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Joe Gould's Teeth
By Jill Lepore
Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
Joe Gould's Teeth is a fascinating little novella-sized project from Harvard professor and New Yorker staffer Jill Lepore, which started life because of an earlier article from that same magazine -- an article in 1942, in fact, a character profile of an eccentric bohemian named Joe Gould who had been known and beloved all over Greenwich Village for decades at that point, who had been spending years compiling a Henry-Darger-like million-word "oral history of our times" that in reality was just a transcript of every sentence he had ever heard another person in public speak out loud over the course of his entire adult life. The piece became a sensation, an early example of the "New Journalism" which would become such a force in America after World War Two, written with a kind of humor and empathy that made millions around the nation fall in love with the adorably quirky Gould; so these same people were of course heartbroken when the journalist in question, Joseph Mitchell, wrote a follow-up piece in 1964 after Gould's death, admitting that he now thought the oral history to be a nonexistent project that had been completely made up in the mind of the severely mentally ill Gould.
Fifty years later, Lepore became fascinated with knowing whether Mitchell's assumption was true, whether any of this supposed thousand-volume oral history actually did ever exist; this book, then, is partly a record of that national search, partly a new and deep biographical portrait of Gould himself, based on the massive amount of academic research Lepore did for this book (of its 235 pages, nearly a hundred are nothing but bibliographical notes), and partly a confessional personal essay by Lepore on why she became so obsessed with the subject in the first place, of what she thinks it says about her that she gave over an entire six months of her life to investigating the mystery. And does she ever find this hidden treasure trove of material that so many others have tried and failed to track down? Well, I'll let the book answer that in detail (the tl;dr version -- kind of but not really); much, much more interesting, though, is how the research itself presents a much more nuanced and tragic portrait of Gould than the "lovable eccentric" he was optimistically portrayed as by the Early Modernist writers who used to spend time with him, including people like EE Cummings and Ezra Pound.
As Lepore shows, Gould was in fact very clearly a schizophrenic psychopath, unmedicated and an alcoholic to boot, with a violent obsession for the subject of "race-mixing" (he was a proponent of eugenics and of banning mixed-race relationships, but carried a debilitating crush on black artist Augusta Savage for literally decades, and stalked her to the point of police intervention), someone who regularly turned on the very people who tried to help him, a lice-covered egomaniac and OCD victim who sent literally thousands of letters to his self-professed "enemies" and would sometimes call them on the phone in the middle of the night for weeks and months on end. Most people who have been in the arts for any significant period of time will know a person just like this, someone you gingerly want to help and who has a spark of fascinating creativity at their core, yet lacks almost any skills at socialization and eventually just becomes an albatross around your neck from the act of trying to help them; and that's what makes a book like this so interesting and readable, a portrait of the sorta ur-example of someone like this, and the formerly secret history of how the famous artists around him dealt with him at the time. It comes strongly recommended in that spirit, a quick little read that packs a wallop of thought-provoking ideas.
Out of 10: 9.5