Tuesday 3 March 2015

Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell

What do you read while an old sycamore tree is being reduced (by something less than a third) outside the window? What tale can keep you from staring at at the high vis young tree surgeon up among the smaller branches with two chainsaws and a Japanese knife hanging round his waist and the wind strengthening?

The tale of Little Joe Gould, that's who, bohemian, bum, down and out in thirties and forties New York, Yankee crank with a Harvard accent, the Professor, the Sea Gull, Professor Sea Gull, the Mongoose, Professor Mongoose, or the Bellevue Boy, who has been writing for many years an Oral History, already the length of eleven Bibles, in longhand, and has stowed the copy books around New York and environs, in cupboards, behind bars, under hen roosts.

Like Little Joey Block, our onetime neighbour, who felled a few trees in his day, and told a few tales. 'How I got here, now that's a fairy tale'. He wrote poetry, in quantity, and read it out at the drop of a hat.

The only sections of the Joe Gould's Oral History (of Our Times) that Joseph Mitchell gets to see are essay chapters rather than oral chapters, he is told, about Joe Gould's father, and his mother, about the eugenics of two Indian tribes, the importance of tomato ketchup, and translations of Longfellow into the language of the seagull. (Apparently 'Hiawatha' works better in seagull.)

He does not get see the oral chapters. That's because the Oral History of Our Times is enacted, not written. Little Joe Gould, in bars, flophouses and hospitals, through the agency of Joseph Mitchell, brings it into being. To each, an amanuensis. Whether or not we write our oeuvre is ours to judge.

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