Thursday, June 9, 2016

Obscurity ("Joe Gould's Teeth" by Jill Lepore)

Over the last few decades, the predilection for nonfiction writers to insert themselves into the story has grown increasingly worse, to the point where such habits now threaten to unmoor the entire genre. Journalists who once sought interesting and important subjects now think of themselves--or at least their experiences--as an equally interesting or important part of the equation. In addition to direct quotes and personal insights from their interviewees, we are given descriptions of the process with which these journalists secured the interview, the travels they took in order to reach their subjects, the emotional responses they felt as they sat across from said subjects, realizations they underwent in the proceeding hours, recollections, moments of nostalgia, and unrelated tangents, until each sentence becomes a heady, ego-nursing burden for the reader. Similarly, many writers of history offer their readers volumes engorged with their own firsthand experiences:  digging through dusty archives, walking through long-ignored museums and galleries, pondering the thoughts and feelings of someone many centuries dead, and ruminating over crumbled historical buildings. And while there are those in this field who excelled at balancing story and experience so that a greater truth emerges--Hunter S. Thompson* is perhaps the best example--that balance is almost impossible to strike successfully, and more often than not the author takes center stage over the actual subject, now rendered as foil or, even worse, understudy.

This untenable balance is the undoing of Joe Gould's Teeth, Jill Lepore's short but fact-jammed account of her attempts to track down The Oral History of Our Time, a fabled work of literature written by the very subject of her book. A bohemian in New York City between world wars, Joseph Gould was famous for being eccentric:  near destitute for much of his life, he nevertheless claimed to be writing an "oral history" of the present day that would be longer than anything else in human history. He wrote this epic in hundreds of cheap composition notebooks over the course of decades, though almost none of them were preserved; sometimes he would lose a few, the entire collection would be thrown out, he would give one or two volumes to friends, or he would simply restart. Today we know that he most likely suffered from hypergraphia; at the time, however, he was considered a unique and temperamental marvel of the age, a benefactor of men like Ezra Pound. When Joseph Mitchell profiled Gould in the New Yorker, he became a sensation unto himself, as did his work-in-progress. But when Gould died, his notebooks vanished, transforming both man and manuscript into myths that would be constantly changing and forever unsolvable.

As she notes in her afterward, Jill Lepore spent a semester gathering artifacts related to Joe Gould, poring over them with her students, and following leads that promised to settle the matter of his notebooks once and for all:  did his masterpiece exist, or didn't it? In the process, however, Lepore reveals a strange lack of interest in presenting the man's actual work to her readers. She finds Gould's diary, a collection of ten notebooks that run "more than eight hundred pages," and photographs every single page so that she can consult, transcribe, and keep them. In lieu of the actual oral history, this seems like it would make a fitting substitute as the heart of her research. But Lepore only offers us short, rare excerpts from these diaries, nothing more than a few loose sentences, and a quick consultation of the book's sixty-five pages of notes reveals that Gould's diary is utilized in less than two dozen instances. The reader is forced to assume that the diary is filled little more than disconnected thoughts or unintelligible scribblings--nothing that would add to her research. And yet, according to Lepore herself, "As diaries, as a record of a life, they're often dull, but they're also cluttered with detail and full of speech." However, she does not offer us more than a few scraps from these 800-plus pages to prove her point or illustrate Gould's mind at work; instead, at the close of this portion of the chapter, she fantasizes about what she'd actually like to do to his diary, as well as a few other artifacts:
I picture it like this:  I'd dip those letters and pages torn from the diaries in a bath of glue and water--the black ink would begin to bleed--and I'd paste them over an armature I'd built out of Gold's empty cigarette boxes, rolled up old New Yorkers, and seagull feathers. I called my paper-mache White Man (Variation). [30]
There are also moments in which Lepore discovers excerpts from the actual Oral History, or at least from certain versions of it. She finds them in old literary journals or in the possession of Gould's friends and confidants. And while they are small, meager pieces of a vast, almost incalculable puzzle, they nevertheless constitute more than almost anyone else has read from Gould. Considering their rarity, one would assume that Lepore would print as much of them as she could. In doing so, Lepore would add to our collective understanding of Gould more than anyone else, including Gould himself. Instead, she repeatedly passes over those opportunities. Where other researchers or historians would have included one long passage after another, Lepore offers a few sentences at most, all the while quoting friends of Gould who extolled the virtues of what they themselves had read. To offer a weak metaphor, Lepore has given us a menu that promises much, as well as quotes from other satisfied customers, but refuses to bring anything other than a basket of crusty bread to our table.

This is the pattern that Lepore follows throughout much of the book. She provides us with quick, staccato-like facts about Gould and his notebooks but nothing more. What made Gould both famous and notorious is his obscurity and his eccentricity, both of which would seem to meet beautifully in the words he wrote. But Lepore is more interested in keeping those aspects unresolved, and in refusing to explore Gould beyond her own experiences and discoveries--in essence, refusing to let us know Gould in the same way she has--Lepore is trying to keep him all to herself. This goes against the very nature of a writer and a historian, and brings into question the entire reason Lepore wrote this book in the first place.

In perhaps the most enraging moment of the book--which, at a mere 151 pages, not including the sources, taunts us with its brevity--Lepore describes the process she undertook at the end of her research as she was boxing up all of her papers, which concludes with this moment:  "I spoke on the telephone to an old man in a faraway land. He told me he had some of Gould's notebooks. I believed him. I did not call him again." Taken literally, Lepore is admitting that she had an opportunity to secure--or at least examine--actual notebooks from her subject and chose to pass that opportunity by. This one act alone demonstrates Lepore's apparent disinterest in her stated goal, which was to verify if Gould's long epic was in fact real; instead, it seems to suggest that, after only a few months, she had grown tired of Gould, despite the fact that this book makes her responsible for him. (The last book about Gould was published in 1965; its author, Joseph Mitchell, passed away 20 years ago.)

If Lepore is writing figuratively--the unnamed man from a "faraway land" reads almost like a fairy tale--and personifying her own subconscious, her Gould-like obsession, into human form, then she's unnecessarily teasing the reader while also revealing an aspect of her methodology that undermines any credibility she may have:  she is quitting. By their very nature, historians spend years tracking down every last artifact they possibly can, all the while understanding that even the smallest story can never fully be told; in Lepore's case, she has given herself a meek timeline--four months, possibly five--and simply stopped, despite her mind telling her to continue on. The result is the book before us:  short, small, and wholly unsatisfying.

The irony is that, in researching Joe Gould, Lepore uncovers another figure from the era who is not only similar to Gould but, as it turns out, much more interesting. For much of his life, Gould was obsessed with a "Negro sculptress" named Augusta Savage--a woman who, as Lepore discovers, was a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Lepore also discovers that Savage's descent into obscurity was largely of her own making:  of the dozens of sculptures she made in her lifetime, few remain, with many having been destroyed by the artist herself. There is very little we know about Savage--even less than we know about Gould, who was twice profiled in the New Yorker--and yet the infrequent portions dedicated to Savage are stunning, thrilling, and beautiful. Savage is the true long-lost subject, the creator disinterred from history and cleared of dust, and Lepore's attempts at drawing a subtle parallel between her and Gould--they are artists, they are persecuted, they obsess, and they generate their own obscurity--are the most successful portions of the book. This is partly because both figures are fascinating when placed together, despite Savage's complete loathing of Gould; partly because Savage is genuinely interesting on her own; but largely because Lepore removes herself from the actual story and allows her subjects to contrast themselves.

Even then, however, Lepore cannot help but edit as she sees fit. We are told that Savage gave up a teaching job to create a sculpture for the World's Fair, only to see the sculpture bulldozed and the teaching job given to someone else; a quick look through Lepore's notes tells a much more fascinating story--of betrayal and fear, of the Communist witch-hunts of the 1940s, of oppression--one that Lepore consigns to its own obscurity in the footnotes. And of Savage's artwork, we are told repeatedly that few of them survive...but some do, and others were photographed before their disappearance or destruction. Lepore knows this, has probably even seen these photographs, but offers us none of them to satiate our curiosity or shape our perceptions of Savage's art.** Once again, even when the spotlight is on someone else--a figure lost to time--Jill Lepore manages to make this book all about Jill Lepore.

*There is a discussion to be had, I'm sure, over the subject of New Journalism and its belief in seeking out "truth" over "facts," which requires not only the author's participation but inclusion in the story. I have little interest in this discussion.

**A quick Google search for Augusta Savage brings up a few of these photographs, and they are wonderful.