Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell

According to the author’s note, Joe Gould’s Secret, “consists of two views of the same man, a lost soul named Joe Gould.”  The book is a collection of two profiles which appeared in The New Yorker.  The first, “Professor Sea Gull,” came out in 1942.  The second, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” followed twenty-two years later in 1964.  So who was Joe Gould?  Why was he important enough to warrant two large profiles in a major magazine?  The short answer is that Joe Gould was a homeless man.  He was a Greenwich Village bohemian, a fixture of clubs, taverns, diners, and parties.  What made Gould interesting to Joseph Mitchell, one of the best writers working in journalism at the time, was Gould’s work.  He was writing The Oral History of our Time.  This tome, he claimed, was several times longer than The Bible.  It was a mix of rambling essays by Gould and conversations he overheard all over the city during his many years on the streets.  Gould was a Harvard-educated son of an ancient New England family and he left his home to pursue a less orderly life in New York City.

The first section of the book, “Professor Sea Gull,” is shorter and lighter.  It’s a lively profile of an eccentric older man who claims to have deciphered the language of gulls (even translating some poetry into their language).  Gould is funny (sometimes intentionally), annoying, and most of all, surprising.  This portion of the book zips along well as you learn about Gould and his curious history and about the gigantic book he’s writing which he intends to leave partially to the Harvard Library and partially to the Smithsonian Institute.  The second section of the book, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” is longer and more fleshed out.  At this point, Joseph Mitchell had known Gould for many years having become a confidant and a regular contributor to the “Joe Gould Fund.”  Mitchell’s writing is superb.  He so vividly describes every aspect of Gould that you feel you’re sitting at the counter in a greasy diner, watching him eat ketchup.  There are portions that appeared in the first section but here they are much fuller and have new details which change a lot of your perceptions of Gould and what he’s doing.  All in all, Joe Gould’s Secret is a fantastically written story about an interesting man who otherwise would have been forgotten.

If you enjoy Joe Gould’s Secret, you can try My Ears are Bent, a collection of Mitchell’s early profiles or you can place a hold on Man in Profile, a biography of Mitchell himself by Thomas Kunkel, available soon from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

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