Poet, Bum and Fool




Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell (Vintage)

Some characters are a writer's once-in-a-lifetime gift. In Joseph Mitchell's case, his came in the bedraggled guise of Joe Gould, a Harvard-educated Bowery bum and panhandler. At times a likeable rogue, at others a Grade A pain in the ass, Gould was served well by the generous attention that Mitchell afforded him. Mitchell wrote honestly, but never unkindly, about Gould's life and misadventures in a feature for The New Yorker in December 1942. This turned Gould into more of a minor celebrity than even he usually believed himself to be.

Joe Gould's Secret is a small, urbane gem of a book. (It was published by Vintage in 1999 and still available as a used book on Amazon.) It is in fact two New Yorker features combined, the second written in the early '60s, several years after Gould's death in 1957.

The unraveling saga tells the reader as much of Mitchell's benign nature as it does about his eccentric, and frankly exasperating, subject. Gould claimed, with the justification of experience, to be the victim of "the three H's" -- homelessness, hunger, and hangovers.

The book amounts to a wonderful act of kindness to someone who would have been a long forgotten low-life, were it not for Mitchell's understated and effortless prose. For years Gould had been telling those who wished to hear, and those who didn't, that he was embarked upon the writing of his magnum opus, a project he'd christened the Oral History (he may have invented the term), a book longer than the Bible, whose manuscript was taller than Gould himself. He stored his numerous notebooks in the closets of long-suffering friends, but the bulk of them were kept in a hen house in upstate New York.

The history was a collage, America in the authentic overheard conversations of strangers and stragglers, anyone who became part of Gould's orbit. He maintained that it would cement his reputation as one of the greatest-ever writers, but this would be a posthumous accolade.

In writing about him, Mitchell bequeathed upon Gould a certain air of respectability, which he turned to his canny advantage. A small, bedraggled creature with a white scraggly beard and a battered hat, Gould had come to New York in 1916. After a half-hearted stab at journalism, he sank to the depths of poverty, where he remained for the rest of his days.

He knew e e cummings and had work published by Ezra Pound, but this altered little. It seems that he aimed low in life and missed. Gould claimed to be able to understand the language of seagulls. He would often give impromptu performances of this unique talent, at parties, in diners, or in the street, to equal amounts of bewilderment and alarm.

He was known in the Bowery as Professor Seagull, the title of Mitchell's initial profile. He was tolerated, pitied, or avoided, depending on the mood he found, or left, those who contributed coins to top up Gould's meager existence, his self-titled benevolent fund. He was a kind of talisman, a Bohemian touchstone, privy to some of the swankiest parties.

Mitchell, who died in 1996, entwined his own legacy to this unfortunate figure, who reads at times as more of a Dickensian fiction than a real person. The book was turned into a film some years ago. Gould was remembered not for his writing, but for being himself. Not perhaps what he would have liked, but what it seems he deserved. In reading about him we come to realize that we are all a composite of flaws.

This is a small book about a small man who told tall tales. By the end of it we know Joe Gould's secret, but we are also left all too aware of the grubby nature of our own.

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