Who Was Joe Gould, And Did He Really Write The World's Longest Book?
Photos: Dari Michele/Courtesy of Knopf
In two of The New Yorker's most famous articles, writer Joseph Mitchell tried to answer one question: Who was Joe Gould?
Mitchell first introduced Gould in 1942: He was a quirky, possibly mentally ill Harvard dropout who wandered the streets of Greenwich Village and Harlem filling pages and pages of dime-store notebooks with everything people said to him. Gould said he was writing the longest book ever; he called it The Oral History of Our Time.
"And actually, the term oral history comes from Gould," New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore tells NPR's Kelly McEvers. "Gould coined that phrase. And what he meant by that was he thought history shouldn't be the story of celebrities and kings and queens and presidents and generals, but should be the story of ordinary people — the 'small fry,' he liked to call them."
Lepore is the latest writer to become fascinated by Gould, and here's why: In 1964, Mitchell wrote about Gould again, and this time he concluded that Gould's Oral History never existed. It was a figment of Gould's imagination.
In her new book, Joe Gould's Teeth, Lepore sets out to answer the question once and for all: Did Gould write his Oral History?
On what she discovered from Gould's student files at Harvard
Everything in them belied pretty much everything in either of Mitchell's profiles, so then I was sort of stuck. I thought: Well, if all this is wrong, then maybe The Oral History really exists. Like, maybe there is this 9-million-word manuscript somewhere.
I became completely obsessed. And this is sort of like Joe Gould's curse — Mitchell had become obsessed, too. So I ended up trying to retrace Gould's footsteps and follow him through his life, and then trying to retrace Mitchell's footsteps. And I went on this kind of endless, crazy search because I really believed what Gould believed — or said he believed — which is that the stories of ordinary people really matter.
On Gould's mental instability
I had become uncomfortable spending time with Joe Gould because his insanity was a little terrifying. And so it soon became clear to me that he was possibly dangerous to other people, not just to Joseph Mitchell, who I think he harmed in many ways as well.
On how Gould's obsession with an African-American artist contributed to her being largely forgotten
I found evidence that Gould had harassed an African-American artist. And that made a lot of sense to me because a lot of Gould's instability had to do with his ideas about race – especially, he was obsessed with interracial sex. He was obsessed with white men having sex with black women. And so, that he would be obsessed with a black woman artist was almost predictable at that point. But then I couldn't figure out who it was, because it seemed like it was almost as though she had been erased from the historical record.
In any case, I eventually found out it was a woman — Augusta Savage — who at the time was the most prominent artist in Harlem and one of the most influential still, because she was a teacher of art. She had been the obsession of Joe Gould since 1923, when he first met her at a poetry reading. And what I ended up walking away from the project wishing was that Gould hadn't basically been complicit in destroying what we could possibly know about Augusta Savage; and that Savage herself hadn't been so haunted by Gould that she hadn't done the willful act that she did, which was apparently to have destroyed many of her papers and much of her art.
On whether she ever found Gould's Oral History
After "Joe Gould's Secret" was published in 1964, a whole lot of people wrote to Mitchell and said: You know, the piece is just beautiful. I mean it's beautiful; it's poetry. But I knew Joe Gould and there was an oral history and I've seen it and I have some of his notebooks. Do you want to see them? A lot of people — enough to really, I think, be concerning if you were Joseph Mitchell. And one woman in particular wrote and said: I know that I have one of his notebooks at least because he gave it to me when I went to Europe on my honeymoon and would you like it? And Mitchell said: Sure, send it along. And she did.
And then I'm sort of pawing through his papers and I came across the notebook, and it does have oral history in it. It really is what Gould said it was: It's not staggering, it's just the notebook. It's just snippets of speech. But he really was writing down the things that people say.
On what ended up happening to Gould
He spent the last years of his life at Pilgrim State Hospital, which was the largest mental hospital in the world and the place where lobotomy was perfected. And I wasn't able to get his records from the hospital, but the medical director of the hospital published a number of academic papers about the practice of lobotomy and experimentation with lobotomy. And one of the case records very closely resembles Gould and describes him by age and by all kinds of other features that line up very well with where Gould was in his life and what's knowable about Gould. I think he was probably lobotomized. ... He died there without a scrap of paper to his name, according to the medical director at his death.