The troubled homeless historian who beguiled and bedeviled
By Sridhar Pappu
June 6, 2016
Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore; Knopf, 235 pp., $24.95
In 1942, Joseph Mitchell, master of the magazine profile, introduced the world to a “blithe and emaciated little man” named Joe Gould in the pages of The New Yorker. Mitchell’s article, “Professor Sea Gull,” presents Gould as a near-comic figure who had attended Harvard and studied eugenics, befriended the great literary lions of his age, and was at work—always at work—on “An Oral History of Our Time,” an immense, shapeless, and haphazard collection of character portraits and conversations of ordinary people, the pages of which he wrote and kept hidden in countless locations.
The piece made Gould, ever penniless and drunk, into a celebrity and cemented Mitchell’s literary fame. But in 1964, in a two-part sequel titled “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Mitchell revealed what he believed to be the truth about Gould: his oral history had never existed, at least not on paper. Mitchell surmised that Gould, who had died in a state psychiatric facility in 1957, had gotten stuck somehow and kept all of the information he collected in his head. As it happens, Mitchell himself soon fell into a similar trap: after finishing his second profile of Gould, he continued to work at The New Yorker for another 30 years but never published another word.
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Sridhar Pappu is a former staff writer with the New York Observer, The Atlantic, and the The Washington Post. He is the author of a forthcoming book on the end of baseball’s golden age of pitching.