A version of this essay was delivered on November 5, 2015, as the Theodore H. White Lecture on the Press and Politics at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
From New Yorker staff writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, the dark, spellbinding tale of her restless search for the long-lost, longest book ever written, a century-old manuscript called “The Oral History of Our Time.”
Joe Gould, a madman, believed he was the most brilliant historian of the twentieth century. So did some of his friends, a group of modernist writers and artists that included E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos, and Ezra Pound. Gould began his life’s work before the First World War, announcing that he intended to write down nearly anything anyone ever said to him. “I am trying to preserve as much detail as I can about the normal life of every day people,” he explained, because “as a rule, history does not deal with such small fry.” By 1942, when The New Yorker published a profile of Gould written by the reporter Joseph Mitchell, Gould’s manuscript had grown to more than nine million words. But when Gould died in 1957, in a mental hospital, the manuscript was nowhere to be found. Then, in 1964, in “Joe Gould’s Secret,” a second profile, Mitchell claimed that “The Oral History of Our Time” had been, all along, merely a figment of Gould’s imagination. Lepore, unpersuaded, set about to find out.
Joe Gould’s Teeth is a Poe-like tale of detection, madness, and invention. Digging through archives all over the country, Lepore unearthed evidence that “The Oral History of Our Time” did in fact once exist. Relying on letters, scraps, and Gould’s own diaries and notebooks—including volumes of his lost manuscript—Lepore argues that Joe Gould’s real secret had to do with sex and the color line, with modernists’ relationship to the Harlem Renaissance, and, above all, with Gould’s terrifying obsession with the African American sculptor Augusta Savage. In ways that even Gould himself could not have imagined, what Gould wrote down really is a history of our time: unsettling, and ferocious.
“A madman’s grossly engrossing tale.” —The New York Times
“Revelatory..” —San Francisco Chronicle
“We owe Lepore a debt of gratitude for re-introducing us to one of the strangest strangers to have ever walked among us.” —Chicago Tribune
“Lepore specializes in excavating old flashpoints—forgotten or badly misremembered collisions between politics and cultural debates in America’s past. She lays out for our modern sensibility how some event or social problem was fought over by interest groups, reformers, opportunists and ‘thought leaders’ of the day. The result can look both familiar and disturbing, like our era’s arguments flipped in a funhouse mirror….Her discipline is worthy of a first-class detective.” —The New York Review of Books
“At a time when few are disposed to see history as a branch of literature, Lepore occupies a prominent place in American letters.” —The Daily Beast
“Again and again, she distills the figures she writes about into clean, simple, muscular prose, making unequivocal assertions that carry a faint electric charge…[and] attain a transgressive, downright badass swagger.” —Slate
“Lepore’s superb narrative brings that history vividly into the present, weaving individual lives into the sweeping changes of the century.” —The Wall Street Journal