Sunday, January 19, 2020

Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore

After the novel Middlemarch and the various books by Elizabeth Hand I read last year, Jill Lepore was my favorite discovery of 2019. I read three of her books (the best of which was The Story of America: Essays on Origins). Her work really challenged me to look more closely at the works cited sections of biographies. I’m not the first person to develop a love of biographies in my thirties (which has waned somewhat in the past couple of years, but not gone away), but Lepore changed the way I approach new ones and the way I remember some of the ones I’ve read over the last few years. I loved Chernow’s Washington when I first read it. It is too thorough to be bad, but Lepore points out how scant the documentary evidence is about Washington’s emotional state and his relationship to his mother, and how Chernow is apt to make stronger statements on Washington’s on those matters than can be strictly proven. Across the three books I read, she seems to have set herself the dual task of reclaiming narrative/popular history for academics, and to convince academics that in the absence of a national narrative created by qualified historians that history is too susceptible to current political needs. In this, she holds herself to the rigor she expect from others, but is distracted from those main thrusts of her work by an intriguing figure, Joe Gould.

I had never heard of Gould before picking up the book, but it’s easy to see how Lepore found him fascinating. A friend of many famous people in New York in the first half of the century (ee cummings and Ezra Pound among others), he came to fame, but not fortune, as an eccentric bohemian figure and the author of “The Oral History of Our Times” which was purported to have taken the space of more than fifty notebooks, filled with things he’d overheard and conversations he’d had. He was the first to use the term oral history. He was also clearly suffering from some form of mental illness. He was the subject of a New Yorker profile that made him and his handwritten opus famous. Another, years after he died by the same author, claimed that the author no longer believed the Oral History existed. In those, Gould seemed to be a pitiable bohemian figure, a legend. And on some level he was. Lepore archive dives around the country trying to establish whether the book ever existed or not (spoiler alert*). As she did, she uncovered a darker side to Gould’s life. He was obsessed with race; for both good and ill. He seemed to be on the side of civil rights, participating in protests. But there is a clear streak of antisemitism, and eugenic thinking as well. And then there was his obsession with Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage. In his pursuit of her he was relentless in the worst ways as she consistently rebuffed him.

Gould spent much of his life indigent, and the last years in a series of psychiatric hospitals. Lepore tells his story with equal parts verve, documentary evidence supplemented by reasonable suppositions (clearly marked as such), a sympathy for his mental illness, and a lack of sugar coating of his worst qualities. This was a highly entertaining and informative book.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 6/75

*At least some volumes of it did.

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