Jill Lepore. Joe Gould’s Teeth. New York: Knopf, 2016. 256p. ISBN 9781101947586.
review essay by Richard Sieburth
“WHY Joe/ izza hiz/ Torian”
This quirky little book by Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore should be of great interest to Poundians. Joe Gould, the legendary Greenwich Village bohemian and author of a nine-million-word Oral History of America which may or may not have ever existed, first gained national notoriety in Joseph Mitchell’s affectionate 1942 New Yorker profile, “Professor Seagull”—the seagull being Gould’s totemic bird, whose language he claimed to speak fluently. After Gould’s death in 1957 at Pilgrim State Hospital in Islip, New York, where he received electroshock therapy and, very likely, a lobotomy, Mitchell performed a lengthy retrospective autopsy on the elusive figure who had always been, he now realized, something of his alter ego. Entitled “Joe’s Gould’s Secret” and published in the New Yorker in 1964, the profile revealed that the latter’s Oral History had probably been a hoax all along and that “The Eccentric Author of a Great, Mysterious, Unpublished Book” was merely an elaborate mask that Gould had devised for himself to hoodwink journalists and barstool companions over the course of the years—aided and abetted in the delusion of his magnum opus (also known as Meo Tempore) by such literary luminaries as his close friends E.E. Cummings and Slater Brown (editor of Broom), as well as Ezra Pound (who printed him in The Exile), and Marianne Moore (who followed up in The Dial). According to lore, after publishing his rueful exposé of Gould as a genial impostor—which appeared in book form the following year, together with the earlier “Professor Seagull,” under the title Joe Gould’s Secret— Mitchell, struck by terminal writer’s block, never published another line, even though he went to his office at The New Yorker every day for more than three decades, until his death in 1996. His garrulous Dopplegänger had driven him to silence.
Lepore’s book is in fact a triple portrait: first, of the secretive (and, it turns out, rather tormented) Joseph Mitchell, often acclaimed as the most consummate staff writer in the history of The New Yorker; second, of the troubled trickster Joe Gould; and third, of herself, a trained cultural historian of Americana, who sets out, detective-like, to scour the archives in order to solve the mystery of her two major characters. Trying to balance verifiable fact against the seductive lure of self-aggrandizing fiction, Lepore in the end concludes, with Aristotle, that Poetry is indeed truer than History—and that Joe Gould’s teeth, scattered like the limbs of Osiris, can never be recovered or ingathered. As E. E. Cummings had put it: “little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn’t know where to find them.” These teeth, forcefully removed from Gould’s mouth when he was briefly committed to the Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane in 1929 and subsequently replaced by dentures which he constantly mislaid, may stand as a metaphor for the violence that society inflicts on its Outsider Artists. Or these missing teeth may more specifically speak to the fate of epic in the twentieth-century, which in Gould’s case becomes an entirely virtual (or conceptual) mode of performance art: a Tale of the Tribe told by a toothless (and thereby, almost mouthless) half-crazed bard, Harvard class of 1911. It is tempting to read the lines portraying the sacrificial silencing of the literary man (the Chinese wen jen in Wade-Giles or ouan jin in its French romanization) at the outset of the Pisan Cantos as an allegory of Gould:
“I am noman, my name is noman”
but Wanjina is, shall we say, Ouan Jin
or the man with an education
and whose mouth was removed by his father
because he made too many things
whereby cluttered the bushman’s baggage
vide the expedition of Frobenius’ pupils about 1938
Ouan Jin spoke and thereby created the named
thereby making clutter
the bane of men moving
and so his mouth was removed (LXXIV/446/7)
By this (I admit, somewhat far-fetched) account, the Odyssean Joe Gould had his teeth removed (by the Law of the Father) because he talked too much, because he made too many things out of words, thus creating clutter. There was simply too much nomenclatter (Joyce) in his Oral History—or, for that matter, in Pound’s logorrheic Radio Rome broadcasts—to allow the tribe to travel swiftly on.
Later, in this same initial Canto of the Pisans, Joe Gould returns—in the wake of a passage evoking Basil Bunting’s imprisonment as a conscientious objector during the Great War:
and in this war were Joe Gould, Bunting and cummings
as against thickness and fatness (LXXIV/452)
If not exactly a Quakerish conscientious objector like Bunting, Cummings had served in the ambulance corps during the war with his friend (and future Joe Gould publisher) Slater Brown. When the French authorities intercepted one of the latter’s letters home reporting mutinies among the poilus, both Slater and Cummings were clapped into a military prison for four months in late 1917—the subject of Cummings’ 1922 autobiographical novel The Enormous Room (with the anti-communist Eimi, Pound’s favorite among his works). Joe Gould, however, figures in this Pisan list by sheer mnemonic metonymy. He was never “in this war”: the scrawny, near-sighted five foot four Joseph Ferdinand Gould, degenerate scion of a proud and patriotic New England family, thrice tried to enlist and was summarily rejected every time. Reduced to (dissolutely) holding down the home front and eking out a meager existence as a police reporter for the New York Evening Mail (one of the many journalistic odd jobs he never managed to keep), Joe Gould had a major epiphany in this same year of 1917. As he later recounted it to Mitchell, he was sitting on the steps of the Police Headquarters, recovering from a hangover, when he began leafing through something he had picked up in a secondhand bookstore, “a little book of stories by William Carleton, the great Irish writer, that was published in London in the eighties and had an introduction by William Butler Yeats.” A bit of research reveals that this was Stories from Carleton, published by the firm of Walter Scott in 1889, in the Camelot Series edited by Ernest Rhys (whose shade also flits by in the Pisans, together with Pound’s memories of his Stone Cottage winters with Yeats during the war). There was one particular sentence in Yeats’s introduction that grabbed Gould’s attention: “The history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what the people say to each on fair days and high days, and in how they farm, and quarrel and go on pilgrimage.” Could Pound have ever come upon this pronouncement of Yeats? As early as 1909, he had described (Whimanesque) epic as “the speech of a nation through the mouth of one man.” At any rate, Yeats’s sentence struck Gould like Saul on the road to Damascus:
All at once, the idea for the Oral History occurred to me: I would spend the rest of my life going about the city listening to people—eavesdropping, if necessary—and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me, no matter how boring or idiotic or vulgar or obscene it might sound to others. I could see the whole thing in my mind—long-winded conversations and short and snappy conversations, brilliant conversations and foolish conversations, curses, catch phrases, coarse remarks, snatches of quarrel, the mutterings of drunks and crazy people, the entreaties of beggars and bums, the propositions of prostitutes, the spiels of pitchman and peddlers, the sermons of street preachers, shouts in the night, wild rumors, cries from the heart... The idea for the Oral History occurred to me around half past ten. Around a quarter to eleven, I stood up and went to a telephone and quit my job.
Who exactly is speaking here? Joe Gould? Charlie McCarthy, or his puppet master, the ventriloquist Joseph Mitchell? In the end, it matters little. As Lepore points out, the chances are fairly good that the term “Oral History” was Gould’s original coinage, subsequently adopted by Allan Nevins in the late forties (after Mitchell’s first piece on Gould in The New Yorker) when founding the Oral History Project at Columbia University. Gould wrote to Franz Boas, the Columbia anthropologist, in 1920 to get institutional backing for his experimental endeavor, but was brushed off. In 1931 he sent letters to a variety of eminent American historians explaining his project. To Harvard’s George Sarton he wrote: “I have been writing a history of my own time from oral sources. I use only material from my own experience and observation and from the direct personal narratives of others. In short, I am trying to record these complex times with the technique of a Herodotus or Froissart.” [Charles Olson would later invoke Herodotus as the exemplary historian who grounded his accounts in the act of historein—”to investigate and discover for oneself.”] “My book is very voluminous,” Gould explained to Sarton:
Apart from literary merit, it will have future value as a storehouse of information. I imagine that the most valuable sections will be those which deal with groups that are inarticulate such as the Negro, the reservation Indian and the immigrant. It seems to me that the average person is just as much history as the ruler or celebrity as he illustrates the social forces of heredity and environment. Therefore I am trying to present lyrical episodes of everyday life. I would like to widen the sphere of history as Walt Whitman did that of poetry.
An epic—an American epic—is a poem including (oral) history. The idea was everywhere in the air in the 30s: the Federal Writer’s Project (for which Gould briefly worked, only to be fired) was gathering and transcribing thousands of life histories; the Lomaxes were recording Lead Belly in Louisiana; Zora Neale Hurston (working for Boas) was collecting Negro folklore in the South and in the Caribbean; Parry and Lord were recording Serbo-Croatian bards to verify their Oral Formulaic Hypothesis about Homer; and Pound was picking up on Frobenius’s notion of Sagetrieb, literally, “the drive to say,” the “inborn urge” to transmit communal (and racial) tradition by saga.
Having dug deeply into the archives, Lepore traces back the roots of Gould’s (largely imaginary) Oral History of America to his days at Harvard, where he overlapped with Eliot, Cummings, and Aiken (magna cum difficultate, as he put it). Slater Brown narrates this period of his life in “Joseph Gould: The Man,” published in the October 1923 issue of Broom. It was in this issue that Pound read of Gould for the first time:
He naturally elected History as his major study, but always being more interested in the activities of his own time rather than those of a previous one, he became a lively member of the Harvard Cosmopolitan Club. It was here from his close association with the Hindu, African, Chinese, Albanian, and Siamese members that Mr. Gould learned of the injustices under which the smaller nations of the world suffered. Being a man of action he at once championed the cause of Albania and pledged himself to a lifelong solicitation of funds toward Albanian Independence. It was also at this time that Mr. Gould was arrested for assault. On behalf of the negro race he kicked the Irish shins of a Scow Boston cop as a protest against a motion picture, “The Birth of a Nation.” Upon matriculating with honors from Harvard [sic: he practically flunked out], Mr. Gould obtained a governmental position and was dispatched to the Indian Reservation there to carry on anthropological investigations, particularly in the Tecumseh family. After completing his work for the government he returned to New York.
Lepore’s research confirms the broad outlines of this errant scholar’s tale, but also steers it into more ominous directions. Proud of his own “aristocratic” New England pedigree—his Harvard thesis was devoted to an exploration of his ancestry—Gould became obsessed with the notion of “race.” A particular object of his fascination was William Stanley Braithwaite, the literary editor of the Boston Evening Transcript, to whom he had been introduced by fellow-Harvardian Edward J. O’Brien. Braithwaite’s father came from a prominent British West Indian family and his mother was the daughter of a North Carolina slave: to his displeasure, he was therefore sometimes known as “the Negro poet.” In 1911, O’Brien and Braithwaite begun planning to launch a magazine called Poetry, to be printed in Boston by the Four Seas publishing company. In Chicago, Harriet Monroe got wind of O’Brien’s and Braithwaite’s plans, and promptly commandeered the title; the latter therefore had to settle for The Poetry Journal. Gould watched from the sidelines, and just as he had taken up the cause of Albanian Independence, so in his imaginary identification with the biracial Braithwaite he would now take up the cause of the “negro race,” not only by demonstrating against the pro-KKK “Birth of a Nation” but by writing pieces on the “race question” for local Boston newspapers, in which he for example argued: “It is inevitable that in time men of every color will enjoy equal privileges, and then it will be seen that racial equality is the surest guardian of race purity.” Racial equality, fine, but “race purity”? Lepore acidly comments: “His was the madness of whiteness. What the young, addled president of the Race Pride League proposed was a concocted Plessy v. Ferguson [i.e. the 1896 Supreme Court ruling upholding the constitutionality of racial segregation under the proviso “separate but equal”], an upended Garveyism: racial equality is inevitable and will assure racial purity, which is essential because racial mixture is unnatural.” A card-carrying self-described “negrophile” who corresponded with W. E. Dubois, wrote for NAACP-sponsored publications and later earned a living as a contributor to the Who’s Who in Colored America, Gould the “race man” was simultaneously obsessed with maintaining the color line (according to W. E. Dubois, “the problem of the Twentieth Century”) and with transgressing it. After his infatuation with Braithwaite, Gould became unhealthily fixated on the prominent Harlem Renaissance sculptor Augusta Savage, whom he first met at a poetry reading in 1923 and to whom, in an elaborate fantasy of miscegenation, he eventually proposed marriage. When she rebuffed him, he lost his mind and was briefly institutionalized in a mental hospital; even after his release, however, he continued to ghoulishly stalk Savage throughout the thirties, very much contributing (so Lepore claims) to the ruination of her career—just as he would later wreck Mitchell’s.
In 1913, Gould got in touch with Charles B. Davenport, the leader of the American eugenics movement, an ex-Harvard professor who had founded the Station of Experimental Evolution in Cold Spring Harbor, New York in 1904. Gould sent him a few chapters of his new novel, “a fictitious genealogy of the descendants of a slave brought here in 1619, with an attempt to show all the phases of degeneration or progress which resulted from the introduction of the Negro in this country”—Lepore quips that its title might be Un-Beloved. In the summer of 1915, he was hired by Davenport’s Eugenics Records Office and sent to North Dakota on a six-month assignment to conduct measurements on Mandan Indians: the tools of this fieldwork included calipers to measure their physical characteristics and an instrument designed by board-game whiz Milton Bradley to determine their skin color—all this physical anthropology in order to help the U.S. government settle a series of lawsuits involving the selling off of reservation land to “mixed-bloods” whose racial purity was being disputed by the “full bloods” who had been excluded from the deal. Lepore tends to paints Gould as a racist, but he was in fact, in the idiom of the day, more of a “racialist,” someone whose thinking was positively stuck on the category of ethnicity and particularly on the origins of America’s deepest, darkest secret: racial prejudice. To Davenport he wrote: “I found that those who had physical repugnance to the Jew had no feeling against the Negro, and vice versa.” Why? Because “the Jew and the Negro are physically and temperamentally antipodes, being opposites in their mental qualities, vices and virtues. For this reason it would be perfectly natural for them to be disliked by opposite sets of people.” Gould wanted to test his theory in the field. Later, he would have occasion to essay it over the course of his correspondence with Pound, whose negrophilia could always be easily teased into its obverse, anti-Semitism—Pound’s particular “genealogy of demons.”
As mentioned, Pound first came across Joe Gould in the October 1923 issue of Broom. We know he read this issue because it contained a review of William Carlos Williams’s The Great American Novel, published (at Pound’s behest) by William Bird’s Three Mountains Press in Paris earlier that year. Prose by college buddy Williams also featured in the issue, together with the typographical oddities of a more recent friend—E.E. Cummings, whom Pound had gotten to know during the latter’s residence in Paris between 1921 and 1923. A section of this issue of Broom was entirely devoted to Joe Gould. It consisted of a visual “Portrait of Joe Gould by Joseph Stella,” followed by a rather lengthy and ludic verbal portrait, solemnly entitled “Joseph Gould: The Man,” co-written by two of E. E. Cummings’ neighbors on Patchin Place, Slater Brown and Edward Nagel. They provided the first description in print of Gould’s Oral History project:
Mr. Gould is restricted by no subject, neither by the limits of time or space, decency or virtue, interest or insignificance, by the air above or the waters under the earth. His only requirement to which he persistently holds is that no fact shall enter his history which he has not seen with his own eyes or heard with his own ears.
This requirement is the result of his own philosophic concept of history. For unlike the general historians who believe that the world and time have reached a final culmination in themselves and who for that reason believe it is within their power to give the details of the past a value in the light of their own emotional present, Mr. Gould attempts to renounce his personality and record in as dull and unindividual a style as possible all the actual and fortuitous experience of his own life. Thus he records the recitation of a drunken negro in the back room of a saloon with as equal an objective care as he describes the funeral of his father in Norwood. For this reason his history of the world becomes, not an expressionistic work of art like other histories, but a purely scientific chronicle on which the historians of the future will base their subjective studies. (Broom October 1923, 146).
This rather Neue Sachlichkeit account of his documentary opus was then followed by “Chapter CCCLXVIII of Joseph Gould’s History of the Contemporary World, to be published posthumously.” The specific antethumous chapter (or Canto?) in question was entitled “Social Position.” In this meandering, first-person essay Gould tries to take on the question of class (as a “social position”), which he confuses with the issue of what he called “eugenic pride."
I believe that we need an aristocracy in which each person can be an aristocrat. That is to say every human being is entitled to a legitimate pride in his environment and antecedents. The Socialist vision is somewhat similar. However it insists too much on material values. [...] The aristocrat is the highest type I can attain to. I believe that if one only pushes aristocracy far enough it becomes democracy [...] Now however, I feel that if I am not big enough to belong to all humanity, I want to think of myself as belonging to the masses rather than to the classes.
Do I contradict myself? Yes I contradict myself. I contain multitudes. At any rate, this same call for a new aristocracy ran through Pound’s Paris letters for the Dial of this same period, just as it informed his current work on the Malatesta Cantos. As a culture hero, however, the eccentric Gould more resembled Picabia than Sigismundo. More precisely, he came out of the performance art tradition of New York Dada—a male version of that other aristocrat of squalor, Baronness Elsa von Freytag-Lotringhoven, whose work, starting in 1918, had been featured alongside chapters of Ulysses in The Little Review. In Broom’s portrait of Gould as the Last Bohemian or Dada Dandy, Pound no doubt glimpsed a funhouse reflection of his own anarchic persona ca. 1923 and yet, at the same time, the possibility of a new kind of American historiography in the making. In any event, he promptly wrote to Gould, inviting him into a correspondence that would last through the later twenties and thirties: to my knowledge, Lepore is the first scholar to have carefully mined this trove of letters housed at the Beinecke. “I make for good copy,” Gould assured Pound. Meanwhile, the latter was receiving installments of Gould’s work-in-progress from Edwin J. O’Brien, who had left the literary world of Boston to install himself (like Eliot) in England, where he edited an annual volume of the Best Short Stories. In his 1934 recommendation of Gould to the Guggenheim Foundation, O’Brien wrote of the candidate’s Oral History, “Mr. Ezra Pound and I once saw a fragment of it running to perhaps 40,000 words.” After being turned down for the third time by the Foundation, Gould wrote a furious letter to its head, Henry Allen Moe (who had already been the object of Pound’s vituperation). Gould’s letter reads like Ezra at his worst:
Inasmuch as I have created a vital new literary form and have written some things which will last as long as the English language, I cannot expect as much courtesy from you as if I were a plagiarist, and since I am handicapped by being of old American stock, I realized that a foundation as yours is predisposed in favor of the predatory type of recent coolie immigrant such as the original Guggenheim.
But where would O’Brien and Pound have seen this 40,000-word fragment together? Paris? London? In any event, Pound eventually had a number of chapters on hand in Rapallo in the late twenties—no doubt in the form of a series of grimy black and speckled white dime-school composition books written out in a fountain-pen scrawl—for in 1930 he informed Gould that he had sent them to London to be typed up for eventual publication. Like so much of the Joe Gould archive, these typescripts generously underwritten by Pound seem to have disappeared—Pound’s immediate intent was to send them on to Lincoln Kirstein’s New York magazine, Hound and Horn, named after a line in Pound’s early poem “The White Stag,” but which he and Gould preferred to refer to as Bitch and Bugle. Another possibility was ex-Dadaist Georges Ribemont Dessaigne’s magazine Bifur (which had hoped, and failed, to publish Joyce’s “Anna Lyvia Pluraself”).
Together with expat O’Brien, E.E. Cummings acted as Pound’s other major source of information about his distant double—who regularly haunted Patchin Place, bumming cigarettes, leaving his greasy notebooks or spare teeth behind, aggressively cadging spare change for “The Joe Gould Fund” wherever he could. When inviting Cummings to submit some of his latest work to his forthcoming magazine, The Exile, Pound wondered:
YOU might write a nize lil piece say harft a page
about Joe’s ORAL hizzery
And mebbe that wd/ start somfink IF you
make it clear and EGGs plain WHY Joe
Gould would eventually appear in the second issue of The Exile—alongside John Rodker’s “Adolphe 1920,” R. C. Dunning’s “Threnody in Sapphics,” and four poems by Carl Rakosi. Of the magazine’s title, Gould joked to Pound, “you are an expatriate, I am an extemporate”—i.e. someone whose existence was ex tempore, impromptu, but by that very token, radically unzeitgemässig, un-timely, ana-chronistic. The “Chapter from Joe Gould’s Oral History” that Pound ran in his magazine was entitled “Art”—and again, it was more of an anecdotal first-person essay than a radical experiment in oral historiography. Gould emerges as an unrepentant aesthete, a latter-day Pater or Wilde (with a bit of modern eugenics thrown in):
When the Titanic went down I shocked Mrs. McDowall of Windymere Ranch, Beaver Mines, Alberta, very much by saying that I hoped no works of art were lost. [Shades of The Cantos here]. She said that several human souls were destroyed. To make another human being all that is needed is a man a woman and a spasm of lust. To make a poem or a painting or a piece of music, you need heredity, environment and the divine gleam. . . . To express oneself, that individuality which differentiates man from the brute, is the worthy thing. Sincerity is the ultimate test. . .
Gould grandiosely concludes his divagation by proclaiming the total autonomy of his art: “My impulse to express life in terms of my own observation and reflection is so strong, that I would continue to write, if I were the sole survivor of the human race, and believed that my material would be seen by no other eyes than mine.” Here and elsewhere Gould seems to be defining his Oral History as a variant of Blanchot’s (or Mallarmé’s) Utopian livre à venir, a Book to be pursued by the Last Man until the end of times, forever in progress, forever deferred, forever posthumous—and, above all, supremely indifferent to any question of audience. In his editorial afterword to the issue, Pound laconically observed “Mr. Gould’s prose style is uneven,” perhaps hoping to encourage his protégé toward greater self-discipline. Gould shot back: “My history is uneven. It should be. It is an encyclopedia.” As were of course The Cantos, whose “encyclopedic form” Pound had discovered in Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet and Joyce’s Ulysses—a far cry from Gould’s random graphomania.
Pound subsequently prevailed upon Louis Zukofsky to arrange a meeting between Gould and Marianne Moore, the current literary editor at The Dial, to go over his notebooks.
Miss Moore accepted (and gently edited) two excerpts from the Oral History. The first essay, a non sequitur meditation on “Marriage,” concludes with Blake that Opposition is True Friendship: “Men and women differ as much in character as in physique, and for this reason, they will always be necessary to each other mentally and morally as well as physically. The proper mate is the one who stirs the deepest chord that the individual can reach.” Concealed behind these grand verities, Lepore discovers a more proximate context: Gould had just proposed marriage to Harlem sculptor Augusta Savage, object of his fetishistic worship. Her rejection broke the deepest chord in him, unstringing him into Bellevue. He projects his own mental collapse onto all of “Civilization” in his second Dial piece:
It is in the presence of death and other vital issues that the collapse of civilization is seen. Just as we have weakened our legs by depending upon steam and electricity, we have weakened our souls by huge cathedrals, elaborately organized sects, and sophisticated philosophies. We would do better stick to the simple ritual and basic faith of savage [sic] life and childhood.
Maud Harris told me that all was well with the world because medical science had profited by the war. That is an epitome of civilization. We continually invent new diseases and almost catch up with them by our invention of remedies.
That last apothegm could almost have been penned by La Bruyère, Emerson, or Nietzsche. Did Miss Moore and Pound hear in Joe Gould a latter-day moraliste?
Gould’s two essays appeared in the April, 1929 issue of The Dial. A few months later the magazine foundered financially and soon ceased publication—occasioning what is perhaps Joe Gould’s most famous distich (together with his immortal “In the winter I’m a Buddhist/ In the summer I’m a nudist”):
Who killed the Dial?
I, said Joe Gould, with my inimitable style.
By the spring of 1931, Gould had become enough of a legend in the Village to attract a full-scale profile in The New Republic by Horace Gregory, “Pepys on the Bowery.” He was now famous for being famous. This was the piece that initially brought Gould to Joseph Mitchell’s attention, and in it Gregory described Gould’s colorful bohemian existence at length, while providing a number of short excerpts from his Oral History—including a (Cantos-worthy) vignette describing how in 1916 private citizen Theodore Roosevelt had dined at New York’s Harvard Club, only to be politely ignored by all its members in a collective display of “good form.” Such first-hand accounts, Gregory commented, illustrated that “his best anecdotes are of the smoking-car variety and delivered with the nasal twang of the aboriginal New Englander.” That same spring (probably at the instigation of Pound, who was friends with Sherry Mangan), Gould’s essay on “Insanity” appeared in the avant-garde magazine Pagany. After evoking in raconteur fashion his own periodic bouts with mental illness—Lepore places him somewhere on the spectrum between autism and paranoid schizophrenia—Gould proceeds to philosophize: “The insane person is a victim of self-deception. Yet in a measure we all have this virtue. One is his own imaginary creation of himself. Before our soul-mirror we strut and swagger. [Yeats again?]. When we are not actively enhancing our importance in the scheme of things we indulge in self-pity. Every man Jack of us has some mental trickery to justify his instinctive feeling that he is the center of the universe. Texas Wilson said to me once, ‘If we could only see ourselves as we really are, life would be insupportable.’” The piece concludes with another one of Gould’s celebrated mots: “I have a delusion of grandeur. I believe myself to be Joe Gould.” He might have been quoting Jean Cocteau: “Victor Hugo était un fou qui se croyait Victor Hugo.”
Gould’s second piece for Pagany, entitled “Freedom,” revealed more trouble. “When a very charming young lady nearly sent me to jail for a letter I wrote during a nervous breakdown,” it began, “I did not look forward to the experience at all.” Lepore again sleuths out the unsavory circumstances behind the incident: a serial sexual harasser against whom charges had been filed by at least three women, Gould was arrested for assault in October 1930 and threatened with incarceration in a mental hospital. Cummings, Edmund Wilson, and Gregory apparently turned up at court to testify that the defendant was indeed compos mentis, and the case was dropped—leaving Lepore to surmise that, in the name of High Art, there was some sort of male modernist conspiracy at work to shield Gould from the consequences of his sexual predations. His life, at any rate, was unraveling fast: after being prestigiously published in Broom, The Exile, The Dial, and Pagany, he dropped entirely out of print, spending his days hounding publishers (Lippincott, Scribner) to publish the stack of notebooks that (so he claimed) now stood at seven feet, far surpassing him in height. Pound and Cummings corresponded about Gould’s increasingly sorry state. “Met Joe il y a quelques jours &, b jeezuz, never have I beheld a corpse walking,” Cummings wrote Pound in 1935. Elsewhere he observed:
little joe gould’s quote oral
history unquote might (publishers note) be
entitled a wraith’s
Wraith: “a ghost or ghostlike image of someone, especially one seen shortly before or after their death.” By the time Joseph Mitchell first began interviewing him in the late thirties for The New Yorker, Gould was already a specter.
Gould would not be more than a colorful footnote to Pound’s career as a literary impresario were it not for his mention in Pound’s far-ranging essay, “Dr. Williams’ Position,” first published in the November 1928 issue of The Dial and reprinted in his Polite Essays of 1937. The essay provides an engaging portrait of Pound during his Exile years, still vacillating between Lenin and Mussolini, still caught between the American left and the European right, still refusing any totalizing creed or ideology and therefore, as he puts it in “Dr. Williams’ Position,” vehemently opposed to all forms of “monism” or “monotheism”—which he dismisses as no more than “an hypothesis agreeable to certain types of very lazy minds too weak to bear an uncertainty or to remain in ‘uncertainty.’” Among Pound’s attractive uncertainties in this essay is the entire question of “major form” in literature. Pound admits that Williams’ work, like that of “that still more unreceived and uncomprehended native hickory Mr. Joseph Gould,” may be perceived as “‘often formless,’ ‘incoherent,’ opaque, obscure, obfuscated, confused, truncated, etc.,” but he goes on to argue that “there are very important chunks of world-literature in which form, major form, is remarkable mainly for its absence” (the Iliad, Aeschylus’s Prometheus, Montaigne, Rabelais, Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet). He concludes: “The component of these great works of art and the indispensible component is texture”—precisely the kind of texture revealed in the finest passages of Williams’s writing as it cut against the American grain. “Our national mind hath about it something ‘marvelous porous,’” Pound announces at the beginning of the essay: too susceptible to foreign penetration, American writing merely passively waters down ideas or notions absorbed from abroad. He cites Williams and Gould in same breath as offering a new alternative to “the porous types.” As for Williams in particular, “for fifteen or eighteen years I have cited [him] as the sole known American-dwelling author who could be counted on to oppose some sort of barrier to such penetration; the sole catalectic in whose presence some sort of modification would take place.” Pound’s weird fantasies of foreign penetration or contagion aside, it is the word “catalectic” that stands out here. It is a prosodic term, indicating a (metrical) line of verse lacking one syllable in the last foot; in musicological vocabulary, the catalytic syllable represents a held note, where the metrical melody is subject to harmonic reinforcement. The moment of catalexis—when melody moves into harmony, or absent syllable into song—is, according to Pound, achieved when Williams manages “to look out of his circumjacence and see it as something interesting but exterior.” Coming upon the American landscape as an “observant foreigner,” Williams estranges it into “something there for him to look at,” something to be “inspected and recorded” without generalization, simply for what is, out there, lying beyond his subjectivity. Documentary Imagism moving toward Objectivism, in other terms.
Pound compares Williams’s distanced (Latino) gaze on America to that of “native hickory” Gould, whom he distinguishes from Robert Frost:
We have, of course, distinctly American authors, Mr. Frost for example, but there is an infinite gulf between Mr. Frost on New England customs, and Mr. Gould on race prejudice; Mr. Frost having simply taken on, without any apparent self-questioning, a definite type and set of ideas and sensibilities, known and established in his ancestral demesne. That is to say he is “typical New England.” Gould is no less New England, but parts of his writing could have proceed equally well from a Russian, a German, or an exceptional Frenchman—the difference between regionalism, or regionalist art and art that has its root in a given locality.
The distinction between regionalism and localism is crucial. As Williams would later phrase it in Paterson: “To make a start/ out of particulars.” Because: “Art is local.” As opposed to Frost’s WASP New England, Gould’s cosmopolitan positioning of the local extended it into the whole American field of racial and ethnic difference. The “history of the inarticulate” that he intended to write would restore all the voices of “average” citizens that had been silenced, as well as all the stuttering echoes of America’s inner Others—among whom “the Negro, the reservation Indian, and the immigrant.” These voices that he heard inside his head, Gould explained, would burst forth as “lyrical episodes of everyday life” that would “widen the sphere of history as Whitman did that of poetry.” On the basis of the cache of manuscripts that he was sitting on in Rapallo in 1928, Pound in “Dr. Williams’ Position” was in fact the process of inventing a virtual “joe gould,” a bard whose unpublished and largely imaginary Oral History was in some senses a twin of his own great work in progress—notably in the demotic historiographical turn of Cantos 16, 18 and 19.
When Pound passed through New York during his ill-fated visit to America in 1939, he and Joe Gould did not meet (although Pound is recorded as visiting Cummings in Greenwich Village, where he had briefly resided on Waverley Place back in 1910, while translating Cavalcanti and composing Patria Mia). Gould later explained to Williams in 1946 that he had avoided seeing Pound because he was out of political sympathy with him. Pound and Cummings nonetheless continued to champion his work. Cummings informed Pound in early 1940 that he had set up meetings for “little joe” with publishers and that that the latter had responded to his coaching with “willingness sans astonishment con skepticism.” Lepore suggests that Cummings may also have encouraged William Saroyan to publish his essay “How I Met Joe Gould” in 1941. Saroyan describes his first reaction to discovering Gould in an old 1929 back issue of The Dial:
He was easy and uncluttered, and almost all other American writing was uneasy and a little sickly; it was literary; and it couldn’t say anything simply. All other American writing was trying to get into one form or another, and no writer except Joe Gould seemed to have imagination enough to understand that if the worst came to the worst you didn’t need to have any form at all. You didn’t need to put what you had to say into a poem, an essay, a story or a novel. All you had to do was say it.
This, especially the bit about “major form,” could be straight Pound—or at least one way of reading his Cantos. . . or, for that matter, the unhinged oral poetics of his wartime broadcasts.
In 1944, after having been hospitalized at St. Vincent’s, Joe Gould finally acquired an anonymous patroness—in the person of Muriel Gardiner, who had trained as a psychoanalyst with Ruth Brunswick in Vienna and who was assisting her in editing the writings of Sergei Pankejeff, Freud’s celebrated “Wolfman.” Installed in a Chelsea brownstone and generously subsidized by Dr. Gardiner, Gould returned to his Oral History—this time in the form of a diary, ten volumes of which (or 800 pages) are held by NYU’s Fales Library, apparently the only major surviving fragment of his lost work.
As early as May 1945, Gould’s diary records Pound’s interrogation by American authorities in Genoa, of which he had no doubt read in the newspapers. By June (with E.P. already in the DTC at Pisa), he was contacting James Laughlin and Malcolm Cowley, asking them to contribute funds to his “campaign for Ezra” and noting that “I believe that a poet has as much right to be a damn fool as anyone else.” Cummings wrote a check for $1000. Gould slipped a poem to Dwight MacDonald at Politics:
Once lost now found
Poor Ezra Pound
Is not a hound.
His mind’s unsound.
On February 8, 1946, just a few days before a Washington D.C. jury returned its verdict that Pound was indeed of “unsound mind,” Gould wrote to Williams: “I will always feel some gratitude toward him although I disagree with him completely. I felt that he was obsessed to a degree beyond mental health. This was because he seemed to be obsessed with ideas that were not in character nor consistent with the man as I had pictured him. I know many acts of kindness on his part to Jewish people. [Zukofsky?]. I therefore felt that he was off balance apart from his usual enthusiastic tendency to ride any hobby of the moment too hard. In other words, I thought that at that time he was temporarily haywire. I believe he would have snapped out of it if the course of events had been different.”
By the fall of 1946 Gould was in correspondence with Pound at St. Elizabeths, informing Williams “I believe that Ezra Pound is doing all right. He gets plenty of books, and has occasional visitors.” Pound in turn assured Cummings: “Joe G. still alive—have we between us force to git him printed?” In 1947, Cummings reported to Pound that Gould had just lost his patroness: Lepore speculates that Gardiner cut him off because instead of writing he was spending all his time and money defending Ezra—after the Albanian Fund, after the Joe Gould Fund, he was now quixotically spearheading a Fund for Ezra Pound as a gesture of gratitude toward the major author of his literary fame.
Each thought the other insane. After Pound’s son Omar met Gould at Cumming’s house on Patchin Place, Pound wrote: “O.P. sez Jo iz nuts. Wot erboout this?”
Cummings cannily replied, not doubt thinking of Pound’s current legal predicament: “The question is Joe Gould Crazy strikes me as, putting it mildly, irrelevant. For ‘crazy’ implies either(crazy) or (not).”
Gould died in a mental hospital on Aug. 19, 1957. On April 14, 1958, Pound wrote Cummings from St. Elizabeths for the last time: “am doin wat I kan to hellup yr friends edit Joe Gould.” A week later he was released.
*Acknowledgement: Without Lepore’s diligent forays into the Ezra Pound Archive at the Beinecke or the Laughlin and ND papers at Houghton—or, for that matter, without her mastery of the published Pound/Cummings, Pound/Zukofsky, and Pound/Williams correspondences—I could have never written this review essay, which has merely sought to flesh out the uncanny Doppelgänger relationship between Gould and Pound, at whose many mirrorings Lepore only begins to hint.