Wednesday, June 13, 2012

“It’s Fun To Be Fooled/But It’s Better To Be Joe Gould”

Among the many individuals who have given life and color to the streets of Greenwich Village over the decades, one of the most singular was a Harvard graduate by the name of Joe Gould.

The story of Gould, whose life was detailed in a movie released in 2000 called "Joe Gould's Secret," is fairly well disseminated at this point. His confrontational demeanor and cryptic references to an 'Oral History Of Our Time' he was supposedly writing captured the imagination of everyone from e.e. cummings to New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, and eventually the filmmakers who created that movie.

Less well known, however, is that Joe Gould's last stand took place not on Bleecker Street. Five years after he disappeared from the Greenwich Village scene in 1952, amidst rumors that he had died or inherited money, the obituaries were written out for Joe Gould, who styled himself 'The Last Bohemian" prior to the Beat movement, stating that he had taken ill, gone from Columbus Hospital to Bellevue, and ultimately to Pilgrim State Hospital in Brentwood.

Like Carl Solomon, to whom Allen Ginsberg addressed his famous poem "Howl" in the mid-1950s, Joe Gould lived the last few years of his life in a hospital for the mentally ill.

Who was Joe Gould? And what was this supposed 9 million word oral history, scratched out in five and dime marbled notebooks? Was it a masterwork at all, or was Gould making it up as a story-telling point as he attempted to bum drinks in the local bars of Greenwich Village?

The answer to that question depends on whose version you hear.

Gould came from Norwood, near Boston, from an old New England family that settled the region as far back as 1635. In 1916 he came to New York and achieved a reputation around Greenwich Village, refusing to do any work except to solicit money for the "Joe Gould Fund." While ostensibly at work on his great opus -- one year he held a party mark the completion of 7.3 million words! -- he was busier hanging around and hustling crowds.

His life was colorful according to essayist Dan Balaban, who noted that Gould's day  "usually began in one of the cheap cafés that dotted the West Side in that era. Though he ate a lot of ketchup consommé, he was sometimes flush enough to indulge his taste for seafood ...Evenings found him cadging drinks at the Minetta. Sometimes he crashed the Raven's Poetry Club, reciting doggerel like "A Flatbush Grows in Brooklyn":

Said Johnny Cashmore
To little Noel Coward,
We want no trash more,
Brooklyn can't be defloward.

Here's another famed comment by the irascible Mr Gould -- 

                My Religion

                In the winter I’m a Buddhist
                And in summer I’m a nudist

and this:

                I would give a month’s salary to sleep with you, my dear
                If I worked for the government at a dollar a year.

Gould cut a colorful figure in Greenwich Village. One of his archetypal performances revolved around his ability to speak seagull -- he claimed he could translate any poem into seagull, flapping his wings and skreeking. He claimed that the reason he was blackballed from the 50s lefty art world was a “proletarian poem” which he recited, called “The Barricades:”

This prissy hedge in front of the Brevoort
Is but a symbol of the coming revolution.
These are the barricades,
The barricades,
The barricades.
And behind these barricades,
Behind these barricades,
Behind these barricades,
The Comrades die!
The Comrades die!
The Comrades die!
And behind these barricades,
The Comrades die --
Of overeating.

Here's Gould's word on the most renowned literary zine of the era, The Dial, which actually published Gould’s essay, “Civilization," on its demise:

Who killed the Dial?
Who killed the Dial?
“I,” said Joe Gould,
“With my inimitable style,
“I killed the Dial.”

Aside from his wit and colorful behavior, however, the mystery of his Oral History Of Our Time remains the most talked about element in his legacy.

In Joe Gould's Secret, filmmaker Stanley Tucci tells the story of two men, one of whom would tell the other's story: famed The New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell and New York bohemian Joe Gould. According to the film one day, the softspoken writer encounters Gould, portrayed by Ian Holm. Yankee-born and Harvard-educated, the disheveled Gould is a scholar of the NYC streets. Gould's life's work, Mitchell learns, is "The Oral History of Our Time," a transcription of hundreds of conversations, remarks, and essays about what he has seen and heard. "Every day," writes Mitchell in The New Yorker, "even when he has a bad hangover or even when he is weak and listless from hunger, Joe Gould writes in school composition books."  After Mitchell's story appeared in The New Yorker, Gould became a minor celebrity.

According to Gould himself, the idea for the Oral History came to him while he was working as a junior police reporter in New York in 1917. He was recovering from a hangover at police headquarters one summer morning when the concept dawned. He immediately quit his job to work on the book.

He explained: ' . . . I would spend the rest of my life going about the city listening to people -- eavesdropping, if necessary -- and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me, no matter how boring or idiotic or vulgar or obscene it might sound to others. I could see the whole thing in my mind -- long-winded conversations and short and snappy conversations, brilliant conversations and foolish conversations, curses, catch phrases, coarse remarks, snatches of quarrels, the mutterings of drunks and crazy people, the entreaties of beggars and bums, the propositions of prostitutes, the spiels of pitchmen and peddlers, the sermons of street preachers, shouts in the night, wild rumours, cries from the heart. I decided right then and there that I couldn't possibly continue to hold my job, because it would take up time that I should devote to the Oral History, and I resolved that I would never again accept regular employment unless I absolutely had to or starve but would cut my wants down to the bare bones and depend on friends and well-wishers to see me through. The idea for the Oral History occurred to me around half past ten. Around a quarter to eleven, I stood up and went to a telephone and quit my job . . .'Since that fateful morning . . . the Oral History has been my rope and my scaffold, my bed and my board, my wife and my floozy, my wound and the salt on it, my whiskey and my aspirin, and my rock and my salvation. It is the only thing that matters a damn to me. All else is dross.'

But there's a problem with all that. Not only is Gould an irascible man -- despite being befriended by the likes of William Saroyan, Eugene O'Neill and ee cummings -- but he refuses to show his oral history to anyone.

ee cummings, who wrote several poems about Gould, including a long poem with these lines in it: 'little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where to find them,' had his doubts. Significantly, another line in cummings' poem suggests he knew there was something amiss about the alleged oral history. 'a myth is as good as a mile,' wrote cummings. 'but little joe gould's quote oral/history unquote might (publishers note) be entitled a wraith's progress...'

The movie version of the story strongly suggests that no notebooks every existed. In his obituary, friends said they had no idea what happened to the histories.

However, in the past year or so some of the man's writing has turned up. Eleven of Gould's notebooks were recently rediscovered in an archive in NYU. According to the Village Voice, Gould's diary, which passed through several hands before being purchased by and long forgotten in NYU's Fales Collection, "offers a rare glimpse of the bombastic, ragged five-foot-four Harvard graduate in his own words."

In the end, however, the notebooks bolster rather than contradict the suspicions of Cummings and Mitchell. Instead of a treasure trove of anecdotes into the life and times of Greenwich Village, the books, it has been asserted, was little more than a dry, mechanical day by day account of  Gould's life, including little more than his idiosyncratic foibles, his personal toiletry and his eating habits.

A rather inglorious conclusion to the story, it would seem, to a man whose funeral was attended by NBC, CBS and all the print media.

Yet all is not lost for old Joe Gould. I heard, for example, his portrait hangs in the Minetta Tavern. And so long as ee cummings' work is admired, Gould's name will continue to make the anthologies -- albeit as a footnote -- and hang around gathering dust on college shelves. 

                Amérique Je T'Aime and it may be fun to be fooled
                but it's more fun to be little joe gould

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