BY MATTHEW HERBERT
Have you heard of Joe Gould, the mad, drunken, chain-smoking bohemian who called himself the greatest historian in the world–flunked out of Harvard, twice, communicated with seagulls, wrote the world’s longest unpublished book, an oral history of everyone, but then again possibly didn’t?
Neither had I, until I read Jill Lepore’s completely absorbing 2016 biography of the man himself, Joe Gould’s Teeth.
Gould came from a family with a queer streak, Lepore tells us.
The Goulds had come to New England in the 1630s, and they’d been strange for as long as anyone could remember. [Joe] was born in Massachussetts in 1889, . . . . [His father,] Dr. Gould was known to fly into rages, and so was Joseph. There was something terribly wrong with the boy. In his bedroom, he wrote all over the walls and all over the floor. His sister, Hilda, found him so embarrassing, she pretended he didn’t exist. He kept seagulls as pets, or at least he said he had, and that he spoke their language: he would flap his wings, and skip, and caw. He did all his life. That’s how he got the nickname “Professor Sea Gull.”
There is plenty to start with here if you are trying to unravel the mystery of Joe Gould. The guy had weirdness in buckets. He was probably misunderstood by everyone around him, from his childhood on. Lepore ventures that he was autistic before it was a diagnosable condition. But there must have been something especially formative about having his sister deny his existence–in effect, trying to erase him.
Later, when Gould would attract the serious attention of literary critics, it was because of the revolutionary scope of his work. He wanted to democratize the recounting of history so that everyone had a voice. No one would be erased. He wrote:
What we used to think was history–kings and queens, treaties, conventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan–is only formal history and largely false. I’ll put it down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude–what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows–or I’ll perish in the attempt.
To a friend, he summed it all up rather beautifully, saying, “I am trying to present lyrical episodes of everyday life. I would like to widen the sphere of history as Walt Whitman did that of poetry.” In the end, though, he did perish in the attempt. It was all too much for him.
Gould wrote the oral history in hundreds, maybe thousands, of dime-store composition books, over the course of decades. But he could never find them when it came time to publish. He thought he left some on a chicken farm. Or he would have to re-write them. Or he had sent them to correspondents who kept them in trunks. Critics, and even friends, eventually came to suspect there was no Oral History. Could it all have been a dream? Maybe.
“He was forever,” as Lepore puts it, “falling down, disintegrating, descending.” He once fell and cracked his skull on a curb. He woke up with his head bleeding and he recited parts of his history to a policeman. Writing held him together, but never for long, Lepore tells us. Gould just couldn’t get long with people, and in the end society could not accommodate him. He harassed women, including Harlem’s most famous sculptress. He turned on friends and generous benefactors. He died in America’s largest mental institution, unmourned, unnoticed by anyone on the outside. (In an early stage of his “treatment,” his teeth were pulled. Hence the book title. It was just one of those things doctors did in those days to render the insane more pliant. Lepore hypothesizes that Gould was probably also lobotomized near the end. This was another thing that doctors just did in those days, and there is a record of a man of Gould’s age and description undergoing the procedure.)
Lepore is an irresistible writer and magnificent historian. She tells the story of Gould in a way that sweeps you along with it. But it is the complexity of her subject that compels us. Beneath the greatness of Lepore’s writing is a paradox about Gould himself that yawns wide and takes us in. One of the ways Gould kept his internal balance–early on, when he still could–was to remind himself that individuals are unknowable at their core:
The fallacy of dividing people into sane and insane lies in the assumption that we really do touch other lives. Hence I would judge the sanest man to be him who most firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly.
Lepore’s book is an adventure story in a way. She set out on it, she says, to try to find the products of Gould’s “essential purposes,” the legendary stacks of dime-store composition books that contained the Oral History. But she didn’t find them. Instead, she found this: the man who gave his whole life to writing the history of the shirt-sleeved multitudes didn’t even believe in it. He couldn’t have. He thought people were unknowable at their core. You might get at the epiphenomena of their lives, but you could never access the individuals themselves. How could you write a history of all of them if you couldn’t even know one of them?
But he kept on, as we all must. “My impulse to express life in terms of my own observation and reflection is so strong,” Gould once wrote, “that I would continue to write, if I were the sole survivor of the human race, and believed that my material would be seen by no other eyes than mine.” This is an expression of courage worthy of Joseph Conrad. When you find that one life-sustaining thing you would do even with no one to witness it, you have arrived. It doesn’t matter that you are possibly as insane as Joe Gould. Because who’s to say what insanity is. Keep calm and pursue your essential purposes.