Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore

Okay, I officially love Jill Lepore. I'm going to work on getting all her backlist. I do own her book on Ben Franklin's sister Jane, and her Wonder Woman book was terrific, and this book was also fabulous. As some prehistory, I did dig up my copy of Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, and I read the original article and the follow up one about Joe Gould (which I strongly recommend to anyone who plans to read Lepore's book.

Joe Gould claimed in the 1930s to have written (and be writing) the longest book ever--at least 8 million words, would reach 10 feet tall if all the notebooks were stacked up. He was homeless, a heavy drinker, with sketchy mental health, who had attended Harvard. Joseph Mitchell found him fascinating and wrote his original New Yorker essay, "Professor Seagull," about Gould and his book. Gould claimed to be writing an oral history of America and New York City, and he actually coined the phrase "oral history." After that article came out, Gould continued to pester Mitchell for years, and he eventually wrote the 2-part follow-up "Joe Gould's Secret" in which Mitchell concluded the oral history didn't exist. He supposedly never wrote again (not entirely true). It's as if revealing that truth broke Mr. Mitchell.

Ms. Lepore has taught Mitchell's essays and she decided to do some research and see if Mitchell's conclusions were in fact, accurate. And the answer, of course, is yes and no. In this quick little book, Ms. Lepore investigates Mr. Mitchell's research (and found some things he claims to have checked out, he obviously hadn't as he got them pretty wrong.) And she tracks down Gould's notebooks and some old friends and his medical records (his teeth were pulled out at one point in a hospital, hence her title) and tracks down what happened to him after the essays, how those essays made him famous, and impacted his life for good and ill. If you've ever read the original essays, if you're a fan of The New Yorker, or of Jill Lepore, this little gem was a delight.

I got this book for free from a friend who works at the publisher.

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