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book review

On the hunt for world’s longest manuscript

Joseph Ferdinand Gould led quite a life. His afterlife has not exactly been uneventful, either.

Gould, who died in 1957 at age 68, became quasi-famous through a pair of profiles by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. The first, “Professor Sea Gull,” appeared in 1942 and is considered a classic of narrative nonfiction. The second, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” was published in 1964.

The “secret” to which Mitchell referred was a work Gould claimed to have been toiling on for decades titled “The Oral History of Our Time.”

The unpublished manuscript was reportedly millions of words long, scribbled on notebooks Gould carried in his pockets, and consisted largely of conversations he’d conducted on the streets of Manhattan. Of particular interest to Gould, a Harvard dropout, was the issue of race in America.

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Gould died penniless and institutionalized, a minor New York bohemian celebrity who’d become famous for being, well, famous. After his death, Mitchell and others tried to track down his notebooks.

Concluding that, at least as Gould had described it, “The Oral History” did not exist, Mitchell felt duped. “Joe Gould’s Secret” was payback of sorts.

Now comes Jill Lepore, another staff writer from The New Yorker (which published an earlier version of this tale), to reinvestigate whether “The Oral History” survives to this day, even in fragmentary form. And, if so, whether a reappraisal of Gould and his legacy is in order.

Lepore, who teaches history at Harvard, is well-suited to the assignment. She knows how to mine archives for hidden nuggets. She is a facile storyteller, with bestsellers like “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” and “Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin” on her résumé. And she’s fascinated with the intersection of history and popular culture.

“Joe Gould’s Teeth” (the title refers to the false teeth Gould wore after his real ones got extracted in a mental hospital) is fundamentally a detective story, a search for both the missing pieces of Gould’s magnum opus — “the longest book ever written and never read,” as Lepore describes it — and the buried shards of his tortured life.

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Was Gould delusional? No question. While he could rightfully claim to be a published essayist and critic and a friend to prominent literati (E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound), Gould, who was often homeless, also suffered from, among other afflictions, alcoholism, exhibitionism, mental illness, and a creepy penchant for sexually harassing women.

Although Mitchell, who died in 1996, figures heavily in the narrative, it is another relationship of Gould’s that, in Lepore’s view, is crucial to understanding her subject’s life story: his romantic pursuit of an African-American artist named Augusta Savage, whom he met in Harlem in 1923.

Gould fell hard for Savage and proposed marriage in 1929. When she turned him down, Gould spiraled downward. For years thereafter, he hounded Savage in person and from afar. His obsession with her was neither touching nor healthy.

“Gould’s friends saw a man suffering for art; I saw a man tormented by rage,” writes Lepore. “To me, his suffering didn’t look romantic and his rage didn’t look harmless.”

Her quest to find pieces of “The Oral History” led Lepore to multiple sources. In the archives of Harvard University and the New York Public Library, she plowed through hundreds of pages of Gould’s diaries and letters, enough to suggest that “The Oral History” possibly did exist. Pieces of the manuscript surfaced elsewhere. Had other notebooks and chapters gone to friends for safekeeping? Been stashed away in mental hospitals? Destroyed altogether?

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If aspects of the mystery remain unsolved, Lepore weaves them into a haunting portrait of Gould, a “toothless madman” who believed he was his generation’s preeminent historian — and who in fact helped inspire the modern oral history movement.

Mitchell himself published nothing after 1964. His New Yorker pieces, while still revered, have raised questions about where nonfiction writing crosses an ethical line when characters, scenes, and dialogue get made up.

“Passing off fiction as fact,” write Lepore, as Mitchell often did, “isn’t an act of imagination; it’s an act of deception.” She further chides Mitchell for maintaining that “The Oral History” did not exist when, in fact, Mitchell did not try all that hard to find it.

In the book’s epilogue, Lepore boxes up her project’s research documents, returns library books, and imagines an archive containing Gould material in which she deposits his false teeth, suggesting their grip on our cultural history and imagination won’t loosen anytime soon.

JOE GOULD’S TEETH

By Jill Lepore

Knopf, 235 pp, $24.95


Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at josephpkahn@gmail.com.