I have never really been a nonfiction person. Part of it is, I just love fiction. I’m fascinated by storytelling, dramatic structure, conflict, tension, and the hero’s journey. Real life, it’s always seemed, just isn’t full of that stuff. How can you manipulate reality—facts, data, artifacts, things that are evidence of what really happened—into a compelling story that is just as riveting as something written by Donna Tartt or Stephen King or Zadie Smith? Devouring Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth one night in one sitting is pushing me on the path of nonfiction.
In this book review of Jill Lepore’s Joe Gould’s Teeth, I’ll tell you all about how this slim book-length essay dug into the facts and crafted a suspenseful, moving, and dramatic narrative exploring medical ethics and the literary world in general.
In the 1940s, infamous New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell wrote a profile in the magazine about a man named Joe Gould. A writer, a sociologist, an historian, Joe Gould brushed elbows with some of the most renowned authors and artists of the Modernist movement. He counted Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, Millen Brand, and more as his friends. Most notably, Gould called himself an oral historian because he was working on his magnum opus, or the “The Oral History of Our Time.”
He went around Manhattan collecting stories of quirky people or those with strange jobs or an interesting background. In other words, he went around documenting the lives of those he felt were overlooked but still had a story worth telling. He was also deeply concerned with race and ethnicity and often focused on that angle, telling the stories of minorities or immigrants (not without a hefty dose of racism himself). Gould told everyone about this book, and he gave parts of it away to friends. It was his masterwork, and he—and his famous writer friends—tried unsuccessfully to get it published. Still, the book grew in infamy. Everyone had heard of Joe Gould’s book, but they hadn’t seen it.
Mitchell’s profile in the New Yorker brought Gould a notoriety and celebrity that got him through some tough time. It was, however, not enough to save him from obscurity, mental illness, and the claws of mental institutions. Joe Gould faded into
In 1964, Joseph Mitchell wrote a follow-up to the profile titled “Joe Gould’s Secret.” The secret in question was Mitchell’s conviction that there was no “Oral History of Our Time.” That the book never existed, that it was just a myth made up by an eccentric. Mitchell tried to pin down the Gould’s work, but, in his article at least, he said he couldn’t find anything beyond scraps and excerpts. Joe Gould was a fraud.
Jill Lepore took up the challenge. What if he wasn’t a fraud? What if Mitchell got it wrong? What if there really was an “Oral History of Our Time” but Mitchell didn’t know about it? Lepore set out to find the truth, to possibly find the actual notebooks of the “Oral history of Our Time.” And to discover if Joe Gould really did have a secret…
The rest of the book encompasses Lepore’s examination of Gould’s life, work, and his social circle, not to mention the larger forces at work during Gould’s lifetime: the Modernist movement, genetics, mental illness and the institutionalization of the mentally ill, racism, artists, and more. By the end you’ve discovered what Lepore suspects Joe Gould’s secret really is. It has to do with his teeth, hence the title, but I’m not going to tell you anything beyond that.
Review and Analysis
I read Joe Gould’s Secret in one sitting, flipping the pages late one night in our new home while the AC blasted me into arctic temps. The book is quite tiny at only 151 pages (with the rest being notes and acknowledgments) and was originally a shorter essay in The New Yorker in 2015. I was on a kick reading shorter works, so this was part of that initial batch in early June.
Jill Lepore sets the tone for her story to be a sort of detective story. When she closes the first chapter like this, you are expecting an almost Indiana Jones-like adventure scouring the country and the globe for the holy grail, the “Oral History of Our Time.” After Mitchell discovers that the truth is there was no “Oral History,” Lepore writes:
And there ended the mystery of the longest book ever written and never read, an unpublished manuscript by the most important historian of the twentieth century, who wanted to do for history what Whitman did for poetry.
It didn’t exist.
Or did it? (p. 13)
And so closes the first chapter of the first part.
Then Lepore gets sidetracked. She is absolutely an astonishing historian and a riveting reader who can take sprinkled and disparate facts and weave them into a masterpiece of compelling narrative. It seems that she took on this assignment for herself, to determine whether there was an “Oral History” or not and if so where it existed, and fell down the rabbit hole. She goes on long detours, and I’m still not quite sure how a large part of the narrative that has to do with a painter really ties it all together. But regardless, she wrote a very humane biography of Gould and offered a panoramic of the writers and artists of the Modernist period.
[spoilers from this point forward]
Some reviews of the book that I read on Goodreads were damning. She set us up, and she didn’t deliver! She didn’t give us a satisfying answer! This man was a sick, misogynist, racist asshole so why should we care about him or have any sympathy for him of any kind!
And so on.
Which leads me to think that people missed the greater points. Lepore’s bio of Joe Gould presents him as a man with a serious and seriously untreated mental illness. But he hung out with poets who were concerned with his well being so they played up his eccentricity to pass him off as a harmless man and not someone who was struggling with reality on a very valid and terrifying level. Eventually, Gould disappeared completely and was institutionalized to some horrific effect. There are suggestions that Lepore makes between records of mental institutions around that time that could quite possibly pin down Gould as a patient who received electroshock therapy and a lobotomy and heavy medication. It is disturbing and inhumane. Joe Gould’s teeth, which were likely taken from him when he was institutionalized, are the secret. The big secret was that he was mentally ill and likely died in an institution. And his friends let that happen to him because they were unable to cope with the reality of the situation, that their friend was sick and needed the best care and couldn’t languish in a state institution.
It’s disturbing. It’s upsetting. For me, a person with severe bipolar disorder, it was hard to read.
But it’s an important book. Because it exposes the horrors of the way we treated the mentally ill in the early days of psychiatry. This is a book about medical ethics, of bioethics. It’s a book about ideas. I had tears in my eyes wen I was reading it because Joe Gould’s Teeth spins around a question that spooked Mitchell. When someone asked Mitchell why he was fascinated by Gould, he replied: “Because he is me” (p. 43). Joe Gould was a quirky weirdo, but he reflected something very real to Mitchell and to other people who were fascinated by him. He was kind of like the uncanny presentation of the artist and writer’s idea of self. A frightening glimpse of what could happen to them. The mad artist—but actually clinically mentally ill and in suffering—behind the tortured artist idea.
I feel that way. I feel like Joe Gould is what I could end up like, if I’m not careful.
Joe Gould’s Teeth was one of the best books I’ve read this far. It stands out not only for Lepore’s skilled ability to weave together a narrative out of a jumble of facts, many of which were contradictory, but also her compassion. She doesn’t find the “Oral History” by the end, or at least she cannot confirm that she found the correct location. But she uncovered what everyone else in his lifetime made an attempt to cover up. His madness. His brilliance as an artist whose potential was stifled by his own sickness, the sickness that led to his untimely death at the hands of barbarians.
I urge you to read Joe Gould’s Teeth as a riveting dose of nonfiction to your fiction diet. Read it as I did, read it late into the night when no one else is around, so that when you finish it you’re alone with the silence, maybe the cat snoozing nearby, but you’re alone to think and react to such a powerful book. It took my breath away.
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