Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell, and: Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore (review)
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Joe Gould's Secret. By Joseph Mitchell. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. 210 pages. Softbound, $9.95.
Joe Gould's Teeth. By Jill Lepore. New York: Knopf, 2016. 235 pages. Hardbound, $24.95.

Dan Kerr penned an article titled "Allan Nevins Is Not My Grandfather: The Roots of Radical Oral History Practice in the United States" for a recent Oral History Review (43, no. 2 [2016]: 367-91). Nevins is not my grandfather, either. Joe Gould is. Or he was.

Who is Joe Gould? Gould (1889-1957) was born into a prominent New England family, graduated from Harvard, and eventually settled in Greenwich Village, where he lived an impoverished life. His claim to fame, if any, arose from "An Oral History of Our Time," a book he claimed to have started sometime in the 1910s. This book was part Gould's life but mainly his recounting of conversations of others, primarily—as Gould himself stated—the "informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitudes" (Mitchell, 13). This tome had reached almost nine million words by the 1940s. Gould befriended many Village artisans, some of whom wrote pieces about him and published bits of his "Oral History." [End Page 418]

In tracing my oral history lineage back to Gould, I must thank noted oral historian Charlie Morrissey. Charlie wrote a piece in the OHR called "Why Call It 'Oral History'? Searching for Early Usage of a Generic Term" (8, no. 1 [1980]: 20-48). In it he used a mention of the phrase "oral history" which he discovered in a nineteenth-century biographical sketch, to provide readers with a roadmap of oral history's value over time. He featured, among other topics, Joe Gould's "Oral History of Our Time." Charlie himself discovered Gould from three pieces by Joseph Mitchell in the New Yorker—one, "Professor Seagull," written in 1942 (December 12) and the other two, both entitled "Joe Gould's Secret," in 1964 (December 19 and December 26).

In the late 1990s, when I became a full-time, professional oral historian, Mitchell's articles became a book, Joe Gould's Secret. I bought the book and devoured it. Through it I became enamored with Gould. I added Joe Gould's story to my presentations and workshops as an example of an early (before easily accessible recording technology) oral history. I quoted Secret or read passages directly from my already well-worn copy.

Soon after finishing the book, a movie of the same name—based on Mitchell's book—hit the theaters (October Films: 2000). It starred Ian Holm as Gould and Stanley Tucci as Mitchell (Tucci also directed the film), as well as Susan Sarandon, Hope Davis, and Steve Martin. The movie basically followed Mitchell's words, so it only fed my love of all things Gould. I showed the film's trailer several times at presentations, including the only other time (Summer 2009) I taught a semester-long oral history class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My Gould admiration rang clear and true.

As I noted previously, "An Oral History," according to Gould, had reached nine million words by the late 1930s/early 1940s, and it was around that time that Gould came onto Joseph Mitchell's radar. Secret, through Mitchell's wonderful prose, paints a picture of Joe Gould as an eccentric, focused on telling the story of America through the "Oral History." While Mitchell does uncover and eventually reveal the truth about Gould's "Oral History," he creates a fairly sympathetic portrait of a man who tried to overcome his lack of resources to create a masterpiece. Mitchell never published another New Yorker profile in his remaining thirty-two years at the magazine, so those articles stood as his final "Reporter at Large" work, and Secret as his final book. While those who have read the biography of Mitchell (Thomas Kunkel, Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker [New York: Random House, 2015]) can offer a more precise reason for Mitchell's post-Gould writing dearth, for this reviewer Mitchell's time with and research on Gould—which apparently spanned hundreds of hours—may well have exhausted him to the point...