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November 21 , 2007

Joe Gould's Teeth


From New Yorker staff writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, the story of the discovery of Joe Gould's long-lost manuscript, "The Oral History of Our Time," and of the violence, betrayals, and madness that led to its concealment.
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Renowned Harvard scholar and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has composed a strikingly original, ingeniously conceived, and beautifully crafted history of American ideas about life and death from before the cradle to beyond the grave. How does life begin? What does it mean? What happens when we die? “All anyone can do is ask,”…

When Joseph Mitchell published his profile of Joseph Gould in the December 1942 issue of The New Yorker, he deemed Gould's purportedly masterful but rarely seen Oral History project, which allegedly consisted of nine million words detailing everything anyone ever said to him, "the longest unpublished work in existence."

But Mitchell, in fact, hadn't read more than a few pages of the Oral History. The manuscript seemed to have gone missing, along with other of Gould's possessions – his hair, his sight, his teeth – as he began to sink deeper into poverty, drink, and destitution. And as Gould neared the end of his life, lying pathologically, begging for money from friends and strangers alike, and deflecting publishers' requests to read his work, Mitchell couldn't help but wonder: Had the Oral History ever existed? After Gould's death in 1957, Mitchell wrote a second profile in which he insisted that it did not. Was Mitchell wrong?

Joe Gould's Teeth is a literary investigation of this enigmatic figure of the early twentieth century, who, despite doubts surrounding his sanity, captured the imaginations of the most prominent writers and artists of the time. Renowned master of historical storytelling Jill Lepore carefully unravels the riddle of Joe Gould and his missing manuscript, probing deeply into our collective self-conscious, the nature of art, and how we define our reality for the future. Complete with appearances from the likes of E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Augusta Savage and set against the backdrop of inter-war and post-war New York's glamour and grime, Joe Gould's Teeth is not only the portrait of one man's mind, but also a profound meditation on the limits of how well one ever knows another person.

From the Hardcover edition.
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