Jill Lepore, historian and author of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, tackles a difficult subject in this book: a thoroughly unlikeable man – racist, abusive, anti-Semitic, harasser of women – and his unfindable manuscript, simultaneously hailed as potentially one of the greatest works of history and dismissed as being unevenly written, where it was written at all. The book is being marketed as Lepore’s search for the manuscript, but it’s more about her can’t-look-away curiosity for the man. She does an excellent job, I think, of treating Gould like a human being, while also not sugarcoating that he was a pretty shitty one.
I really appreciated Lepore’s presence in the book. It helped me to understand what it is like to try to reconstruct a life from, mainly, what the subject wrote. In devoting a large portion of the book to Augusta Savage – an influential Harlem Renaissance sculptor who Gould obsessed over, stalked, and harassed for years – we see a contrast between this sort of project when a subject is an insatiable writer (Gould) and when they are so invested in their privacy that they destroy their own papers & work (Savage). “It has taken me a very long time, my whole life, to learn that the asymmetry of the historical record isn’t always a consequence of people being silenced against their will. Some people don’t want to be remembered, or heard, or saved. They want to be left alone.”
I did feel, however, like there were times that Lepore filled in gaps by telling us what she thinks happened, without always providing us with concrete evidence or even her own reasoning. Mostly I felt like I understood why she made those decisions and that she marked those places so that we readers know when she’s doing it, but there were times when I wanted more from her. Here’s Lepore at her best, explaining why she thinks what she thinks and, at the same time, illuminating for us another of the pitfalls of biographical research: “I think Savage left New York to get away from Joe Gould. But – and here’s the trouble – from the moment I first learned about her, I knew that my likeliest error would be in thinking I understood Augusta Savage, as if she were me, when, really, I hardly know her at all.”
To sum up, it’s good, and if it sounds interesting to you, go on and pick it up. I’ve shared two of my favorite quotes from the book, so let me share the third, which I have apparently turned into a poem. It comes after a story Savage told Gould, about a Baptist preacher who tries to baptize a (possibly unwilling) woman.
At the end, he says, “Tell these people what you believe,”
and she answers, “I do believe this man’s trying to drown me.”
“I began to consider this a story that Savage told not only to Gould,
but also about him,
and about how she was wise to him,
to what white modernist
writers and artists
were doing to the
writers and artists
of the Harlem Renaissance.
He said he was trying to save her,
but really he was trying to drown her.”
Joe Gould’s Teeth is out today, May 17th, 2016. I won it in a Goodreads giveaway. This review is cross-posted from Goodreads. See my other reviews and/or friend me here.
P.S. I don’t think it’s coincidental that my three favorite quotes were all about Savage. I wonder if Lepore feels the same way. I would love to see her take on Savage, but in the case it never happens, it’s time for me to do some research of my own.