June 2016 | Rebecca Rego Barry

Joe Gould's Teeth

At the 2015 New York Antiquarian Book Fair, I was brought up short by the sight of a tatty composition book displayed under glass in Brian Cassidy's booth. It was, he confirmed, one of Joe Gould's notebooks. It seemed more than serendipitous to me, as I had just finished reading a galley of Man in Profile, the 2015 biography of longtime New Yorker writer, Joseph Mitchell, whose lengthy articles, "Professor Sea Gull" (1943) and "Joe Gould's Secret" (1964) had made the Greenwich Village Bohemian scribbler famous--or infamous. Both articles attempted to get to the bottom of this question: did a manuscript of Gould's ten-million-word "Oral History of Our Time" truly exist?

9781101947586 copy.jpgA few months after the book fair, Harvard historian Jill Lepore published in the New Yorker an excerpt of her work, "Joe Gould's Teeth," about her quest for the voluminous "Oral History." It felt to me as if Thomas Kunkel's biography of Mitchell and Lepore's recent research on Gould had summoned that dime-store notebook out of the past, out of thin air, though probably more likely out of an attic. Many have sought Gould's manuscript(s) over the years, and most have given up. (The Fales Library at NYU houses a set of his diaries.)

Lepore's book on the subject, also titled Joe Gould's Teeth, was published last month (Knopf, $24.95). It's a fascinating read that brings readers into the archives to hunt for clues about Gould's personal history, his literary comrades (Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, William Carlos Williams), his obsession with an African-American sculptor named Augusta Savage, and his death, in a mental hospital, in 1957.  

The topic may be too quirky for some, but as she did in Book of Ages, her biography of Jane Franklin, Lepore takes a forgotten character and uses her impeccable research skills to debunk myths and reveal a clearer picture of the past. Her narrative voice is chatty--pulling us aside, leaning in, and telling us her "Holy Grail" story, a form familiar to many collectors, and much beloved. 

                                                                                                                                                                     Image courtesy of Knopf.