(Final thoughts on Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore. See my initial impressions here.)
Joe Gould was a man obsessed. In the 1930s and 40s, he wanted to record everything ever said in a collection called “The Oral History of Our Time.” “Joe Gould’s Teeth” by Jill Lepore begins as Lepore’s attempt to find the hundreds of notebooks rumored to contain the History. The History was never confirmed to have existed. “Shouldn’t someone check?” Lepore asks.
Gould was made famous when New Yorker writer Joe Mitchell profiled Gould in the magazine in 1942. The Joe Gould paradox reminds me of a 1920s Bling Ring — the group of teens who wanted to be famous, so they stole from famous people, then ended up famous themselves, in a subjunctive way. Lepore writes, “Very little of what most people write is saved, and nearly all of what is said is lost. That’s why Gould was writing the thing in the first place. […] Gould wanted to save the ordinary; the ordinary was hard to save. But when “Professor Sea Gull” appeared, it made Gould famous. And what famous people write is saved.”
In a way, all writers want to be Gould, a man who suffered from Graphomania. Lepore writes that graphomania “is an illness, but seems more like something a writer might have to envy, which feels even rottener than envy usually does because Joe Gould was a toothless madman who slept in the street. You are envying a bum: has it come to this, at last?”
Gould biggest mental weakness appears to be his lack of introspection. He once wrote, “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 more firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly.” By his own definition, Joe Gould is fucking crazy. He turned against friends at the drop of a hat. He destroyed property. He whipped out his penis at parties and measured it. He was anything but calm.
But Gould also wrote this, “If we could see ourselves as we really are, life would be insupportable.” Maybe he was more sane than I give him credit for. He knew if he were to look into the mirror of his soul, he would crack. Or maybe he did look into that mirror, and that’s why he was a broken man.
As Lepore meticulously traces Gould’s steps back in time, she stops envying the toothless crackpot. She realizes Gould’s work wasn’t about preserving history as it is, but shaping it in a way to further Gould’s own racial biases. Involved with the eugenics movement and friends with the viciously anti-Semitic poet Ezra Pound, Gould’s so-called “History” drips with white superiority. “History, [Gould] liked to say, was fiction.” That is why it’s important to know who writes your history.
Joe Gould’s Teeth is a very short book–151 pages–not including copious footnotes and resources at the book’s end. In the end, Lepore appears to realize she doesn’t give a shit about Gould’s Oral History. “Shouldn’t someone check?” she writes again. “Not me.” She seems to think, Why should anything this man have curated be put on display? What gives him the right to have a voice?
Her decision to stop looking makes “Joe Gould’s Teeth” a book not about his Oral History, or his teeth, or even Gould himself, really. Like “Orange is the New Black” in which a white lady serves as the gateway to a story about non-white inmates, Joe Gould’s Teeth is a Trojan Horse. Its most intriguing subject isn’t Gould, but Augusta Savage, a black artist who is the object of Gould’s perverse obsession.
Gould said he loved Savage. He pursued her constantly, despite her repeated pleas for him to stop. Lepore writes, “He said he was trying to save her, but really he was trying to drown her.”
Lepore assembles as much information as she can — or wants to — about Savage. Joe Gould is sad. Pathetic. Pitiable. But Savage is a travesty, a woman trying to make art about her race during a brutal time when the vast majority of people wouldn’t give a shit about her, or anything she has to say, as a black woman. Simply by trying to make art, she was often accused of “want[ing] to be white.”
I wanted to know more about this tragic figure. Either there isn’t much information about Savage (I found a kid’s bio about her online, but not any other published work after some cursory Googling), Lepore gave up, or she’s saving a book about Savage for later.
At the end of Savage’s life, “Some people believe she collected as much of her work as she could, and smashed it.” Joe Gould’s Teeth is, in a way, Lepore’s attempt at not necessarily rebuilding her work, but finding the pieces, showing them to us, and saying, look what once existed.
I have to wonder how much Joe Gould’s obsession and objectification of Savage affected her self-perception. We don’t know why she did what she did. But if she felt worthless or ashamed because of her treatment by Gould — and white society as a whole — it’s infuriating.
This book made me very angry at times. In my blog post about Joe Gould’s Teeth, I said I wanted to kick Joe Mitchell’s grave. Joe Mitchell is the New Yorker writer who spun Joe Gould’s story into a folk legend in 1942, and tore him apart posthumously in 1964, all for the purpose of serving Joe Mitchell. That asshole wouldn’t even deliver the eulogy at Gould’s memorial service.
But I realize that kicking Mitchell’s grave would make me more like Mitchell himself, attacking a man who could no longer defend himself. And maybe it would also make me like Gould, a man unable to control his primal impulses. I know that if I were to kick Joe Mitchell’s grave, or Joe Gould’s teeth, that the dead men wouldn’t feel it. But me, I would hurt my own foot.