- - Thursday, May 19, 2016



By Jill Lepore

Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 224 pages


If you are interested in the New York literary and cultural scene between the two 20th-century world wars, you may have heard of Joe Gould. “For a time he was rather remarkably well known,” notes Jill Lepore in “Joe Gould’s Teeth.” “He went to parties with Langston Hughes. He drank with John Dos Passos. He was sketched by Joseph Stella, photographed by Aaron Susskind, and painted by Alice Neel.” Both Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings were pals, who tried to help him out of recurring difficulties. Marianne Moore published some of his work in The Dial. He mixed with the artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

What captured their attention was the book Joe Gould was writing: “The Oral History of Our Time.” Explaining it to Harvard historian George Sarton, he wrote: “It seems to me that the average person is just as much history as the ruler or celebrity as he illustrates the social forces of heredity and environment. Therefore I am trying to present lyrical episodes of everyday life.” He used black-and-white composition notebooks to record his own experiences and those gathered from people he met on his rambles round New York. Eventually, they were rumored to hold 9 million words. As they were too bulky to store in his meager accommodation, he stashed them in barns and closets owned by sympathetic acquaintances. A few saw extracts or heard him recite sections. Bits appeared in print. For a time he reviewed books, and Jill Lepore characterizes some of his notices as “sensible.” But mostly he was unemployed except in cadging a dollar here and a dollar there, and petitioning editors, historians and foundations for support.

Gould did not go unnoticed. In 1942 The New Yorker magazine commissioned Joseph Mitchell to write a profile of him. When he died in 1957 the editor of the Long Island Press asked Mitchell to join a search committee to find the manuscript of the “Oral History.” But Mitchell, who had tried unsuccessfully to see the manuscript, had decided that it had never existed, and argued this case in a second New Yorker article in 1964.

Jill Lepore gets to the bottom of the question of manuscript’s existence by tracing Gould’s life and trying to track down the notebooks. Did he entrust some to friends who bequeathed them to libraries? Did he store some in the attic of his family’s home in Norwood, Mass.? She mostly comes up with blanks as far as the notebooks are concerned, though — unlike Mitchell — she discovers enough bits and bobs to make clear that Gould actually did write something, though nothing like 9 million words.

Joe Gould’s Teeth” records her efforts. It tells of a life dogged by mental problems. Gould’s behavior as a child suggests Aspergers, and as an adult he persisted in irritating behaviors. Among these was his lengthy wooing of sculptor Augusta Savage, an effort that amounted to sexual harassment. His affluent family abandoned him, and by the mid-1940s, war and the failing patience of his literary friends meant that he was alone and spiraling into the mental illness that had never been far away.

The author suggests that “One way to think about the legend of Joe Gould is that it was a fiction contrived by men who wanted to help him stay out of an institution.” Similarly, one way to think of “Joe Gould’s Teeth” is as another fiction — a quest to discover the “Oral History” that morphs into a quest to discover more about Gould himself. The questing author is rarely distant. She appears as a Harvard professor teaching a course on biography, as a researcher peddling between New York libraries, as a feminist sympathizer with Augusta Savage, whom she describes in affecting detail. Always she is a verbal presence: urbane, rhetorically skilled, sometimes droll. Guided by her, readers will speed through this short book, hoping that the notebooks will be discovered. Then, when they are not, they will wonder why she bothered showering attention on Gould.

One answer is that in the 1920s, Joe Gould’s idea of history as an account of ordinary lives was radical, but since the mid-20th social history has been a center of historians’ attention — as it is in this book, in which we see some writer and artist denizens of New York in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s of the last century. Like Gould, many were unappealing, but the glimpses of their world are not without interest — or frissons. As for the questions about Gould’s “Oral History,” they were hardly burning issues, and little if anything changes because of this book, though aficionados of literary history will be entertained and perhaps enlightened.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide