A Most Curious Man

Joe Gould’s Teeth

By Jill Lepore

For being an incessant writer and self-described chronicler of human history reduced to the personal level, as well as an acquaintance of and known to even more writers, artists, commentators, and the like of his time (1920s through mid-century), Joseph Ferdinand Gould, who died in 1957, has descended into obscurity. Harvard prof Jill Lepore, author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Book of Ages, and other titles, has rediscovered him in her quest to learn if his opus, An Oral History of Our Time, rumored to contain several million words, the life’s outpouring of Gould’s hypergraphia and obsession to produce something monumental, ever existed and if it did where might it be now. What to do when your diligent efforts leave you with cabinets of stuff but boil it all down into a book nearly as curious as the subject himself? This book is a distillation of her research, which, like Gould’s mysterious scriving, seems to have been massive.

Gould can be expansively described as brilliant, bohemian, eccentric, peripatetic, obsessive, rage-filled, disheveled, small, frail, forgetful, neglectful, engaging, and insane. Yet, the man had something that captured the minds and patronage of people like E.E. Cummings, Malcolm Cowley, Edmund Wilson, Max Perkins, to name but a few. Joseph Mitchell, known for his profiles of New York City characters in The New Yorker (a publication Lapore contributes to), made him famous in his “Profiles” piece “Professor Sea Gull” (Gould was know to strip to the waist at parties, dance about, and imitate a sea gull).

The focus of fascination was Gould’s An Oral History of Our Time. Many claimed to have seen it, or rather, bits and pieces of it. No one, however, was sure that it existed, or that it wasn’t anything more then an elaborate diary. It’s no revelation to say that Lepore found no such history. She did, though, find out much about a true American character, who in the end received some pretty shabby treatment at the hands of an adolescent psychiatric profession, being subjected to teeth extraction, electroshock treatment, and probably a lobotomy.

If Gould strikes you as a fellow you might have enjoyed befriending, realize that the man had a dark side, which wasn’t simply his aggressive personalized panhandling of those who showed the smallest interest in him and his work. He was something of a rogue given to wandering hands, and his obsessiveness could extend beyond his work, as Lepore’s research shows with regard to his hounding of sculptor Augusta Savage. He hounded clear out of the city to Saugerties, NY, where she spend the rest of her life in obscurity, though, to be fair, she appeared to have wanted to disappear for her own reasons.

So, then, other than those intrigued by how an academic goes about researching for a book, tracking bits and pieces of information, in this case to dead ends, who else might enjoy this curious book about a very curious fellow? Maybe those who wonder about the backstories of people living on the streets of American cities, and those who like knowing about something most don’t. w/c

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