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July 21, 2015 11:56 AM   Subscribe

Joe Gould died well over half a century ago after having been gone from his haunts in Greenwich for half a decade. He had been a fixture in the Village for decades, friend to famous writers and artists, living in penury while saying he was working on a massively long work called Oral History of Our Time (coining the term [pdf] "oral history" in the process) from which only a few short pieces were ever published. In the 40s he became famous thanks to a profile called "Professor Sea Gull" written by star New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. After Gould's death, Mitchell wrote another profile in 1964, "Joe Gould's Secret", where Mitchell said that the Oral History only existed in Gould's mind. After that article, Mitchell never published again in his lifetime despite being on The New Yorker's staff until his death in 1996. Since then, various further secrets have been unearthed about Gould, diaries from the 40s, the identity of Gould's mysterious patron, and now New Yorker writer Jill Lepore has written about Gould's whereabouts in the last years in his life, and much else, in a sad profile called Joe Gould's Teeth. [Joe Gould previously]
posted by Kattullus (10 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Luc Sante's précis: "In which Joe Gould reappears as the disillusionment bug, who continues to bite long after death."

Thomas Kunkel's new biography of Mitchell (referenced in Lepore's article) suggests that other factors than his feeling fooled by Gould may have been behind his failure to publish, however. Mainly that Mitchell's style of highly-literary-regularly-crossing-into-fictional journalism was at odds with tighter standards of fact-checking and insistence on veracity at the New Yorker, and most importantly that the melancholy and perfectionism that undergird his best pieces later grew to prevent his writing effectively at all.
posted by ryanshepard at 12:16 PM on July 21, 2015

I forgot to mention that the review of Kunkel's biography (the "star New Yorker writer" link) was by New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, the article about Muriel Gardiner ("mysterious patron" link) is by Joshua Prager, and the short article linked as "coining the term" is by Patricia J. Fanning.
posted by Kattullus at 12:25 PM on July 21, 2015

There was a movie released in 2000 about Gould and Mitchell called Joe Gould's Secret which is worth seeing if only because Gould and Mitchell are played by Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci.
posted by cottoncandybeard at 1:13 PM on July 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

(just got the Mitchell biography for my birthday - which isn't for a few days - now I'm even more excited to read it when the birthday rolls around)
posted by sciencegeek at 2:39 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is really good, as (it dawned on me at some point) Jill Lepore usually is.
posted by atoxyl at 3:09 PM on July 21, 2015

Damn, this is a great post. I'd read about Joe Gould but the two twists introduced in the linked articles (the name of his benefactor and fragments of the very book Mitchell finally claimed never existed) make this epic.
posted by annathea at 5:22 PM on July 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I really really liked this article - the New Yorker one - but I also came away kind of hating Joe Gould/the world that kind of buoyed him along, the Harvardian old-boy world. If not for them he would have really but really never gotten any thing published likely ever. (And does she teach at Harvard? She teaches at Harvard, right? She has a position teaching at Harvard. I feel like she might have mentioned it ten times, but maybe it was only five.)
Ok, that aside ...
How could she just close up the box of Joe Gould? Maybe this is why I'm not 'successful' but as far as she got I could not begin to imagine just putting it all aside.
The book must out! Some version of the damn thing. Even if it's terrible. She's gotten so far! Putting it aside it just flat out unimaginable.
posted by From Bklyn at 1:46 PM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is really interesting material, but the suggestion that Joseph Mitchell, our most compassionate and truth-seeking chronicler of American life and place, didn't actually care if the Oral History of the World existed should not be allowed to pass without notice.

Access to 21st century archives and their digitized finding aids is a wonderful thing, but it doesn't make us better than the seekers who came before.
posted by Scram at 4:07 PM on July 27, 2015

I finally read the (great) Jill Lepore piece, and aside from all the amazing Gould stuff I find I've lost even more respect for Mitchell. Yes, a fine writer, but you can't just make shit up and call it fact, even if there's such a thing as "poetic truth," and his announcing that Gould never wrote anything when he knew for a fact there were people who had read what he wrote is repugnant to me.

Anyway, this 1922 quote from Gould (from “Meo Tempore. Seventh Version. Volume II”) is worth posting here:
When Mr. Coan was a reporter, he heard President Taft speak to a group of suffragists. He happened to mention some man who opposed that measure, and they hissed, not intending disrespect to him, but to show their disapproval of that particular gent. Taft seemed quite huffed about it. He stopped his speech off short to say, “If you women desire a share in the representation of government, you should learn self-control.”
posted by languagehat at 9:33 AM on July 29, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree with you completely, but this bit in an article about Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" has brought me up short.
One of the many who took the story for a factual report was Stirling Silliphant, a producer at Twentieth Century-Fox: “All of us here have been grimly moved by Shirley Jackson’s story.… Was it purely an imaginative flight, or do such tribunal rituals still exist and, if so, where?” Andree L. Eilert, a fiction writer who once had her own byline in The New Yorker, wondered if “mass sadism” was still a part of ordinary life in New England, “or in equally enlightened regions.” Nahum Medalia, a professor of sociology at Harvard, also assumed the story was based in fact, though he was more admiring: “It is a wonderful story, and it kept me very cold on the hot morning when I read it.” The fact that so many readers accepted “The Lottery” as truthful is less astonishing than it now seems, since at the time The New Yorker did not designate its stories as fact or fiction, and the “casuals,” or humorous essays, were generally understood as falling somewhere in between.
Now, I think that most everyone who read Mitchell assumed that he was reporting fact, at least it puts his writing in a different context for me. The old New Yorker used to play fast and loose with fact and fiction, to the point that people could be confused as to whether "The Lottery" recounted real events or not.
posted by Kattullus at 11:44 AM on August 4, 2015

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