When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

10 January 2009

Joe Mitchell introduces us to Joe Gould

Joe Gould was 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. He was a member of one of the oldest families in New England ("The Goulds were the Goulds," he used to say, "when the Cabots and the Lowells were clamdiggers"), he was born and brought up in a town near Boston in which his father was a leading citizen, and he went to Harvard, as did his father and grandfather before him, but he claimed that until he arrived in New York City he had always felt out of place. "In my home town," he wrote once, "I never felt at home. I stuck out. Even in my own home, I never felt at home. In New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, down among the cranks and the misfits and the one-lungers and the has-beens and the never-wills and the God-knows-whats, I have always felt at home."

Gould looked like a bum and lived like a bum. He wore castoff clothes, and he slept in flophouses or in the cheapest rooms in cheap hotels. Sometimes he slept in doorways. He spent most of his time hanging out in diners and cafeterias and barrooms in the Village or wandering around the streets or looking up friends and acquaintances all over town or sitting in public libraries scribbling in dime-store composition books. He was generally pretty dirty. He would often go for days without washing his face and hands, and he rarely had a shirt washed or a suit cleaned. As a rule, he wore a garment continuously until someone gave him a new one, whereupon he threw the old one away. He had his hair cut infrequently ("Every other Easter," he would say), and then in a barber college on the Bowery. He was a chronic sufferer from the highly contagious kind of conjunctivitis that is known as pinkeye. His voice was distractingly nasal. On occasion, he stole. He usually stole books from bookstores and sold them to second-hand bookstores, but if he was sufficiently hard-pressed he stole from friends. (One terribly cold night, he knocked on the door of the studio of a sculptor who was almost as poor as he was, and the sculptor let him spend the night rolled up like a mummy in layers of newspapers and sculpture shrouds on the floor of the studio, and next morning he got up early and stole some of the sculptor's tools and pawned them.) In addition, he was nonsensical and bumptious and inquisitive and mocking and sarcastic and scurrilous. All through the years, nonetheless, a long succession of men and women gave him old clothes and small sums of money and bought him meals and drinks and paid for his lodging and invited him to parties and to weekends in the country and helped him get such things as glasses and false teeth, or otherwise took an interest in him--some simply because they thought he was entertaining, some because they felt sorry for him, some because they regarded him sentimentally as a relic of the Village of their youth, some because they enjoyed looking down on him, some for reasons that they themselves probably weren't all that sure of, and some because they believed that a book he had been working on for many years might possibly turn out to be a good book, even a great one, and wanted to encourage him to continue working on it.

Gould called this book "An Oral History," sometimes adding "of Our Time." As he described it, the Oral History consisted of talk he had heard and considered meaningful and had taken down, either verbatim or summarized--everything from a remark overheard in the street to the conversation of a roomful of people lasting for hours--and of essays commenting on this talk. Some talk has an obvious meaning and nothing more, he said, and some, often unbeknownst to the talker, has at least one other meaning and sometimes several other meanings lurking around inside its obvious meaning. The latter kind of talk, he said, was what he was collecting for the Oral History. He professed to believe that such talk might have great hidden historical significance. It might have portents in it, he said-- portents of cataclysms, a kind of writing on the wall long before the kingdom falls--and he liked to quote a couplet from William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence":

The harlot's cry from street to street / Shall weave Old England's winding-sheet.

Everything depended, he said, on how talk was interpreted, and not everybody was able to interpret it. "Yes, you're right," he once said to a detractor of the Oral History. "It's only things I heard people say, but maybe I have a peculiar ability--maybe I can understand the significance of what people say, maybe I can read its inner meaning. *You* might listen to a conversation between two old men in a barroom or two old women on a park bench and think that it was the worst kind of bushwa, and *I* might listen to the same conversation and find deep historical meaning in it."

"In time to come," he said on another occasion, "people may read Gould's Oral History to see what went wrong with us, the way we read Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall' to see what went wrong with the Romans."

He told people he met in Village joints that the Oral History was already millions upon millions of words long and beyond any doubt the lengthiest unpublished literary work in existence but it was nowhere near finished. He said that he didn't expect it to be published in his lifetime, publishers being what they were, as blind as bats, and he sometimes rummaged around in his pockets and brought out and read a will he had made disposing of it. "As soon after my demise as is convenient for all concerned," he specified in the will, "my manuscript books shall be collected from the various and sundry places in which they are stored and put on the scales and weighed, and two-thirds of them by weight shall be given to the Harvard Library and the other third shall be given to the library of the Smithsonian Institution."

Gould almost always wrote in composition books--the kind that schoolchildren use, the kind that are ruled and spine-stitched and paper-bound and have the multiplication tables on the back. Customarily, when he filled a book, he would leave it with the first person he met on his rounds whom he knew and trusted-- the cashier of an eating place, the proprietor of a barroom, the clerk of a hotel or flophouse--and ask that it be put away and kept for him. Then, every few months, he would go from place to place and pick up all the books that had accumulated. He would say, if anyone became curious about this, that he was storing them in an old friend's house or in an old friend's apartment or even in an old friend's studio. He hardly ever identified any of these old friends by name, although sometimes he would describe one briefly and vaguely--"a classmate of mine who lives in Connecticut and has a big attic in his house," he would say, or "a woman I know who lives alone in a duplex apartment," or "a sculptor I know who has a studio in a loft building." In talking about the Oral History, he always emphasized its length and its bulk. He kept people up to date on its length. One evening in June, 1942, for example, he told an acquaintance that at the moment the Oral History was "approximately nine million two hundred and fifty thousand words long, or," he added, throwing his head back proudly, "about a dozen times as long as the Bible."

In 1952, Gould collapsed on the street and was taken to Columbus Hospital. Columbus transferred him to Bellevue, and Bellevue transferred him to the Pilgrim State Hospital, in West Brentwood, Long Island. In 1957, he died there, aged sixty-eight, of arteriosclerosis and senility. Directly after the funeral, friends of his in the Village began trying to find the manuscript of the Oral History. After several days, they turned up three things he had written--a poem, a fragment of an essay, and a begging letter. In the next month or so, they found a few more begging letters. From then on, they were unable to find anything at all. They sought out and questioned scores of people in whose keeping Gould might have conceivably left some of the composition books, and they visited all the places he had lived in or hung out in that they could remember or learn about, but without success. Not a single one of the composition books was found, or has ever been found.

In 1942, for reasons that I will go into later, I became involved in Gould's life, and I kept in touch with him during his last ten years in the city. I spent a good many hours during those years listening to him. I listened to him when he was sober, and I listened to him when he was drunk. I listened to him when he was cast down and meek--when, as he used to say, he felt so low he had to reach up to touch bottom--and I listened to him when he was in moods of incoherent exaltation. I got so I could put two and two together and make at least a little sense out of what he was saying even when he was very drunk or very exalted or in both states at once, and gradually, without intending to, I learned some things about him that he may not have wanted me to know, or, on the other hand, since his mind was circuitous and he loved wheels within wheels, that he very well may have wanted me to know--I'll never be sure. In any case, I am quite sure that I know why the manuscript of the Oral History has not been found.
Excerpted from "Joe Gould's Secret," by Joseph Mitchell. Originally published in 1964 in The New Yorker; now available reprinted in Up in the Old Hotel.

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