Title: Joe Gould’s Teeth
Rating: 2 Stars
This has all of the makings of a great story. First of all, there is Joe Gould himself. He was a legendary, colorful, mysterious Greenwich Village character from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. He was known as a raconteur. He was allegedly writing an oral history of immense size. He walked around with copy books, incessantly writing in them (Lepore actually believes him to be suffering from hypergraphia). He gave volumes of writings to various friends and benefactors. He had literary friends such as E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Edmund Wilson that believed in him and tried to get him published. He had fairly serious mental problems, was constantly on the edge of homelessness, and spent time in various mental hospitals. Although not clear, ultimately he appeared to die in a hospital after a stew of electro-shock, possible lobotomy, and doses of psychotropic drugs. It’s truly a tale of a possible lost, misunderstood genius.
And then you have Joseph Mitchell, yet another New York character. He was Jimmy Breslin before there was Jimmy Breslin. For decades, he was a journalist for various New York papers. He hung around the edges of society and wrote about people that no one else wrote about. He consorted with strippers, bartenders, gamblers, and gave them a voice that they never had before. He was a Runyonesque character that served as the pattern and inspiration of every following New York journalist.
Their paths collide in the early 1940’s when Mitchell wrote a profile of Gould called Professor Seagull. Gould was called Professor Seagull because he had a habit of flapping his arms and squawking, which in hindsight apparently are symptoms of autism. The profile gave Gould a measure of fame. Whatever goodwill that might have been gained by this fame was pretty much squandered by Gould by his strange behavior, public drunkenness, and never ending requests for money.
Later, after Gould died in the late 1950’s, Mitchell set off in search of Gould’s oral history. By the time of his death, it should have consisted of many hundreds of volumes. Gould always wanted it to be published after his death and that it would change the entire concept of what a history is.
Mitchell searched high and low for it. Finally, he came to the reluctant conclusion that the oral history never existed. He believed that Gould, despite his incessant writing in his copy books, really had a massive case of writer’s block. He wrote a second piece about Gould describing this search called Joe Gould’s Secret, which was much acclaimed.
Mitchell wrote this book in 1964. Interestingly enough, Mitchell continued to go to work every day at The New Yorker for another thirty years after he wrote that piece (well into his nineties). Before that time, he was remarkably prolific. After, for the following thirty year period of time, he didn’t write another significant story.
Mitchell, after accusing Gould of a multi-decade case of writer’s block, proceeded to himself experience a multi-decade case of writer’s block.
Isn’t that a great story? Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone like a Erik Larson or a David Grann or a Laura Hillebrand would dive into the details of this period and these characters and piece together exactly what that happened?
Unfortunately, instead we have this book. As far as I can tell, it was written over a very short period of time as an exercise for Lepore’s grad students. She finds original sources, but then barely even talks about them. She finds hospitals where Gould might have stayed, but then barely even gets information out of them. She finds evidence of a curious relationship with an African American sculptor (Augusta Savage), but discovers little about their relationship. It truly appears that Gould’s last years could have been harrowing and possibly could have served a larger purpose of describing the horrifying state of mid century mental health care in America, but even that seems to have been give short shrift.
The research here is so shallow it’s dismaying.