KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
And I'm Kelly McEvers with a true story about class, race, obsession and the human desire to be remembered. At the heart of this story is a mystery - who was Joe Gould? The writer Joseph Mitchell tried to answer that question twice in two of The New Yorker magazine's most famous articles ever. First, in 1942, Mitchell introduces us to Joe Gould, a quirky, possibly mentally ill Harvard dropout who wanders the streets of Greenwich Village and Harlem filling pages and pages of dime-store notebooks with everything people said to him.
JILL LEPORE: He was constantly writing. He was never seen not writing. And so he was a figure of much fascination, this writer who could not stop writing.
MCEVERS: Joe Gould said he was writing the longest book ever, and it was called "The Oral History Of Our Time."
LEPORE: And actually, the term oral history comes from Gould. Gould coined that phrase. And what he meant by that was he thought that history shouldn't be the story of celebrities and kings and queens and presidents and generals, but should be the story of ordinary people - the small fry, he liked to call them.
MCEVERS: That's Harvard history professor Jill Lepore, who also writes for The New Yorker. And she is the latest writer to become fascinated by Joe Gould. Here's why - in 1964, Joseph Mitchell again wrote about Joe Gould. And at that time, Mitchell concluded that Joe Gould's "Oral History" never existed. It was a figment of Joe Gould's imagination. In her new book, "Joe Gould's Teeth," Lepore sets out to answer the question once and for all - did Joe Gould write "The Oral History" or not? And either way, how does his story reflect the America of his time? Jill Lepore says she started by digging in Joe Gould's student files at Harvard.
LEPORE: In a way, everything in them belied pretty much everything in either of Mitchell's profiles (laughter). So then I was sort of stuck. I thought well, if all this is wrong, then maybe "The Oral History" really exists. Like, maybe there is this 9-million-word manuscript somewhere. I became completely obsessed. And this is sort of like Joe Gould's curse, right? This - so Mitchell had become obsessed, too. So I ended up trying to retrace Gould's footsteps and follow him through his life and then trying to retrace Mitchell's (laughter) footsteps, and going on this kind of endless, crazy search 'cause I just - really believe what Gould believed or said he believed, which is that the stories of ordinary people really matter.
MCEVERS: And there were other ordinary people whose stories you uncovered while looking for Joe Gould. I mean, there was an artist in particular named Augusta Savage who he came in contact with who, you know, is somebody that - whose name we might not have known, whose story might not have been told.
LEPORE: Yeah. So I wasn't altogether sure I was going to find "The Oral History" after a certain point. And I knew I had become uncomfortable spending time with Joe Gould because his insanity was a little terrifying. And so it soon became clear to me that he was possibly dangerous to other people, not just to Joseph Mitchell, who I think he harmed in many ways as well.
I found evidence that Gould had harassed an African-American artist, and that made a lot of sense to me because a lot of Gould's instability had to do with his ideas about race. Especially, he was obsessed with interracial sex. He was obsessed with white men having sex with black women. And so that he would become obsessed with a black woman artist was almost predictable at that point. But then I couldn't figure out who it was because it seemed like - it was almost as though she had been erased from the historical record.
In any case, I eventually found out it was a woman - Augusta Savage - who at the time was the most prominent artist in Harlem and one of the most influential still because she was a teacher of art. She had been the obsession of Joe Gould since 1923, when he first met her at a poetry reading. And what I ended up really walking away from the project wishing was that Gould hadn't basically been complicit in destroying what we could possibly know about Augusta Savage and that Savage herself hadn't been so haunted by Gould that she hadn't done the willful act that she did, which was apparently to have destroyed many of her papers and much of her art.
MCEVERS: What did you find of "The Oral History"?
LEPORE: When I was about halfway through the semester, Joseph Mitchell's papers happened to be deposited at the New York Public Library. And they'd been in family hands ever since his death in 1996. Mitchell famously, after he wrote "Joe Gould's Secret" in 1964, went to The New Yorker every day for the rest of his life and collected a paycheck every week, but didn't really write again.
And after "Joe Gould's Secret" was published in 1964, a whole lot of people wrote to Mitchell and said, you know, the piece - this is just beautiful. I mean, it's beautiful. It's poetry. But I knew Joe Gould, and he - there was an (laughter) "Oral History," and I've seen it. And, you know, I have some of his notebooks, do you want to see them? A lot of people - enough to really, I think, be concerning if you were Joseph Mitchell.
And one woman in particular wrote and said, I know that I have one of his notebooks at least because he gave it to me when he - when I went to Europe on my honeymoon, and would you like it? And Mitchell said, sure, send it along. And she did. And then I'm sort of pawing through his papers, and I came across the notebook. And it does have "Oral History" in it. I mean, it really - it is what Gould said it was. It's not staggering. It's just the one notebook. They're just snippets of speech. But he really was writing down the things that people say.
MCEVERS: What happened to Joe Gould in the end?
LEPORE: He spent the last years of his life at Pilgrim State Hospital, which was the largest mental hospital in the world and the place where lobotomy was perfected. And I wasn't able to get his records from the hospital, but the medical director of the hospital published a number of academic papers, and one of the case records very closely resembles Gould and describes him by age and by all kinds of other features that line up very well with where Gould was in his life and what's knowable about Gould. I think he was probably lobotomized.
MCEVERS: Did he die there?
LEPORE: He died there without a scrap of paper to his name, according to the medical director at his death.
MCEVERS: Jill Lepore is the author of the new book "Joe Gould's Teeth." Thank you very much for your time today.
LEPORE: Thank you.