Daily Book Review: ‘Joe Gould’s Teeth’

Wednesday, August 10, 2016 - 7:27pm

It’s not too late to pick up a short summer read. And if you’re a fan of profiles on eccentric historical figures, this is certainly the book for you.

Joe Gould was a nobody with connections. His family name carried him further than any college degree could. Friends with Ezra Pound, E.E. Cummings and other contemporary writers and artists of his time, Gould was known for his odd-ball mystique around the literary community — especially around Harlem.

From the beginning of World War I to the end of World War II, Gould (supposedly) worked vigorously on “The Oral History of Our Time”: a history of the world told through regular people’s stories. His friends and his work led to a spotlight in The New Yorker, an infamous profile entitled “Professor Sea Gull” by Joseph Mitchell. “The Oral History,” however, was never published, even after Gould’s death in 1957. Many have tried to find “The Oral History,” but many have failed.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian and author of “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” crafts a short and sweet profile on Gould that is not only a search for “The Oral History,” but also a revealing profile on a complete asshole.

“Joe Gould is not a lovable old man,” reported The Harvard Crimson in an interview with Gould. This description of Gould is truly an understatement. The most difficult part of getting through “Joe Gould’s Teeth” is the protagonist’s (and, simultaneously, antagonist’s) racism, sexism and relentless harassment towards a black woman. Gould was a proponent of eugenics, believed that the black population tainted the white population and often approached women to ask them if they were “gropable.” In a “Breaking Bad” fashion, the hero of the story became the villain. Instead of a progression that happens within many seasons, however, Gould becomes the villain within a matter of pages.

The saving grace of Gould’s profile is the discovery and inclusion of Augusta Savage, the woman he incessantly stalked, even when she requested him to stop countless amounts of times. Lepore’s astute research into Savage’s life could have been another book itself. Savage, an African American single mother and well-known sculptor, brings to light a different kind of celebrity; one vastly different from Gould. The dichotomy between the two brings diversity in character and a break from the general unpleasantness that is Joe Gould.

“Joe Gould’s Teeth,” though short, is difficult to get through. Each page is filled with pull-out-your-hair-worthy details surrounding Gould’s blatant disrespect for women and black people. Lepore is a fantastic historian; her intimate details make it possible to form a deep hatred for the book’s subject. This doesn’t necessarily make for a bad read, but fair warning: your eyes may get stuck in the rolled-back position.  

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Jill Lepore

"Joe Gould's Teeth"

Knopf

May 17, 2016