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.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Jill Lepore's "Joe Gould's Teeth"

In the Author’s Note of the 1999 Vintage edition of Joe Gould’s Secret, Joseph Mitchell wrote, “This book consists of two views of the same man, a lost soul named Joe Gould.” He’s referring to his two classic New Yorker Profiles, “Professor Sea Gull” (December 12, 1942) and “Joe Gould’s Secret” (September 19 & 26, 1964). Now comes a third view – Jill Lepore’s revisionist Joe Gould’s Teeth (2016), a shorter version of which appeared in the July 27, 2015 New Yorker. In contrast to Mitchell’s empathetic depiction of Gould as “an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years” (“Joe Gould’s Secret”), Lepore’s Gould portrait is much bleaker:

By now, hardly anyone could fail to see, he was mean; he was vicious. He was wretched and abandoned. He smelled; he was covered with sores and infested with bugs. He was terribly, terribly ill.

This is from Joe Gould’s Teeth’s fascinating “Miss Savage” chapter. Augusta Savage was a black sculptor (“the most influential artist in Harlem”) with whom Gould fell in love. She rejected him. He hounded her mercilessly. Lepore writes,

Gould hardly ever left her alone. He wrote her endless letters. He telephoned her constantly. If she gave an exhibit, he showed up. “Joe was making her life utterly miserable.”

According to a note at the back of the book, that “Joe was making her life utterly miserable,” in the above-quoted passage, is from an October, 1964 letter that Millen Brand wrote to Joseph Mitchell. One of the many impressive aspects of Joe Gould’s Teeth is Lepore’s deft stitching into her text of dozens of quotations from letters she found scattered in archives all over the country. The book includes thirty-one pages of notes.

Lepore is both a historian and a literary journalist. It’s a potent combination, as Joe Gould’s Teeth clearly shows. The book is a bravura piece of writing. I particularly relish the part where Lepore is talking about all the Gould letters she’s discovered and she suddenly conjures this extraordinary image:

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 Gould’s empty cigarette boxes, rolled-up old New Yorkers, and seagull feathers. I called my papier-mâché White Man (Variation).

Interestingly, the New Yorker version of this delightful imaginary assemblage omits the empty cigarette boxes.

My favorite chapter in Joe Gould’s Teeth is the Epilogue, a sort of mental “Joe Gould” installation comprehending many of the elements of his life. Here’s an excerpt:

Shoved into the farthest, darkest corner of the room there’s a heavy oak desk and an empty oak chair. On top of the desk sits Joseph Mitchell’s typewriter and, curled in its roller, a piece of New Yorker stationary, blank. A Milton Bradley color top rests on a pile of newspapers and magazines: an old Harvard Crimson, a New Republic. Beside it is a bottle of ink, a fountain pen, and one last dime-store notebook, its black cover mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat. On its cover is written, Property of GOULD, JOE, and below that, MEO TEMPORE, THIRD VERSION.

That “one last dime-store notebook, its black cover mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat” is wonderfully vivid. It’s a repetition of the notebook description in the book’s opening paragraph – “their black covers mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat, their white pages lined with thin blue veins.” “Mottled” is the way I now see Gould’s life, marked with smears of appalling behavior. Mitchell’s “views” still stand, of course. How could they not – they’re so pungently alive. But I read them differently now. Lepore has darkened my view.

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