earlier. Mitchell relates how, after the publication of “Professor Sea Gull,” Gould begins to show up regularly at The New Yorker offices to ask for money—what he called “contributions to the Joe Gould Fund”—and to hold court for hours at a time. Mitchell, initially tolerant of Gould’s erratic behavior, becomes increasingly frustrated as various attempts to get the Oral History published come to naught. Eventually, after Gould sabotages a series of meetings with book editors, Mitchell snaps:
“I’m beginning to believe,” I went on, “that the oral history doesn’t exist.” This remark came from my unconscious, and I was barely aware of the meaning of what I was saying … but the next moment, glancing at Gould’s face, I knew as well as I knew anything that I had blundered upon the truth about the oral history.
Mitchell came to believe that Gould had been lying for decades about the state of his magnum opus in order to convince friends to keep supporting him. The composition books he had been able to inspect contained not oral history but variations on a handful of autobiographical topics. “[Gould] must have found out long ago,” Mitchell speculates, “that he didn’t have the genius or the talent, or maybe the self-confidence or the industry or the determination, to bring off a work as huge and grand as he had envisioned”; his constant scribbling in fact amounted to a desperate avoidance of the project he had set for himself.
Gould failed to write the history of the shirt-sleeved multitude, but he did, via Mitchell, manage to leave a literary legacy of a sort. Although initially disgusted by Gould’s deceptions, Mitchell comes to identify with him all the more strongly, in part because he himself has long been procrastinating writing an autobiographical novel, modeled on James Joyce’s Ulysses, which never comes to fruition. He even comes to have a sort of respect for Gould’s charade: “The Eccentric Author of a Great, Mysterious, Unpublished Book—that was his mask,” Mitchell marvels. “And hiding behind it, he had created a character a good deal more complicated, it seemed to me, than most of the characters created by the novelists and playwrights of his time.” Somehow, even in exposing Gould, Mitchell manages to glorify him. We’re back to the great man, ambitious and influential even in his failure.
Lepore’s new book is both homage and corrective to Joe Gould’s Secret. She is clear about her admiration for Mitchell’s writing, and his patient, unpretentious prose appears to have had an influence on her, as it has on so many New Yorker writers. Yet something doesn’t sit right with her about his portrayal of Gould, which for more than 50 years has stood as the definitive account. In one sense, she defends Gould against Mitchell’s charges by suggesting that the Oral History may, in fact, exist after all. But she also judges Gould in ways Mitchell never thought to, looking beyond the spectacle of his own abjection to the pain and misery he caused others.
Lepore is a prodigious researcher, and her book adds much to the annals of Gouldiana. Despite Gould’s inability to finish—or perhaps even properly begin—the Oral History, he did leave copious evidence of his existence in the form of letters, diaries, and other written scraps, and Lepore was able to draw on these. “It turns out that a graphomaniac is an exceptionally satisfying research subject,” she comments wryly. Much of what he left behind is disturbing and undermines Mitchell’s relatively fond portrait of him. She digs into his history of mental illness, suggesting that he may have been autistic, and finds evidence that he underwent electroshock therapy and even a partial lobotomy later in life. His attitudes and actions toward women and people of color surface uncomfortably. “The more I learned about Joe Gould, the more melancholy, and the uglier, it got,” Lepore writes.
She also gives serious attention to Gould’s youthful interest in eugenics, a subject mentioned but glossed over by Mitchell in both of his profiles. During a period of leave from Harvard in 1915, Gould worked for the Eugenics Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, which dispatched him on a research expedition to measure the skulls of Native Americans in North Dakota. Lepore connects this trip—treated as nothing more than a colorful anecdote by Mitchell—to the young Gould’s overwhelming preoccupation with theories of race and degeneration. He was particularly fixated, according to Lepore, on the idea of interracial sex, which he professed to abhor: “Even imagining sex across the color line, Gould believed, causes ‘an antipathy which is involuntary and is felt with such violence that it is comparable to the extreme repugnance some people have to snakes.’ ” Yet his private conduct in subsequent years, Lepore reveals, suggests he was in fact repressing forbidden desires.
This last speculation is supported by another of Lepore’s major additions to Gould’s story: her account of his long infatuation with the African American sculptor Augusta Savage, a prominent artist of the Harlem Renaissance. “Gould hardly ever left her alone,” Lepore writes. “He wrote her endless letters. He telephoned her constantly. If she gave an exhibit, he showed up.” This was not so much a love affair as a prolonged stalking: In the correspondence between Gould and his friends regarding Savage, “[t]here are hints … of violence, and even of rape.” Savage did her best to evade Gould’s unwanted advances, even leaving New York for Paris in 1929 in what Lepore surmises was an attempt to escape harassment.
Recovering the story of Augusta Savage is clearly one of Lepore’s priorities in Joe Gould’s Teeth. Just as Mitchell saw himself in Gould, Lepore identifies strongly with Savage, who she admits to thinking of “as if she were me.” The difficulty of finding information about Augusta is telling: “In … archives, all over the country, Gould is everywhere,” she writes, while “Savage is hardly anywhere.” Lepore reflects frequently on “the asymmetry of the historical record,” its tendency to tell us so much more about the lives of white men than those of women or people of color. Like any historian, Lepore is limited by the evidence available to her, and Gould is inevitably at the center of this story, but it is a Gould as Augusta Savage, and the other women he hounded, might have seen him.
“Gould’s friends saw a man suffering for art,” Lepore writes. “I saw a man tormented by rage. To me, his suffering didn’t look romantic and his rage didn’t look harmless.” With the passing of the years, Gould has been transformed from the comic figure of “Professor Sea Gull” to the tragic impostor of “Joe Gould’s Secret” to the sinister and unstable obsessive of Joe Gould’s Teeth. This is a Joe Gould for the age of Dylann Roof and Elliot Rodger.
Why, Lepore wonders, was such a chaotic person not only tolerated but celebrated by the intelligentsia of his time? She notes that even before the publication of Mitchell’s profile, Gould was exceptionally well connected in literary and artistic circles. His friends and benefactors included the poet E.E. Cummings, the playwright William Saroyan, and the painter Alice Neel. Early on he published in prestigious little magazines like Broom and The Dial, and later Malcolm Cowley gave him book review assignments for the New Republic. When a woman Gould was harassing had him arrested, Edmund Wilson came forward as a character witness. Ezra Pound was a frequent correspondent and ardent supporter. William Carlos Williams was his doctor (presumably pro bono).
In Lepore’s view, Mitchell’s 1942 profile was the culmination of an effort on behalf of these powerful friends to boost Gould’s reputation and keep him from ending up in an asylum. (He had already spent some time in the Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane, circa 1929.) “One way to think about the legend of Joe Gould,” she proposes, “is that it was a fiction contrived by men who wanted to help him stay out of an institution.” In other words, Joe Gould’s carefully nurtured fame was the result of a kind of literary conspiracy: a more or less deliberate campaign to present an addled, troubled sexual predator as “an artist, a bohemian, suffering for his art, suffering for their art, suffering for all art.”
Less effective is Lepore’s attempt to reverse the magic trick that Mitchell performed in “Joe Gould’s Secret” vis-à-vis the Oral History. The moment that Mitchell “blunder[s] upon the truth”—or what he believes to be the truth—about the nonexistence of Gould’s book is one of the most dramatic moments in literary journalism. Lepore views Mitchell’s grand revelation with skepticism. “It made a better story in 1942 if the Oral History existed. It made a better story in 1964 if it did not,” she comments, correctly. She herself seems intent on overturning “Joe Gould’s Secret” the way Mitchell overturned “Professor Sea Gull,” and if she had been able to locate a substantial portion of the manuscript of The Oral History of Our Time, it would indeed have been a coup.
Unfortunately, however, Lepore doesn’t find all that much more of the Oral History than Mitchell did. She quotes from several letters Mitchell received after the publication of “Joe Gould’s Secret” from people who claimed to have read significant portions of the Oral History, and she manages to dig up a few notebooks containing material that more closely resembles oral history than anything Mitchell was able to find. But she herself admits that such stray fragments would only be valuable if they were indeed part of some much larger whole.
At this point, the question of whether Gould’s Oral History “actually exists” is more a qualitative than a quantitative one. There is no doubt Gould filled up plenty of notebook pages with something, nor even that some portion of the material he put there could be accurately described as “oral history.” But is it a book, or even the makings of one? It’s clear Gould destroyed large portions of what he wrote, and that much of what survives is redundant. To decide what it all amounts to, we’d need a scholarly edition to collect and compare the various drafts and fragments scattered in research libraries and private collections throughout the country. Given the scale of the task and the slightness of the rewards, it’s somewhat unlikely that anyone will actually undertake this labor.
But, then, it’s not unthinkable: Gould has wormed his way into literary history, and he appears to be lodged there for good. The number of pages devoted to his “oeuvre,” such as it is, already dwarfs that of many well-published authors of his era. Lepore acknowledges that Gould, the famous obsessive, is also a frequent cause of obsession in others. “There ought to be a DANGER sign” on this story, she muses:
Writers tumble into this story and then they plummet. I have always supposed this to be because Gould suffered from graphomania—he could not stop writing—which is an illness, but seems more like something a writer might have to envy, which feels even rottener than envy usually does because Joe Gould was a toothless madman who slept in the street. You are envying a bum: Has it come to this, at last? But then you’re relieved of the misery of that envy when you learn that what he wrote was dreadful. Except, wait, that’s worse, because then you have to ask: Maybe everything you write is dreadful, too?
Joe Gould’s Teeth is far from a dreadful book—it’s a rather wonderful one, in fact—but it is, like Joe Gould’s Secret before it, full of dread. Joe Gould haunts journalists and historians alike as he raises unwelcome questions about the limitations of what they do. At times Lepore’s book feels like an exorcism, an attempt to banish Gould’s unquiet spirit from the archives, to undermine the power he wields. At other times, it falls under that uncanny power itself.