Joe Gould's Teeth by Jill Lepore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don't understand most of the reviews here. This book is hardly 'about' Joe Gould. It's about a period in America - a literary period barely detached from Lepore's Harvard, during global cultural and economic and political upheaval. It makes a kind of meta-history by way of an apparently brilliant but psychologically troubled individual. The meta part is that our subject was inventing a kind of history - oral history - which has since become important. A move away from artifacts, written records, and big players to history as it's being written on the streets.
Lepore documents the famous people around Gould and their writings regarding him, which make him seem hardly more strange than they were. Ezra Pound promoting fascism from Italy, and writing in some Greenwich Village insider patois. William Carlos Williams dispensing medicine. EE Cummings writing correspondence the same way he wrote poetry. A black artist who was Gould's love object who probably destroyed much of her own work. Gould's disgusting traits did at least have a post-hoc psychological diagnosis about them. He wasn't just a product of his times. But his literary friends were. All of their behaviors , in writing as well, were the output of the history documented here.
Lepore's writing - the way it enters the time - might make you think that she herself was being affected by the craziness, in the process of her writing; the proto-beat sensibility. Allen Ginsberg appears accurately in her almost psychedelic fugue pastiche epilogue, looking back at what she had entered and was pulling away from. She had clearly had enough. To continue on could only induce a kind of mania. Things would keep showing up as quickly as they were receding. Facts galore.
There must have been something brilliant about Gould. Despite his lousy hardscrabble appearance, other brilliant people wanted to know him and keep tabs on him. His fame was genuine, as was his actual presence for the people who walked the streets and frequented the dives that he did.
Gould's fame was thanks to stories in Lepore's own New Yorker. Those stories in that time represented a very different approach (from Lepore's) to the present truth, which also implies how history was being written. That way of writing history almost feels like the way that psychiatry was being practiced - remove teeth and all unnecessary organs including parts of the brain and call the resulting calmed and cleaned-out patient a success. We want our history the same way.
I thought I knew the people and the period, but I couldn't have known them without this excursion into Joe Gould's Teeth.
Ironically enough I'd call this art as much as history. I say ironically because it implicates much history as artifice or outright lying. History is not supposed to be art. It's supposed to be depictive, schematic, accurate. Lepore accomplishes at least the analog of a complete oral history by bringing an atmosphere back to life. There were hardly any facts about it. But what she saw and what we see in reading is accurate. Trued by details. Enhanced by sharp vision through a fog of absence. Connecting iota dots.
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