HOLIDAYS 1998 | VOL. 2, NO. 7

Joseph Mitchell's "Joe Gould's Secret"


LAST | Iain Pears' "An Instance of the Fingerpost"



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Joe Goulds Secret

__ Joe Gould's Secret
_________ Joseph Mitchell


by Joseph Mitchell

USA: Modern Library, 1996, ISBN 0679601848, price $13.50, through $9.45.

UK: Jonathan Cape, 1997, ISBN 0-224-05107-5, price 9.99

GRAHAM BRACK | This slim but elegant volume is composed of two articles first published in "The New Yorker". The earlier article, dating from 1942, appears first, and gives us a little over thirty pages of description of the celebrated eccentric Joseph Ferdinand Gould: bohemian, Harvard graduate, sea gull impersonator and the author of the "Oral History Of Our Times" which, he claimed, was eleven times as long as the Bible.

Gould lived on the streets, afraid of possessions and other ties, well-read, and although shockingly abusive to others on occasion, nonetheless capable of penetrating and insightful criticism. We have all met the type, the drinker who wants to tell us his story and has told it so often that he can tell it remarkably well, if we allow it. Gould differed in having a story to tell, and in being competent to tell it even when sober (more or less).

Mitchell's prose reminds us that there was a time in America when a newspaperman could write. Not all of them, of course, and not all the time, but Mitchell's words buzz along purposefully. He is at home in Greenwich Village, and can show us the parts away from the beaten track. He knows where he is likely to find Gould, and he can track the web of acquaintances and half-friends to pin down the truth behind the tale he is told. And if there is a more teasing sound to a non-New Yorker than "Eli Greifer's Last Outpost of Bohemia Tea Shoppe", I cannot think of it.

He returned to his subject in 1964, after Gould's death. By then he had penetrated Gould's secret, about which I shall say nothing, except that if you guess it your enjoyment of the book is not impaired. Mitchell retells the story he wrote in 1942, but expanded to roughly twice its size, then appends details of the reception his original piece had, and continues the story. Gould's mammoth work, contained in an immense number of school-type composition books, was still growing, and Mitchell pulled strings to get him an introduction to publishers. Gould failed to show, or declined to publish while he still lived. This reaction - sabotaging the culmination of your own life's work - struck Mitchell as so bizarre that he was moved to plumb Gould's secret. His discovery unsettled the relationship, though it slowly recovered, but eventually Gould drifted out of Mitchell's life, and the last part of the book details with Gould's eventual fate.

Since the book is small enough to be read in a couple of evenings, I cannot say that it will be a great work of literature, but as reportage, it grips. I can imagine that it will be picked off my shelves a few more times over the years and re-read, and what author can ask more than that?

GRAHAM BRACK , a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.

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