Joe Gould, Madness, Creativity, and the World in Between

How do we treat our most disturbed fellow citizens? How far should we go to accommodate and tolerate eccentricities for the sake of a good story?

It would have been the ultimate tribute, or at least a twisted ironic commentary, had Jill Lepore’s brilliant Joe Gould’s Teeth been a 1,000-page doorstop of a biography that chronicled every moment of her subject’s life. After all, Gould’s main claim to fame was as the author of Oral History of the Contemporary World (also known as Oral History of Our Time or Meo Tempore), a sprawling, endless record of conversations with and lives about people he’d met and conversations he’d overheard. How else should this examination of creative obsession and clinical madness be presented?

Wisely, Lepore avoids the temptation some might have to lionize this last of the Bohemians, who died alone in 1957 at the age of 68. Once the apparent mascot of literary lights like E.E. Cummings, Malcolm Cowley, and William Saroyan, Gould had alienated them all by the end of his life. This major manuscript went to the grave with him.

How we choose to consider a character like Joe Gould largely depends on our tolerance for the seething, sometimes raving lunatic madman artists and writers we regularly pass in the course of our lives. Early in Lepore’s sympathetic yet clear-headed account of the man’s life and times, we learn “…he introduced himself as the most important historian of the twentieth century.” Already, Gould’s talent for myth-building and legend-molding was clearly evident. He was a Massachusetts native who gravitated towards Harvard. He learned how to connect and network, and in a 1931 letter to Harvard historian George Sarton, Gould’s psychosis starts in earnest. Of his manuscript, he notes: “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.”

In his time, Gould became celebrated, partying with Langston Hughes, dining with Cummings, eating with John Dos Passos. He was creating the image of a literary dilettante, making an occasional living through writing book reviews for the Federal Writer’s Project, but this magnus opus that so entranced those who loved to write about obsessive writers failed to fully materialize. “He began to starve,” Lepore writes. “He was covered with scabs and infected with fleas.”

Gould became either the subject of compassion or a pet literary project of Cummings and Ezra Pound, who both helped Gould out financially when needed. The reader wonders (though Lepore never concludes this) whether their interest was mainly in being the first to discover and present this Gould’s text to the public. The stack of manuscripts that comprised the text was said to exceed seven feet, and William Saroyan wanted to read it. All elements were in place for the introduction of the greatest text of the 20th century, if only JGould could have produced a workable version of what he wanted to say.

Lepore has difficult shoes to fill here, but she proves more than up to the challenge. Her fellow New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell had published Joe Gould’s Secret (1965) based on two profiles he’d written for the magazine; 1942’s relatively breezy “Professor Seagull” and the considerably darker 1964 story “Joe Gould’s Secret”. Lepore, like Mitchell, builds her larger text from a version originally published in the New Yorker in 2015.

With the advantage of time, Lepore widens her canvas to encompass all manner of concerns in the story of Gould. For Lepore, this is as much about a colorful character as it is about journalism, race considerations, and mental illness. How do we treat our most disturbed fellow citizens? How far should we go to accommodate and tolerate eccentricities for the sake of a good story? Lepore treats her subject with compassion and reserve. Consider this passage she finds in some of Gould’s papers, which she believes “…held an answer to the question I’d started with. ‘If one were to pick anyone up at random and study him intensely enough… we would get the whole story of a man…” For Lepore, it was a simple question and answer: “What is biography? A life in time.”

There are many fascinating strands in the life of Gould that Lepore presents and leaves unanswered, in true mystery tradition. There’s no way to definitively answer them. One strand involves Pound, the brilliant poet who had his own struggles with madness in the ’40s. Pound was an early supporter of Gould’s, and the extent of his correspondence with Cummings indicates how far he was willing to go to at least collect the man’s work and do his best (albeit unsuccessfully) to keep him out of an asylum. The mystery remains for Lepore at the close of her primary text (Joe Gould’s Teeth is 151 pages long, followed by 66 pages of extensive notes.) In a 1958 letter Pound sent to Cummings from St. Elizabeth’s, one of the former’s frequent hospitalizations for mental illness, he writes (in his poetic form):

“…am doin wot I kan to hellup yr friends edit Joe Gould.”

Lepore responds:

“Edit what? Did Pound have the notebooks? Four days later, Pound was released.”

The other major character here is Augusta Savage, an African-American artist born in 1892 who falls in with the Harlem Renaissance crowd of the ’20s and moves from poetry to sculpting, although he did not make much of an immediate impression in either world. What she does accomplish, though, is to serve as Gould’s obsession. He is already under the sway of Eugenics, ideas of race purity, and researching (among other groups) the voice and lives of Savage’s people. Was it sociological research, though, or simply obsession? Lepore seems to believe there may have been hints of rape and regular abuse (emotional and otherwise) in Gould’s letters to Savage.

She marries another man, gives birth, her husband and child eventually die, but Savage perseveres. Lepore notes that Augusta Savage died broke and relatively unknown in 1962: “Her work had been, at best, uneven… Some people believe she collected as much of her work as she could [more than 70 major pieces from museums] and smashed it.”

Early in Joe Gould’s Teeth (the title refers to Gould’s dentures and the belief in some asylums in the early 20th century that madness could be eliminated or at least alleviated through the removal of teeth) Lepore sets out her clear-headed and focused thesis. Unlike Mitchell, who wavered in the actual existence of the manuscript, Lepore leaves that up to the reader. By setting aside the question of whether or not this great unpublished masterpiece existed, she focuses instead on how the artistic community (and the world in general) has always treated madness. She notes that for modernists, Gould was victorious because his inner torment never prevented him from writing. He was “…suffering for his art, suffering for their art, suffering for all art. Because he is me.”

Then, Lepore answers that general conclusion with a simple “not me”. “Gould’s friends saw a man suffering for art; I saw a man tormented by rage. To me, his suffering didn’t look romantic and his rage didn’t look harmless.”

Rather than dispute and dismiss the colorful character Mitchell brought to life in his New Yorker profiles, Lepore concludes that she saw a different Gould, a more difficult man whose talent might have rested more within his uncanny ability to cultivate a personality rather than leave a tangible, concrete statement for posterity. One thing she does note, fairly conclusively, is that Gould’s efforts proved to be the first to promote the idea of Oral History as a legitimate historical method. Columbia University historian Allan Nevins developed the Oral History Project in 1948, but the idea was most likely floated by Gould as far back as 1931.

What we have by the end of Joe Gould’s Teeth is a testament that is both calm and intense. Mitchell might have wanted Gould to have a secret, and therefore be the one to bring it into the world (where Cummings and Pound had failed), but Lepore understands it’s deeper than that. In her haunting epilogue, she imagines being in a room labeled “Archives”. Allen Ginsberg is muttering about the best minds of his generation. There’s an iron cage in one corner of the cavernous storage area. Inside that cage is a radio broadcasting Pound’s WWII anti-semitic tirades from Radio Rome. She sees some work by Augusta Savage, and she eventually comes upon Gould’s contribution to this random assortment of writers and artists.

What makes this epilogue so clear and beautiful is that Lepore believe’s that legends don’t matter. Hints and suggestions and apocryphal takes are meaningless. What sometimes has the greatest impact are the most apparently meaningless things. Gould might not have been able to “…widen the sphere as Walt Whitman did that of poetry”, but through this biography he lives on as a troubled, tortured wreck who might have persevered and perhaps even exceeded his potential, if only he had been born in a later time.