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.