Synopses & Reviews
Joseph Ferdinand Gould--better known as Joe Gould--was a member of one of the oldest families in Massachusetts and a graduate of Harvard, and his parents took it for granted that he would go on to medical school and become a surgeon and a distinguished civic leader, as many of his ancestors, including his father and grandfather, had. Instead, in 1916, in his middle twenties, he abruptly broke with his background and went to New York City and spent the next forty years living from hand to mouth in Greenwich Village as a kind of half outcast, half bohemian. He panhandled in Village hangouts, wore cast-off clothes, slept in flophouses or doorways, and often went hungry for days at a time. He said that he lived this way so that he could wander around the city at will, listening to people and writing down some of the astonishing things he heard them say. He had become obsessed with the idea that talk is history and that even offhand remarks may have eerie and prophetic historical import. He wrote in dime-store composition books, filling hundreds of them, and said that these books, when eventually joined together, would become an enormous book (a dozen times longer than the Bible, he estimated) that would be called An Oral History of Our Time. (Historians at Columbia University have given Gould credit for originating the term "oral history.")
In 1942, Joseph Mitchell, impressed by Gould's concept, wrote a profile of him for The New Yorker. Twenty-two years later, some time after Gould's death, he wrote another profile of him, and the two have been combined in Joe Gould's Secret. "When I found out Gould's secret," Mitchell said, "I was appalled, but I soon regained my respect for him, and through the years my respect has grown, though I must confess that he is still an enigma to me. Nowadays, in fact, when his name comes into my mind, it is followed instantly by another name--the name of Bartleby the Scrivener--and then I invariably recall Bartleby's haunting, horrifyingly lonely remark 'I would prefer not to.' "