(Thoughts on Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore – Part One – Meo Tempore)
Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore is about Lepore’s quest to find Joe Gould’s “The Oral History of Our Time” a rumored, but never validated, collection of umpteen notebooks filled with historical everyday observations. Joe Gould was made famous in 1942 when New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell said the Oral History existed, and famous-er in 1964 when Mitchell said the Oral History didn’t.
How did Mitchell think something this massive existed? Why did he take this man’s word on it?
Because it made a good story. Lepore addresses this when talking about Mitchell’s two Gould-centric stories, writing, “It made a better story in 1942 if the Oral History existed. It made a better story in 1964 if it did not.”
Joe Gould’s Teeth is also about Joseph Mitchell, a writer whom “admitted to Gould that he made up facts.” And this man is basically the father of creative non-fiction.
His subject, Joe Gould, “did not consider this kind of thing a kindness.” And why should he? Joe Mitchell made Gould, an already mentally fragile man, into a fictional folk hero.
I’m not sure if I want to go back and read Joe Mitchell’s two Gould stories, “Professor Sea Gull” and “Joe Gould’s Secret,” because I don’t trust Joseph Mitchell. I trust Jill Lepore, and not just because of her excellent Wonder Woman book which I reviewed last year.
I trust her because she seems trustworthy. I hate this phrase, but Jill Lepore has no skin in this game. Mitchell was drawn to Gould “because he is me.” Lepore bluntly writes, “Not me.”
She continues, “A century on, Gould looks bleak, his mental illness looks serious, and modernism looks fairly vicious, actually. Gould’s friends saw a man suffering for art; I saw a man tormented by rage. To me, his suffering didn’t look romantic and his rage didn’t look harmless.”
Jill Lepore isn’t a man who needs to validate his own shortcomings.
Validation appears to be Joe Gould’s main quest. It was his mission for the early part of his life when he was interested in eugenics. “One reason Gould was interested in eugenics was because he’d come to understand–maybe his failures had helped him to see–that he hadn’t earned the extravagant opportunities he’d been given in life, he’d inherited them.”
He wanted to justify his racial superiority instead of admitting it was artificial.
And it appears the Joseph Mitchell saw this quest of validation in Joe Gould, a desire he himself possessed. By making Joe Gould “real” Mitchell made himself real. As Lepore writes, “The defense of invention has its limits. Believing things that aren’t real and writing fiction are acts of imagination: delusion and illusion.”
Mitchell allegedly continued working for the New Yorker for almost three decades after “Joe Gould’s Secret” was published in 1964, yet he never published another story. Talk about privilege, getting paid to sit an office all day and never produce. Mitchell and Gould had that in common — producing nothing of value for decades — except Mitchell made a living off of Joe Gould and Gould lived in the streets.
I want to kick Joe Mitchell’s grave.
Joe Mitchell’s grave is located in South Carolina, according to findagrave.com. I don’t know who wrote the blurb on Joe Mitchell’s findagrave.com listing, but that person says that Mitchell “respected people on the fringes, and wrote about street preachers, Bowery bums, bartenders, prodigies, and unsung angels of mercy.” If his treatment of Gould is any indication, Mitchell had no respect for these people, and this line is as much a fantasy as Mitchell’s non-fiction writing. Mitchell didn’t care about these people; Mitchell cared about a story without regard to the subject.
A plaque which appears to be in Mitchell’s burial place in North Carolina reads that Mitchell was “one of the best reporters and interviewers of his time.” A man who made shit up was one of the best reporters of his time. I hope times are changing.
(Read my final thoughts on this book here.)