Joe Gould's Teeth

Joe Gould's Teeth

by Jill Lepore


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From New Yorker staff writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, the dark, spellbinding tale of her restless search for the missing longest book ever written, a century-old manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.”

Joe Gould’s Teeth is a Poe-like tale of detection, madness, and invention. Digging through archives all over the country, Lepore unearthed evidence that “The Oral History of Our Time” did in fact once exist. Relying on letters, scraps, and Gould’s own diaries and notebooks—including volumes of his lost manuscript—Lepore argues that Joe Gould’s real secret had to do with sex and the color line, with modernists’ relationship to the Harlem Renaissance, and, above all, with Gould’s terrifying obsession with the African American sculptor Augusta Savage. In ways that even Gould himself could not have imagined, what Gould wrote down really is a history of our time: unsettling and ferocious.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101971796
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/18/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 359,193
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JILL LEPORE is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University and a staff writer at The New Yorker. Her books include the New York Times best seller The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Book of Ages, a finalist for the National Book Award. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Read an Excerpt


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

to find them

—­e. e. cummings

For 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. “meo tempore 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 Histories in ancient Greece; Jean Froissart wrote his Chronicles 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 endless, and 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.

“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 one 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 fake teeth. 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, any 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 Time and was widely reprinted, including in a U.S. Armed Services Edition 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.”

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