4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs

Joseph Mitchell’s and Joe Gould’s Secret

Never meet your heroes

It’s still a helluva read, but...
It’s still a helluva read, but...

I started writing for the Reader 25 years ago; Joseph Mitchell is one of the big reasons why I wanted to do so. The summer before my senior year of college, I visited Thidwick’s Books in Ithaca, New York and happened upon a used copy of Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Mitchell’s long, beguiling, quote-laden, and detail-rich profiles for The New Yorker magazine. The first was a portrait of McSorley’s Saloon from 1940; the last, Mitchell’s second profile of a New York eccentric named Joe Gould, dated 1964. In the author’s note at the outset, dated 1992, Mitchell wrote, “Joe Gould’s Secret is factual.” He wrote the same of his first Gould profile, Professor Sea Gull, written in 1942.

Joe Gould said otherwise; he wrote a friend that Sea Gull was “about ten per cent accurate.” Jill Lepore said otherwise, too. Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and a prolific author. In 2015, she published her own lengthy profile of Gould in The New Yorker, one that paid more attention to the man’s mental illness: his obsession with race (he stalked a black sculptress in the name of love and seethed against Jews), his sexual misbehavior, his institutionalization and likely eventual lobotomy. She wrote that while Gould was in the asylum, he was visited by two Harvard Crimson writers. “They reported, ‘One of these days, someone is going to write an article on Joseph Ferdinand Gould ’11 for the Reader’s Digest. It will be entitled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Met,” and it will present Joe Gould as an unusual but lovable old man. Joe Gould is not a lovable old man.’” They were right about the last bit, but they got the title and the publication wrong.

Joe Gould’s Secret is a defense of invention,” Lepore wrote, either oblivious or uncaring as to the way my journalistic guts were spilling all over the floor. “Mitchell took something that wasn’t beautiful, the sorry fate of a broken man, and made it beautiful — a fable about art. Joe Gould’s Secret is the best story many people have ever read. Its truth is, in a Keatsian sense, its beauty; it’s beauty, truth.” Lovely and accurate, except there’s that stubborn word from the author in 1992: factual. The word that won me over to this whole doomed and glorious weekly newspaper business. I believed Mitchell had found his man and shown him whole. More fool me.

Mitchell’s fable about art concerns Gould’s Oral History, an attempt to paint a picture of the times by recording the way people talked in those times —much like Mitchell himself. Gould said, “In time to come, people may read Gould’s Oral History to see what went wrong with us, the way we read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall to see what went wrong with the Romans.” Mitchell wrote that the History never existed; later, he found out that it did. He made no correction. He published nothing further, except maybe for that fateful, painful Author’s Note.

Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all

Previous article

Acoustic entertainment and catered meals

Cathyrn Beeks, The Lyrical Groove, Ed Kornhauser, Tori Roze, Black Market III
Next Article

Internet love, the Mitchells' 30-year marriage, mom to an unusual child

Men imagine selves as women, lovers on love, teenage romance
It’s still a helluva read, but...
It’s still a helluva read, but...

I started writing for the Reader 25 years ago; Joseph Mitchell is one of the big reasons why I wanted to do so. The summer before my senior year of college, I visited Thidwick’s Books in Ithaca, New York and happened upon a used copy of Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Mitchell’s long, beguiling, quote-laden, and detail-rich profiles for The New Yorker magazine. The first was a portrait of McSorley’s Saloon from 1940; the last, Mitchell’s second profile of a New York eccentric named Joe Gould, dated 1964. In the author’s note at the outset, dated 1992, Mitchell wrote, “Joe Gould’s Secret is factual.” He wrote the same of his first Gould profile, Professor Sea Gull, written in 1942.

Joe Gould said otherwise; he wrote a friend that Sea Gull was “about ten per cent accurate.” Jill Lepore said otherwise, too. Lepore is a professor of history at Harvard and a prolific author. In 2015, she published her own lengthy profile of Gould in The New Yorker, one that paid more attention to the man’s mental illness: his obsession with race (he stalked a black sculptress in the name of love and seethed against Jews), his sexual misbehavior, his institutionalization and likely eventual lobotomy. She wrote that while Gould was in the asylum, he was visited by two Harvard Crimson writers. “They reported, ‘One of these days, someone is going to write an article on Joseph Ferdinand Gould ’11 for the Reader’s Digest. It will be entitled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Met,” and it will present Joe Gould as an unusual but lovable old man. Joe Gould is not a lovable old man.’” They were right about the last bit, but they got the title and the publication wrong.

Joe Gould’s Secret is a defense of invention,” Lepore wrote, either oblivious or uncaring as to the way my journalistic guts were spilling all over the floor. “Mitchell took something that wasn’t beautiful, the sorry fate of a broken man, and made it beautiful — a fable about art. Joe Gould’s Secret is the best story many people have ever read. Its truth is, in a Keatsian sense, its beauty; it’s beauty, truth.” Lovely and accurate, except there’s that stubborn word from the author in 1992: factual. The word that won me over to this whole doomed and glorious weekly newspaper business. I believed Mitchell had found his man and shown him whole. More fool me.

Mitchell’s fable about art concerns Gould’s Oral History, an attempt to paint a picture of the times by recording the way people talked in those times —much like Mitchell himself. Gould said, “In time to come, people may read Gould’s Oral History to see what went wrong with us, the way we read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall to see what went wrong with the Romans.” Mitchell wrote that the History never existed; later, he found out that it did. He made no correction. He published nothing further, except maybe for that fateful, painful Author’s Note.

Sponsored
Here's something you might be interested in.
Submit a free classified
or view all
Previous article

Acoustic entertainment and catered meals

Cathyrn Beeks, The Lyrical Groove, Ed Kornhauser, Tori Roze, Black Market III
Next Article

McDonald’s sauce gun trivia

At what point does quirky hipster knowledge become so obscure its essentially useless?
Comments
4

I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful piece. I too have struggled with how to reconcile Mitchell's claim that his profiles are accurate depictions of real people with his use of composites and extended quotations that are manifestly too long for him to have written down verbatim. But I have to say that I came away from Lepore's book unconvinced that "Joe Gould's Secret" is inaccurate: she did not, I think, show that Gould's oral history actually existed (or that more of it existed than Mitchell noted), just that more of it might have existed and that Mitchell gave up looking for it (something that Mitchell himself acknowledges in his second profile). It's because of this that I wonder whether it's really a fair characterization of the situation to say, as you do, that "Mitchell wrote that the History never existed; later, he found out that it did. He made no correction." But perhaps there's more to the story that I don't know about: did someone else definitively show that the oral history actually existed?

Oct. 15, 2020

Mitchell ends "Joe Gould's Secret" by recounting a conversation in which he continuous to play the role he had been playing ever since "the afternoon I discovered that the Oral History did not exist." Lepore writes that after the story's publication, a woman named Florence Lowe sent him one of Gould's notebooks of oral history, noting that she would be happy to send more: "I have trunks full!" Lepore writes that Mitchell did not ask for more, and that when other people wrote him about the History, he would reply, "“I wish I had had this information when I wrote the second Profile, and if I ever write another article about Joe Gould, which I may do, I’d like very much to have a talk with you.” And of course, he never wrote another article about Joe Gould, or about anything else. Lord knows I don't want to be unfair to MItchell, but it seems to me that Lepore made her case. Thanks for reading, and for the kind word.

Oct. 15, 2020

Thanks for this! I think when I read that part of Lepore the first time, I assumed that what was in the trunks was just more of Gould's rewritings of the same few essays over and over again. But you're right: Lepore is at pains to point out that the one notebook Mitchell received from Lowe did contain some actual oral history. I'm going to have to reread the Lepore, more charitably this time. If you haven't read Thomas Kunkel's biography of Mitchell, you should--it's really a delight. And he also discusses the question of the accuracy of Mitchell's profiles. Thanks again!

Oct. 15, 2020

I haven't read the Kunkel, but I will. Thanks for the suggestion.

Oct. 18, 2020

Sign in to comment

Sign in

Art Reviews — W.S. Di Piero's eye on exhibits Ask a Hipster — Advice you didn't know you needed Best Buys — San Diego shopping Big Screen — Movie commentary Blurt — Music's inside track Booze News — San Diego spirits City Lights — News and politics Classical Music — Immortal beauty Classifieds — Free and easy Cover Stories — Front-page features Excerpts — Literary and spiritual excerpts Famous Former Neighbors — Next-door celebs Feast! — Food & drink reviews Feature Stories — Local news & stories From the Archives — Spotlight on the past Golden Dreams — Talk of the town Here's the Deal — Chad Deal's watering holes Just Announced — The scoop on shows Letters — Our inbox [email protected] — Local movie buffs share favorites Movie Reviews — Our critics' picks and pans Musician Interviews — Up close with local artists Neighborhood News from Stringers — Hyperlocal news News Ticker — News & politics Obermeyer — San Diego politics illustrated Of Note — Concert picks Out & About — What's Happening Overheard in San Diego — Eavesdropping illustrated Poetry — The old and the new Pour Over — Grab a cup Reader Travel — Travel section built by travelers Reading — The hunt for intellectuals Roam-O-Rama — SoCal's best hiking/biking trails San Diego Beer — Inside San Diego suds SD on the QT — Almost factual news Set 'em Up Joe — Bartenders' drink recipes Sheep and Goats — Places of worship Special Issues — The best of Sports — Athletics without gush Street Style — San Diego streets have style Suit Up — Fashion tips for dudes Theater Reviews — Local productions Theater antireviews — Narrow your search Tin Fork — Silver spoon alternative Under the Radar — Matt Potter's undercover work Unforgettable — Long-ago San Diego Unreal Estate — San Diego's priciest pads Waterfront — All things ocean Your Week — Daily event picks
4S Ranch Allied Gardens Alpine Baja Balboa Park Bankers Hill Barrio Logan Bay Ho Bay Park Black Mountain Ranch Blossom Valley Bonita Bonsall Borrego Springs Boulevard Campo Cardiff-by-the-Sea Carlsbad Carmel Mountain Carmel Valley Chollas View Chula Vista City College City Heights Clairemont College Area Coronado CSU San Marcos Cuyamaca College Del Cerro Del Mar Descanso Downtown San Diego Eastlake East Village El Cajon Emerald Hills Encanto Encinitas Escondido Fallbrook Fletcher Hills Golden Hill Grant Hill Grantville Grossmont College Guatay Harbor Island Hillcrest Imperial Beach Imperial Valley Jacumba Jamacha-Lomita Jamul Julian Kearny Mesa Kensington La Jolla Lakeside La Mesa Lemon Grove Leucadia Liberty Station Lincoln Acres Lincoln Park Linda Vista Little Italy Logan Heights Mesa College Midway District MiraCosta College Miramar Miramar College Mira Mesa Mission Beach Mission Hills Mission Valley Mountain View Mount Hope Mount Laguna National City Nestor Normal Heights North Park Oak Park Ocean Beach Oceanside Old Town Otay Mesa Pacific Beach Pala Palomar College Palomar Mountain Paradise Hills Pauma Valley Pine Valley Point Loma Point Loma Nazarene Potrero Poway Rainbow Ramona Rancho Bernardo Rancho Penasquitos Rancho San Diego Rancho Santa Fe Rolando San Carlos San Marcos San Onofre Santa Ysabel Santee San Ysidro Scripps Ranch SDSU Serra Mesa Shelltown Shelter Island Sherman Heights Skyline Solana Beach Sorrento Valley Southcrest South Park Southwestern College Spring Valley Stockton Talmadge Temecula Tierrasanta Tijuana UCSD University City University Heights USD Valencia Park Valley Center Vista Warner Springs
Close