What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

July 27, 2015 Issue

Jill Lepore’s brilliant "Joe Gould's Teeth," in this week’s issue, has the potential to be every bit as classic as the piece it takes off from – Joseph Mitchell’s great “Joe Gould’s Secret” (The New Yorker, September 19 & 26, 1964). It’s a gentle undermining of the accuracy of Mitchell’s conclusion that Gould’s The Oral History of Our Time didn’t exist. It begins wonderfully:

For a long time, Joe Gould thought he was going blind. This was before he lost his teeth, and years before he lost the history of the world he’d been writing in hundreds of dime-store composition notebooks, their black covers mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat, their white pages lined with thin blue veins.

That “their black covers mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat, their white pages lined with thin blue veins” is marvelously fine. “Joe Gould’s Teeth” brims with inspired writing. Of the sheaves of Gould’s letters that Lepore keeps finding in libraries and archives, she says,

I pictured it like this: I’d dip those letters in a bath of glue and water—the black ink would begin to bleed—and I’d paste them over an armature I’d built out of seagull feathers and rolled-up old New Yorkers. I called my papier-mâché “White Man (Variation).”

Even though Lepore shows that Mitchell was wrong about the non-existence of Gould’s Oral History, she doesn’t judge “Joe Gould’s Secret” a failure. She says,

“Joe Gould’s Secret” is a defense of invention. Mitchell took something that wasn’t beautiful, the sorry fate of a broken man, and made it beautiful—a fable about art. “Joe Gould’s Secret” is the best story many people have ever read. Its truth is, in a Keatsian sense, its beauty; its beauty, truth.

Lepore’s piece complicates my feelings about “Joe Gould’s Secret.” In the Introduction to his  superb 1992 collection Up in the Old Hotel, Mitchell says, “Joe Gould’s Secret is factual.” Can it still be considered as such? I’m not sure.  

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