Joe Gould’s Teeth–Jill Lepore


Jill Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard University, but, despite her Ivy League credentials, she has become known as a historian who can write popular history.  Her most recent book is The Secret History of Wonder Woman.  Joe Gould’s Teeth comes out May 17, 2016 and is reviewed here as an uncorrected proof.

One of the highest forms of praise for any book, in my mind, is to say to yourself after closing the back cover that your mind is unsettled.  That is how Joe Gould’s Teeth left me.

Lepore introduces Joe Gould as he saw himself–a brilliant historian who was creating a new form, the oral history, which would record the everyday voices and happenings of common people to balance the political/diplomatic/intellectual history that reigned in the early twentieth century.  He wrote in common composition notebooks with mottled black and white covers and wrapped stacks of them in twine, also a very common material.

He had uncommon friends:  Ezra Pound, ee cummings, Joseph Mitchell.  He was a prolific letter writer.  Later psychiatric hospital records would call it paranoid letter-writing.  These letters gave Lepore a glimpse into Gould’s mind and his relationships.  Friends reported that they had read pieces of The Oral History of Our Time, but when publishers asked Gould for chapters, he had trouble producing them.  Joseph Mitchell, the New Yorker writer who wrote a profile of Gould in 1942, gave weight to the Oral History‘s existence, but when he wrote again about Gould in 1964, he called its entire existence into doubt.

Gould’s story wins the title and his descent into madness and his ability to get away with sexual assault, racism, verbal assault, bad friendship, begging, and just plain anti-social behavior while still having people who cared about what happened to him, is a fascinating morality tale.  Hint–the story does not end well for him, so the rule breaker gets his in the end.

However, what was more interesting to me were the stories of two women–Augusta Savage, whom Gould stalked and perhaps assaulted, and Lepore herself, who was drawn into their stories.

Savage was a sculptor and patron of black art and artists at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance who eventually fled New York for a quiet home in the countryside and who likely destroyed as much of her work as she could get her hands on.  Lepore is fascinated with her, but I was left feeling that she had just started exploring her story when Joe Gould’s Teeth ended.  I felt Lepore was trying to suggest something about history and who is reflected and how in the historical record, but that she was just building to it when she quit writing.

Lepore’s story, perhaps not surprisingly, was most interesting to me.  She came to Gould’s story as a small part of a class on biography and was sucked in when she began searching for supporting materials and realized that the story, the received narrative, did not match the sources that should have created it.  Lepore, one of our great historians, was caught by a man who called himself the greatest historian of his time.  She would find the missing Oral History, maybe “under a bush, in a gutter, down a ditch.”  The class ended, but she could not stop looking.  She found a notebook dated 1922, “Meo Tempore. Seventh Version.  Volume II.”  And she kept looking.  She speculates that those who supported him, those who wrote about him, did so because they saw pieces of themselves, alternate feared fates, in Gould’s story.  Because he is me, she writes.  She finds the answer to her question about biography.  She keeps searching after Augusta Savage and visits the home in which she ended her days, commenting that the property contains a cistern that could drown a man, echoing the “chasm” into which she fell when she began researching Gould’s story.  In her epilogue she relates packing up the materials she had collected and returning the books she had checked out of libraries.  I could almost hear the pride/resolution when she confided that she had not called back a man who said he had some of Gould’s notebooks.  She then goes into a vision she has of madness and scholarly pursuit.  Like Gould, Lepore wants to broaden the scope of history.  At the heart of the puzzle, for an American historian, is race, sex, privilege.  In the vision the pieces are present, but, unlike Gould, Lepore does not go down the rabbit hole too far.  She backs out of the room, shuts the door on the madness.   And that, perhaps, is why I closed the covers wanting her to do more, to say more, to answer more.

Finished 3/25/16



Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin–Jill Lepore

Books of history are not often considered quick and consistently interesting reads so when a book of history becomes a National Book Award Finalist, historians and readers should look closely at how the book is crafted.  Jill Lepore dedicates a section on her method and sources and, important for a work of popular history, includes nearly 100 pages of end notes.  The scholarly apparatus is present, but not distracting to the flow of the narrative.  Lepore tells a story (in fact, several stories).  A problem she addresses in her method section, which becomes apparent in a few places in the text, is not letting Jane’s story be overwhelmed by the stories of Ben Franklin and the American Revolution.  The latter are big, better-known, better-sourced stories. Franklin collected his own writings, wrote about himself, and created admirers, including those who lived long after his death, who also collected his writings.  Another interesting historiographical problem Lepore addresses is the decision of the first editors of the letters to standardize (to the time in which they were edited) the spelling and grammar of Jane’s writing, thus erasing the gap between her education and that of her brother as well as minimizing the achievement of her writing and continuing to write.

Jane’s sexual choices had a much bigger impact on the course of her life than did those of her brother (not so surprising in theory, but watching the long-term consequences play out was painful in the way that seeing how much one actually pays for a car or a home after compound interest is added in can be painful).  Benjamin has an illegitimate child, yet goes on to make a good marriage and thrive financially and professionally.  Jane becomes pregnant at a young age and marries an ill-advised spouse who seems to have been an emotional and financial drain on her throughout their married lives and to have influenced her sons, at least, whether through genetics or learned behaviors or both, to have been similar drains on her.  Her biological imperative, in an age without reliable birth control, meant that, at the age of thirty-six, “she had been pregnant or nursing, almost without pause, since she was 16” (83).  I have been parenting four children continuously over the last 20 years and know how consuming that role has been.  I cannot imagine twenty years pregnant or nursing and parenting (although many of her children did not survive into late childhood, which brought its own burden of grief).

One of my favorite sections of Jane’s life, although not necessarily of Lepore’s story, was when Benjamin was in Europe and Jane was in Boston as the early events of what became the American Revolution unfolded.  Benjamin relied on Jane’s honest insights and valued her view of the situation and the players.  Jane seemed to enjoy the personal dramas connected to the political drama.  This section of Lepore’s story, however, is one area in which she struggled to keep the “master narrative” of Benjamin and the Revolution from overwhelming Jane’s story.

Lepore is at her finest when she introduces Jane’s Book of Ages and contextualizes Jane’s decision to write the book, her choice of the name, and the content of the entries.  Jane’s children are born and die soon after, but she does not write of her feelings.  Lepore tries to put us in the mindset of the age, however, with sermons, especially that of Benjamin Colman on the death of his daughter.  Lepore closes that chapter with this:

“The Book of Ages is a book of remembrance.  Write this for a memoriall in a booke.  She had no portraits of her children, and no gravestones.  Nothing remained of them except her memories, and four sheets of foolscap, stitched together.  The remains of her remains.  The Book of Ages was her archive.  Kiss this paper.  Behold the historian.”

This is why this book was a National Book Award Finalist.  Lepore rescues Jane, but not as an oddity of history, a side note to the read story.  In her skillful hands, Jane’s story becomes crucial to a complete story of the age.  Without Jane, Benjamin Franklin’s story has a gaping hole.  Lepore tells Jane’s story for a popular audience, but with the tools and the wide perspective of a trained academic historian.  She reveals just enough of both to make Book of Ages more than a biography of one woman, or the story of women in this era, or even the people of Boston and New England in this era.  Jane Franklin’s story touches our stories and Lepore’s goal to bring her out from the shadows of a privileged-white-male-driven narrative touches a democratic impulse of our era. (On a side note, Lepore’s chapter on the views of proper history in the eighteenth century and the role of novels in telling the “history” of women and underprivileged peoples, in which Jane Austen has a cameo appearance, is worth a read on its own–“Partial, Prejudiced, and Ignorant”).

I am not an American historian nor particularly interested in early American history, but I thoroughly enjoyed this book and, thanks to Lepore’s storytelling and historical craft, I will not forget Jane Franklin or the women whose stories were intertwined with hers.

Finished 6/3/15