Biography / John / Nonfiction

Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore

Jill Lepore’s biography of Joe Gould, enticingly titled Joe Gould’s Teeth, is about a writer who couldn’t stop writing. Joe Gould claimed for years to be writing the longest book ever written, a book he called “The Oral History of Our Time.” In her book, Lepore searches through various archives for any parts of Gould’s manuscript. Many of Gould’s contemporaries wondered if he had made the whole book up. While Lepore finds very little of the book, there are enough accounts from people at the time who claimed to have seen it that she does believe it existed. It seems possible that Gould wrote an enormous number of pages of his history, but it kept disappearing for various reasons, such as Gould’s frequent homelessness and his stays in mental institutions.

Gould became something of a cult figure in the New York City area after New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell wrote an article about him and his work. Gould used his minor celebrity to, at first, talk to editors about publishing his history. Later, he spent much of his time trying to bum money off of them. He also fell for an African-American artist named Augusta Savage. Savage also receives a lot of attention in Joe Gould’s Teeth. Unlike Gould, who seemed to want to want fame and celebrity, Savage ended up destroying much of her work and seemed to want to make herself disappear from history.

At times, Joe Gould’s Teeth seems a bit disjointed, but I still enjoyed it. Lepore only had so much material to go on when trying to tell Gould’s story and, to a lesser extent, Savage’s. She seems more interested in letting the reader make connections than trying to make grand statements about the artistic process. And it should be noted that there are some who still believe that one day someone will stumble across Gould’s manuscript. Perhaps “The Oral History of Our Time” will at some point see the light of day.

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