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Last Word

What writer Joseph Mitchell's tale can teach us as we face lonely weeks ahead

The isolated locked-down battle, from one who’s been there

29 March 2020 - 00:00 By and darrel bristow-bovey
Joe Gould, written about by the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell.
Joe Gould, written about by the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell.
Image: Getty Images

I apologise for this column. I know that the last thing on everyone's mind as SA enters a 21-day lockdown is American author Joe Gould, but Gould fascinates me, and so does fellow US writer Joseph Mitchell.

Sometimes I think I am Gould, sometime I'm more Mitchell. Maybe there's a little of Joe and Joseph in all of us.

Mitchell was a legendary staff writer for the New Yorker for 58 years. Janet Malcolm describes the awe with which new writers came and peered at his closed office door, listening to the sounds of a typewriter issuing from within, lingering near the elevator, hoping for a glimpse of him.

Mitchell's beat was creative non-fiction. He walked the crowded streets of downtown Manhattan, haunting the docks and Fulton fish market, not looking for stories as much as he was looking for people - people were stories, he figured.

He wrote about Mazie, who took tickets at the Old Venice theatre; he wrote about Sloppy Louie, who ran a restaurant in the fish market; he wrote about 32 waterfront rats who arrived on a ship from Casablanca. He wrote beautifully, seemingly effortlessly, with elegance and humanity. And in 1942 he wrote about Gould.

Gould was a Greenwich Village character. He had a phenomenal memory and claimed to be the world's leading authority on the behaviour and language of seagulls. He claimed to have translated Longfellow into seagull, and gave recitations at cocktail parties, accompanied by a shirtless seagull dance. He often wore a shapeless slouch hat that his friend the poet ee cummings had given him.

Gould was born to a wealthy family but since coming to New York he had become an alcoholic and slept in flophouses and doorways. Each night he had a regular circuit of establishments he visited to cadge money for the Joe Gould Fund for Purchasing Alcohol. He wrote poetry and essays, but whenever he was offered employment he refused, for fear it would impinge on his grand project - The Oral History of Our Times.

Gould loved people. He liked to touch them, talk to them, listen to them. He believed the real history of the world was not to be found in the doings of the powerful but in the thoughts and experiences of regular people, working people, weirdos and walkers and artists and whores. For 30 years he'd been overhearing conversations and transcribing them in exercise books, which he stashed away for safekeeping.

"I would like to widen the sphere of history," Gould said, "as Walt Whitman did that of poetry."

By the time Mitchell wrote about him in 1942, his manuscript was an estimated 9-million words long, the longest unpublished manuscript in the world.

After Mitchell's profile a number of publishers tried to publish the Oral History, but nothing came of them. An anonymous benefactor sponsored Gould's life and writing, but his mental health declined and his behaviour became more erratic. He and Mitchell continued a vexed relationship until Gould's death in 1957, when the manuscript was an estimated 20-million words long.

In 1964 Mitchell wrote about him again, a long feature - expanded into a book in 1965 - called Joe Gould's Secret, describing his own efforts to track down the missing manuscript. He concluded sadly that Gould never wrote a manuscript, that it was all talk.

He concluded sadly that Gould never wrote a manuscript, that it was all talk

He concluded that Gould could write small pieces and poems, but when it came to the great idea, the magnum opus, he was too afraid and hid from it in drinking and talking. (For what it's worth, the splendid US historian Jill Lepore wrote a book in 2016 titled Joe Gould's Teeth, in which she concludes that he did write it after all.)

Mitchell wasn't critical of Gould for deceiving him. Mitchell understood human frailty and failure. He confessed in his piece that he himself had been trying to write a book. It would be an ambitious venture, a great novel of New York. But he had failed, and then his nerve had failed, and the failure had broken him.

After Joe Gould's Secret in 1964, Mitchell never published another word. So respected and beloved was he that he kept his staff job for another 32 years. Each day he came to work in suit and tie, went into his office, closed the door, and began typing.

Everyone - colleagues, readers, successive editors - pulled for Mitchell to beat the block, to mend the break, to win the long lonely locked-down battle with himself in that tiny office. Each day he emerged, straightened his tie, and left the building with no pages to submit. He died in 1996, still on the job.

We're all going to face our own lonely battles in the weeks and maybe months to come. For some of us it will be all our lives. Some of us will triumph but more of us won't. Let's be kind to each other, mostly to ourselves. Let's forgive. Let's let each other be human beings.


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