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.