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Joe Gould’s Teeth by Jill Lepore

This story of a missing manuscript and its darkly unhinged author has momentum and beauty.

joe gould's teeth

Joe Gould is best known through two profile pieces Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker. In 1942, Mitchell introduced a harmless eccentric engrossed in writing “The Oral History of Our Time”–at some nine million words, supposedly the longest unpublished work in history. In the second piece, in 1964, Gould (then deceased) is a dirty, sinister man, and Mitchell asserts that there had never been any such manuscript. Jill Lepore (a staff writer at the New Yorker and author of numerous works of nonfiction), like so many before her, was intrigued. Was there an oral history, or wasn’t there? Who was Gould, really?

Joe Gould’s Teeth is a biography of Gould, a study of the record he left behind and the story of Lepore’s search. Gould was a graphomaniac; his written legacy includes letters, diaries, essays, ramblings but rather little oral history. Lepore seeks the mythical manuscript, but finds the mystery of a man. She describes herself as stumbling, falling into the “chasm” of Gould, who claimed to be “left-handed in both hands” and whose thinking was “sticky” with details. She follows him through archives and memories, and into his obsession with African-American sculptor Augusta Savage. Savage, as a secondary character, is more sympathetic (and sane), and possibly more enigmatic than Gould.

Lepore’s contribution to this undeniably riveting story lies in her research, but even more in her wise, nuanced telling. Joe Gould was a genius, a madman, destitute, beloved of e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound, by turns likable and malicious. Joe Gould’s Teeth is an astonishing, wide-ranging and thoroughly enthralling work of history.


This review originally ran in the May 31, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 9 notebooks.

3 Responses

  1. […] my thoughts are changing, or about what books I’m interested in rereading as an MFA student (Joe Gould’s Teeth comes to mind). And I thought I’d do some quick updates on what I’m reading, what […]

  2. […] Joe Gould’s Teeth, Jill Lepore – nonfiction […]

  3. […] Up in the Old Hotel, a big fat book I’ve had on my shelf for years. Saint Mazie and Joe Gould’s Teeth both refer to Mitchell’s work. He is famous for his decades of work for The New Yorker, and […]

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