Joe Gould's Teeth is more than just a fascinating footnote to a beloved literary landmark. Using the tools of her trade, Lepore ended up broadening her search for his lost notebooks to encompass trenchant questions about journalism, race, and mental illness. The result has bite.
Joe Gould’s Teeth is far from a dreadful book—it’s a rather wonderful one, in fact—but it is, like Joe Gould’s Secret before it, full of dread. Joe Gould haunts journalists and historians alike as he raises unwelcome questions about the limitations of what they do. At times Lepore’s book feels like an exorcism, an attempt to banish Gould’s unquiet spirit from the archives, to undermine the power he wields. At other times, it falls under that uncanny power itself.
Lepore, who teaches history at Harvard, is well-suited to the assignment. She knows how to mine archives for hidden nuggets...If aspects of the mystery remain unsolved, Lepore weaves them into a haunting portrait of Gould, a 'toothless madman' who believed he was his generation’s preeminent historian — and who in fact helped inspire the modern oral history movement.
[Lepore] doesn’t exactly succeed in her quest to find the missing fragments of Gould’s history, but she doesn’t exactly fail, either. Rather than bursting through the door, arms laden with all of Gould’s missing composition books (wouldn’t that be dramatic?), Lepore instead takes us along as she sifts in archives and attics for the pieces that do remain, in order to discover the story underneath the story underneath the story. As she brings to bear the methods of an ace historian at the top of her game, Lepore turns Joe Gould’s Teeth into a ripping detective story. By the time she’s done (in 154 pages of text and 67 pages of notes), Lepore hasn’t truly debunked anything — though she does reveal Gould to be more of a psychopath and Mitchell to be more of a fabulist than has been previously understood — as much as she has worked to 'widen the sphere of history,' as Gould himself wrote of his Oral History.
...engrossing...Lepore's book is as much about all the people, including herself, who project meaning and significance onto the work and personality of Joe Gould as it is about the man himself. Throughout history there have been peculiar characters who have captured the imagination of everyone they come into contact with, blinding them to obvious flaws and permitting all of us to imagine wonders just beyond what most of us can fathom. We owe Lepore a debt of gratitude for re-introducing us to one of the strangest strangers to have ever walked among us.
In the short and revelatory Joe Gould’s Teeth, Jill Lepore, also a New Yorker writer, sets out to fact-check the eminent Joseph Mitchell, and does so with 60 pages of footnotes, enough to take her and her readers far beyond the Mitchell articles that gave Gould his 15 minutes so far. She also gives us a portrait of a nasty man whose fate was far nastier than those whom he annoyed might have wished upon him...Lepore does not write with Mitchell’s measured harmonies. Few would-be Mitchells at the New Yorker ever have. But Joe Gould’s Teeth is something else, an impressive study of paradoxes. A raving tramp helped jump-start the discipline of oral history, only to be drugged silent in an oubliette. Lepore, a young prolific academic at the other end of the productivity spectrum from Mitchell, has upended the subject and author of the New Yorker’s most-read article.
Lepore is shrewd about the sticky ethics here, carefully documenting how little research Mitchell did, how much he preferred just listening to Gould. When Mitchell returned posthumously to his subject, matters became even murkier. 'Joe Gould’s Secret' reveals that Gould’s legendary masterwork, The Oral History of Our Time was a chimera...Lepore ends her own book in a reverie, not a revelation, vexing our stubborn narrative expectation.
Anyone who has read Lepore knows that, let loose in archives — library archives, archives of memory — she is crackerjack, squeezing into claustrophobic corners where the good stuff is found. Here, she returns with only random volumes of the Oral History, if indeed they are that. She surfaces with different riches, profiles of her own, of Gould, Mitchell and sculptress Augusta Savage, a subject of Gould's uninvited advances.
...[a] fascinating book, Joe Gould’s Teeth, is a tragicomic tale of a madman at the intersection of history, fame and fiction ... Lepore’s book is not only a work of scholarship, but a layered gem of storytelling. It’s a puzzle, mystery and archaeological dig rolled into one ... It’s easy to imagine Lepore’s vivid, unsettling book listed on a syllabus of some future course on biography. As she trains her lens on Joe Gould, and widens out to his broader circle of prominent friends and abettors, she offers a cautionary tale for us all.