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:
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.