Joe Gould—mysterious madman, darling of the modern poets and, perhaps, a genius—began writing a book in the late 1920s. Or rather, several books. His writing, he believed, would turn the field of history on its head. Rather than stories of great men, Gould had a vision of capturing the everyday speech of people on the streets of New York. And so, pencil in hand, he went out to listen. He scrawled overheard bits in composition notebooks, and the notebooks came to dominate his small apartment, or so it was said. But the towers of notebooks are missing. Jill Lepore, at once detective and historian, decides to find them.
What readers will find in Joe Gould’s Teeth is a story of archival research of epic proportions. Lepore puts farflung snippets of the past together to tell a story about Gould and his writings that no one has yet heard—a story that takes readers into the heart of Harlem, into the classrooms of Harvard and down the long corridors of mental hospitals. What is at stake, though, is more than “What happened to Gould?” There’s also the question of history itself. What should history—and biography—be? Can a historian see anything accurately, or in the end, will her portraits of the past only reveal her own reflection?
At once researching Gould and thinking alongside him about questions that hang behind every historian’s work, Lepore offers a book that is exciting and unsettling. Unlike her past work—think The Secret History of Wonder Woman—Lepore herself is very much a character in this book, and the hunt for the truth about Gould takes on a sort of Edgar Allan Poe-like atmosphere of dread and anticipation. At times haunting and even hallucinatory, this book is Lepore’s most vulnerable and thought-provoking work yet.