Joe Gould’s Life and the Red Herring of Truth in Biography

Joe Gould at Raven Poetry Circle Annual Exhibition, 1930s © Raven Poetry Circle of Greenwich Village Collection, PR108

What is biography? Is it possible to tell the story of a person’s life without confusing it with the story of your own? Does history consist of recorded facts, or recorded lives? Joe Gould, who filled scores of notebooks with stories overheard from the “shirt-sleeved multitude,” thought he knew the answer. “What people say is history,” he told the writer Joseph Mitchell in 1942. “What we used to think was history – kings and queens, treaties, inventions, big battles, beheadings… is only formal history and largely false.”

Mitchell became enamored of Gould and fascinated by his so-called “Oral History of Our Time.” So did e.e. Cummings, Ezra Pound, William Saroyan, and many other luminaries of the New York literary scene. But none as much as Mitchell, who wrote two profiles of Gould for the New Yorker and once said he was so obsessed with Gould “because he is me.” In the first profile, “Professor Seagull,” Mitchell introduced Gould’s Oral History to the world as a nine-million-word work filling 270 composition books, which its author planned to bequeath to Harvard Library and the Smithsonian, claiming “some of it will live as long as the English language.” In the second, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” written after Gould’s death, Mitchell revealed that Gould’s Oral History didn’t exist.

Neither characterization was correct. As New Yorker writer Jill Lepore writes in her new book Joe Gould’s Teeth, Mitchell was not only wrong about the history – it does, in fact, exist – but about the man himself. In Mitchell’s version, Lepore writes, “Gould is a delightful eccentric, a strange little man wandering the streets, harmlessly, in a world at war.” In fact, he was a racist, an anti-Semite, and a sexual predator who attacked women in the street. As a reporter from the Harvard Crimson wrote, “One of these days, someone is going to write an article on Joseph Ferdinand Gould ’11 for the Reader’s Digest. It will be entitled ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Met’ and it will present Joe Gould as an unusual but lovable old man. Joe Gould is not a lovable old man.”

He was, according to Lepore, probably autistic, most likely psychotic, and definitely alcoholic. He spent time in mental hospitals, and may have been lobotomized without his consent. He also was a graphomaniac, and did fill scores of notebooks with scribblings, some of which could be described as oral history. After Gould died, Mitchell published “Joe Gould’s Secret,” stating that the “Oral History of Our Time” was a product of Gould’s imagination. But after the article was printed, people began contacting Mitchell, saying they had Gould’s notebooks. One woman said she had ‘trunks full.’ Mitchell politely declined to correct the record.

“It’s a piece of lore that after Mitchell wrote “Joe Gould’s Secret” he never wrote another story ever again, not anything about Gould, not anything about anything, even though he came to the office every day until his death, in 1996,” Lepore writes. In the New Yorker, writer Roger Angell recalled him coming to work every morning, sitting at an empty desk all day, then going home at night — “sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh.” But, according to Lepore, this is not strictly true, just as it was later revealed the contents of his profiles were not always true: “it has since come out that Mitchell routinely invented quotes and even whole scenes, and once wrote an entire Profile about a man who did not exist.”

“‘I thought of Joe as a kind of hero,’ Mitchell said. Not me,” Lepore writes. Not me, either. Both in Mitchell’s telling and Lepore’s updated version, he comes across as a garrulous, tiresome character who inspires equal parts pity and irritation; as much menace as muse. As for his oral history, according to all reports, much of it is illegible, and the rest is, at best, mildly interesting. What does inspire and incite the imagination are the questions his story (or is it Mitchell’s story? Or Lepore’s?) raise about whether any of us really own our own life histories, and whether we can trust any storyteller to tell us anything close to the truth.