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joe-gould

Below is a previously unpublished essay written in 1934 by one of the most legendary figures in American letters: Joe Gould. New Yorker writer Jill Lepore unearthed it while researching her 2016 book Joe Gould’s Teeth. It’s an incredible book. After I spotted the essay in Lepore’s bibliography, I got a copy from Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where it sat in the Millen Brand Papers for years. “Why I Write” starts as an essay but ends as a fragment. I’m excited to share it with other readers of Lepore and Joseph Mitchell’s work.

First, a little background:

Stanley Tucci made a movie about Joe Gould, but not everyone has seen it. Gould identified as a writer, but he’s best known as the subject of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell published two stories about Gould: “Professor Seagull” in 1942 and “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964. An educated, heavy drinking bohemian who mixed talent with delusion, Gould lived much of his adulthood on the streets of Greenwich Village in the early 1900s, haunting bars, extracting alms, and telling anyone who would listen about the genre-defining, nine-million-word masterwork he was creating, called “The Oral History of Our Time.” The Oral History was a record of days as Gould heard it. He recorded what people said to him and said all around him. It was meant, in Gould’s words, “to preserve as much detail as I can about the normal life of every day people” because “as a rule, history does not deal with such small fry,” which meant it would qualify as the world’s longest book. Gould told everyone about it, but few had seen it. Whenever people pushed him for pages, Gould dodged or only had brief selections to offer.

Mitchell’s story “Joe Gould’s Secret” outs Gould as a liar whose magnum opus didn’t exist. In telling this secret, Mitchell created his own literary masterpiece, and one of the most well-known and admired pieces of longform journalism in America. In a strange twist, after Mitchell published this story, he never published again in his lifetime.

A modern biography of Mitchell caused a stir by showing that Mitchell invented many details and quotes in his famous reporting, creating magnificent fictive hybrids, not journalism, and that he failed to alert readers to this aspect of their creation. Sensing more to the story of Mitchell’s stories, Jill Lepore went on her own investigation into his reporting techniques and mistakes and asked an important question: Did Gould’s “The Oral History of Our Time” exist or not?  Gould certainly seemed to be working on something all those years. Did it get lost or only exist in Gould’s mind?  What she found was that Mitchell didn’t do all of his research, and he consciously neglected other areas of inquiry into Gould, failing to contact certain sources and include certain facts. While there was not one cohesive Oral History, Lepore found that Gould did leave notebooks scattered around friends’ houses and various libraries, and he wrote letters to people like E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos that ended up in collected papers in library archives from Harvard to Yale. Even though he lied about the scale and nature of his masterpiece, Gould did record and even publish things, despite what Mitchell claimed. Because Gould was hypergraphic, Lepore said, “Gould was almost impossibly easy to trace.” This 1934 essay, “Why I Write,” is one of the fragments Gould left laying around. Listed as a chapter of the Oral History, the material has never been published in its entirety. Although it’s short and incomplete, and it’s about the author, not the wider world, it bears the signature Gouldian traits ─ the grand claims, the spiraling train of thought and self-aggrandizement ─ Granted, there’s clearly a reason no one published it. That said, it’s nice to hear him discuss his perception of his work in his own words.

Mitchell’s stories are some of my favorite ever written; they’re some of the few pieces I reread on a regular basis. I believe their construction raise them past the level of reporting to literature, more concerned with themes and capital T truth than the facts of the matter. This isn’t a critique of his work or reportage. But with Gould, Lepore did certain detective work that Mitchell did not. She searched deep in library collections. She found that parts of the Oral History were published early on: a chapter in Exile magazine in 1927, three pages in Pagany in 1931. She photographed all 400-plus pages of Gould’s ten surviving diaries. Gould wrote other essays, such as “My Life” in 1933 and “Why I Am Called Professor Sea Gull” in 1947. Maybe they’re fragments, too, because ultimately, the Oral History existed mostly in Gould’s mind. At a certain point, even Lepore quit digging. I do strongly suggest everyone buy Lepore’s incredible book and to read Mitchell’s collection Up in the Old Hotel.

My deep thanks to Lepore for discovering this material, to the staff at Columbia for sending me a copy, and thanks to Mitchell and Gould for following their instincts. From what I can gather from speaking with professionals, because enough time has passed, and Gould had no living heirs, this work now resides in the public domain.

You can read a PDF of Joe Gould’s “Why I Write” here.

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As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.

In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.

When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” has one that goes for eight pages. “The Rivermen” boasts the longest of all: ten and a half pages – or six pages followed by four more, if you count the three-lines of intervening dialogue as an interruption. I don’t. But it’s not simply the length that interests me; it’s what length requires of a writer’s memory.

Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?

In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.

Certain critics might say that such composites are fictions, because the information portrayed didn’t exist in the real world in the precise way it was rendered. The composite only exists because the artist created it. I used to agree with this line of thinking.

When I first discovered Mitchell at age twenty-five, I believed that George Hunter said those words in that way verbatim, because I assumed all dialogue in nonfiction was verbatim. Not a spliced rendition, not a near-accurate depiction, not a highly educated guess, but a replica, a photograph in text. I was naïve about the mechanics of nonfiction writing, and the complex nature of truth. Now, after a decade reading and writing narrative nonfiction, I still expect accuracy whether I’m reading a magazine or a memoir, but I also know that truth is more complicated than the usual “accurate/inaccurate” dichotomy suggests. If the parts that Mitchell used to fashioned his hybrid stories and hybrid quotes were facts themselves, then is not the collage of facts also true if it captures the larger truth of his subjects? By larger truth, I mean the essence of Mister Hunter’s personality, and the particular texture of his speech. And on a thematic level, I mean the emotional truth of Hunter’s situation: aging and looming specter of his, and everyone’s, impending death. This is part of what Zinsser means when he says that “all the phrases and turns of phrase are his.”  He means that despite the splicing, Mitchell captured Hunter’s essence by accurately portraying his diction (like the way Hunter said “spring beauty” rather than “beauties”). Mitchell didn’t make quoted phrases up, didn’t invent information; rather, he simmered the facts so they accreted into a more potent truth, which is why the quotes sound like his speakers, rather than like Mitchell. This is also why I consider Mitchell’s stories nonfiction.

Mitchell’s literary standard was that of both the artist and the reputable journalist. He organized his facts in a creative arrangement in order to best serve the story. As Zinsser says: “Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time, he used a dramatist’s prerogative to compress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months he did spend on Staten Island, he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated Mr. Hunter’s truth; there was no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.” By employing these techniques, Mitchell spared readers the superfluous details, framed the relevant information, and distilled the piece to its essence, for the sake of the audience’s reading experience. In this way, Mitchell’s stories predated the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, as well as the 1960s “new journalism” that followed after: using dialogue, character development, narrative arc, foreshortening, well-sequenced scenes, emergent themes, dramatic tension in nonfiction, rather than the who, what, where, when, why of standard expository reportage. Mitchell’s Olympian quotations are sure to remain one of nonfiction’s most peculiar attractions – an extraordinary monument to truth’s complex incarnations – but it’s his stories’ artfulness and readability that have made them endure.

On a side note, I found this short documentary, about the old Fulton Ferry Hotel, from which Mitchell’s classic essay, and his collection, take their name:

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