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Authors: Jill Lepore

Joe Gould's Teeth

BOOK: Joe Gould's Teeth
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The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Book of Ages

The Mansion of Happiness

The Story of America

The Whites of Their Eyes

New York Burning

A Is for American

The Name of War


Copyright © 2015, 2016 by Jill Lepore

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

A version of this story appeared in
The New Yorker
in 2015.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Lepore, Jill, [date] author.

Title: Joe Gould's teeth / by Jill Lepore.

Description: First edition. | New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. | “This is a Borzoi Book.”

2015035728 |
9781101947586 (hardcover : alk. paper) |
9781101947593 (ebook)

: Gould, Joe, 1889–1957. | Oral history. |Savage, Augusta,
. | Biography—Methodology. | New York (N.Y.)—Biography.

47 2016 |
record available at​2015035728

eBook ISBN 9781101947593

Cover: The National Archives, London, England/Mary Evans

Cover design by Kelly Blair



To AA,

with love

The history of a nation is not in parliaments and battle-fields,

but in what people say to each other

on fair-days and high days,

and in how they farm, and quarrel,

and go on pilgrimage.


What am I always listening for in Harlem?


Meo Tempore

little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where

to find them


or a long time, Joe Gould thought he was going blind.
This was before he lost his teeth and years before he lost the history of the world he'd been writing in hundreds of dime-store composition notebooks, their black covers mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat, their white pages lined with thin blue veins.

“I have created a vital new literary form,” he announced.
“Unfortunately, my manuscript is not typed.”

He'd sit and he'd write and then he'd wrap his black-and-white notebooks in brown paper, tie them with twine, tuck them under one arm, and tramp through the streets of New York, from Greenwich Village to Harlem. When he stopped, he'd untie his bundle, open a notebook, take out a pen, and begin again. He wore sneakers, a coat that didn't fit, owl's-eye glasses, and somebody else's teeth. He was writing the longest book ever written. He smoked and he drank and he listened. He said he was writing down nearly everything anyone ever said to him, especially in Harlem. He wrote until his eyes grew tired. He'd take his glasses off and forget where he'd set them down. How he lost his teeth is another story.

He began before the start of the First World War and didn't stop until after the end of the Second. He never finished. He called what he was writing “The Oral History of Our Time.” (The title, with its ocular O's, looks very like a pair of spectacles.) In 1928, he told the poet Marianne Moore, who was editing a chapter of it for
The Dial,
that he'd come up with a better title.

seems to me intrinsically a good title,” Moore wrote back, “but not better than the one we have.”

Joseph Ferdinand Gould is how he signed his name when he was feeling particularly grand, and when he was feeling even grander, he introduced himself as the most important historian of the twentieth century. “I believe you would be interested in my work,” he wrote to George Sarton, the Harvard historian, in 1931. “I have been writing a history of my own time from oral sources. I use only material from my own experience and observation and from the direct personal narratives of others. In short, I am trying to record these complex times with the technique of a Herodotus or Froissart.” Herodotus wrote his
in ancient Greece; Jean Froissart wrote his
in medieval Europe. Gould was writing his history, a talking history, in modern America.

“My book is very voluminous,” he explained to Sarton:

Apart from literary merit it will have future value as a storehouse of information. I imagine that the most valuable sections will be those which deal with groups that are inarticulate such as the Negro, the reservation Indian and the immigrant. 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. I would like to widen the sphere of history as Walt Whitman did that of poetry.

For a time, he was rather remarkably well known. Chapters of his work appeared in avant-garde magazines nose to nose with essays by Virginia Woolf and drawings by Pablo Picasso. He went to parties with Langston Hughes. He dined with E. E. Cummings. He drank with John Dos Passos. He was sketched by Joseph Stella, photographed by Aaron Siskind, and painted by Alice Neel. Gould was a modernist, a lover of the vernacular, and a fetishist of form. He was ragged and, then again, he was fussy. “The Oral History of Our Time” was plainspoken, arresting, experimental, and disordered. Most notably, it was unremitting. So was he. Neel, when she painted him, gave him three penises.

Writers loved to write about him, the writer who could not stop writing. “The history is the work of some fifteen years of writing in subway trains, on ‘El' platforms, in Bowery flop houses,” the poet Horace Gregory wrote in
The New Republic.
“On Staten Island ferry boats, in smoking cars. In cheap and dingily exotic Greenwich Village restaurants, in public urinals.”
And in Harlem, in crowded apartments, in smoky artists' studios, in public libraries.

“I am trying to be the Boswell and Pepys of a whole epoch,” Gould liked to say.
He was Jacob Riis; he was John Lomax.
“I try to get the forgotten man into history,” he told a reporter for the
New York Herald Tribune.
If he was Herodotus, he was also Sisyphus. He wanted to jot down each jibber and every jabber. He started before broadcasting began, but once it did, its ceaselessness made his work harder. “The radio is beginning to cramp my style,” he said.
It was rumored (though Gould himself disputed this) that he once smashed a radio to bits.

Naturally, writing down everything he heard took up nearly all his time. Sometimes, he made a living writing book reviews. At the height of the Depression he worked for the Federal Writers' Project; then he was fired.
He began to starve. He was covered with scabs and infected with fleas. “Met Joe il y a quesques jours &, b jeezuz, never have I beheld a corpse walking,” Cummings wrote to Ezra Pound. Gould went on the dole. He lost his teeth, fakes. Cummings told Pound, “My sister says that if Joe can only keep on relief for a few years he'll have a new set of somebody's teeth.”

And what about the great work? In 1939, Dwight Macdonald, an editor of the
Partisan Review,
addressed the question of storage: “He has in 25 years managed to fill incalculable notebooks which in turn fill incalculable boxes.”
He kept them in numberless closets and countless attics. “The stack of manuscripts comprising the
Oral History
has passed 7 feet,” a reporter announced in 1941. “Gould is 5 feet 4.”
His friends wished to have that stack published. “I want to read Joe Gould's Oral History,” the short-story writer William Saroyan declared:

Harcourt, Brace; Random House; Scribner's; Viking; Houghton, Mifflin; Macmillan; Doubleday, Doran; Farrar and Rinehart; all of you—for the love of Mike, are you publishers, or not? If you are, print Joe Gould's Oral History. Long, dirty, edited, unedited,
how—print it, that's all.

But no one ever did. And no one knew, really, quite where it was.


“The Oral History is a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay,” Joseph Mitchell reported in
The New Yorker
in December 1942:

At least half of it is made up of conversations taken down verbatim or summarized; hence the title. “What people say is history,” Gould says. “What we used to think was history—kings and queens, treaties, inventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan—is only formal history and largely false. I'll put it down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude—what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows—or I'll perish in the attempt.”

Mitchell's profile of Gould is titled “Professor Sea Gull.” It made Gould famous the world over. “Professor Sea Gull” is one of the most influential literary essays ever published. People read it again and again. “I tasted every word,” one faraway reader wrote to Mitchell.
The story was picked up by
and reprinted here, there, everywhere. A U.S. Armed Services Edition was shipped to soldiers at the front. They tugged it out of their rucksacks and found they could not put it down. “Do you know how long it's been since we've had a piece that one couldn't stop reading?” a
New Yorker
editor asked Mitchell. “Since your last piece, that's how long.”

Calvin Trillin once compared Joseph Mitchell to Joe DiMaggio.
It stole your breath just to watch the man carry a bat. Mitchell didn't invent the
New Yorker
profile as a form, but he perfected it, precise, tender, and sly, with God-given prose.
Half Charles Dickens, half James Joyce, Mitchell loved to prowl the quirkier corners of New York, eavesdropping on eccentrics: Gypsies, hawkers, tightrope walkers. When Mitchell met Gould, it was as if he were looking at himself in a funhouse mirror. He saw, staring back at him, a clown:

He dresses in the castoff clothes of his friends. His overcoat, suit, shirt, and even his shoes are all invariably a size or two too large, but he wears them with a kind of forlorn rakishness. “Just look at me,” he says. “The only thing that fits is the necktie.” On bitter winter days he puts a layer of newspapers between his shirt and undershirt. “I'm snobbish,” he says. “I only use the

Mitchell's Gould was a natural democrat, the people's historian. He was also a bang-up reporter as uncanny as a tape recorder. “Gould puts into the Oral History only things he has seen or heard.” It was as if Mitchell were describing his own notebook, a reporter's notebook, the notebook in which Mitchell, too, was forever writing down what people say. “He estimates that the manuscript contains 9,000,000 words,” Mitchell wrote. “It may well be the longest unpublished work in existence.”

And maybe it was. But—and here's the trouble—Mitchell hadn't read more than a few pages of it. Instead, he'd mainly listened to Gould talk, jotting down each jibber and every jabber. Gould had little use for readers. “My impulse to express life in terms of my own observation and reflection is so strong,” Gould once explained, “that I would continue to write, if I were the sole survivor of the human race, and believed that my material would be seen by no other eyes than mine.”
For his eyes, alone, is, more or less, how it turned out.


Is a book a book if it has no readers? It's not as though no one had read “The Oral History of Our Time,” but it would be fair to say that hardly anyone had read much of it and certainly no one had read all of it. “Mr. Ezra Pound and I once saw a fragment of it running to perhaps 40,000 words,” Edward J. O'Brien, the editor of
Best Short Stories,
testified; he believed it had “considerable psychological and historical importance.” Still, it was a mess. Pound put it delicately: “Mr. Joe Gould's prose style is uneven.” Gould had an answer for that: “My history is uneven,” he admitted. “It should be. It is an encyclopedia.”

It was, in any case, missing. Nearly everything Gould ever held in his hands slipped away. He lost his glasses; he lost his teeth. “I keep losing fountain pens, change, and even manuscripts,” he wrote to William Carlos Williams. “I lost my diary in the toilet,” he one day reported. “Bespectacled apologies!!!” he wrote Cummings, upon finding his eyeglasses. “Calloo callay!” He himself appeared and disappeared. “When through who-the-unotherish twilight updrops but his niblicks Sir Oral Né Ferdinand Joegesq,” Cummings wrote to Pound. “Disarmed to the nonteeth by loseable scripture.”

He was forever falling apart, falling down, disintegrating, descending. “If I am not careful, I will be again checked by a bad nervous breakdown,” he wrote to Williams. If he hadn't lost his glasses, he had broken them. “I had a very bad fall, a day or so ago, and smashed my glasses completely,” he wrote to the critic Lewis Mumford. He very often got into fights. Cummings told this story: “ ‘Joe' (I said to him) ‘did you fall or were you pushed?' ‘Whie-yuh, both.' ” Some days, he could hardly see. But, he admitted, “my trouble with my eyes is more psychological than physical.”
This got worse as he got older, and drunker. Writing—meaninglessly, endlessly—was all that held him together. Except that it didn't usually hold him together for long.

Days after
The New Yorker
published “Professor Sea Gull,” a policeman found Gould outside a bar on 23rd Street, bleeding from his head while reciting the Oral History. He'd fallen and cracked his skull.
The next time he went to the hospital, he needed a blood transfusion. When the doctor asked him who might donate blood, Gould said, “Joe Mitchell.”
Not long after that, he and Mitchell had a talk.

“I'm beginning to believe,” Mitchell blurted out, “that the Oral History doesn't exist.”


Mitchell didn't tell this story, about that talk, until 1964, when he was fifty-six and Gould was dead, in a second
New Yorker
profile, called “Joe Gould's Secret.” Reading it was like watching DiMaggio play his best game ever. “Not only is it the best thing you have written,” one reader wrote to Mitchell. “It is the best piece the New Yorker has ever published.”

The conversation Mitchell had had with Gould right after writing “Professor Sea Gull” went like this:

I knew as well as I knew anything that I had blundered upon the truth about the Oral History.

“My God!” I said. “It doesn't exist.” I was appalled. “There isn't such a thing as the Oral History,” I said. “It doesn't exist.”

I stared at Gould, and Gould stared at me. His face was expressionless.

And there ended the mystery of the longest book ever written and never read, an unpublished manuscript by the most important historian of the twentieth century, who wanted to do for history what Whitman did for poetry.

It didn't exist.

Or did it?

BOOK: Joe Gould's Teeth
4.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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