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3:AM Cult Hero: Joe Gould

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“It is the duty of a bohemian to make a spectacle of himself.”

“One morning in the summer of 1917, I was sitting in the sun on the back steps of [Police] Headquarters recovering from a hangover. In a secondhand bookstore, I had recently come across and looked through a little book of stories by William Carleton, the great Irish peasant writer, that was published in London in the [1880s] and had an introduction by William Butler Yeats and a sentence in Yeats’ introduction had stuck in my mind: ‘The history of a nation is not in parliaments and battlefields, but in what the people say to each other on fair days and high days, an in how they farm., and quarrel, and go on pilgrimage.’ All at once, the idea for the Oral History occurred to me: I would spend the rest of my life going about the city listening to people – eavesdropping, if necessary – and writing down whatever I heard them say that sounded revealing to me, no matter how boring or idiotic or vulgar or obscene it might sound to others. I could see the whole thing in my mind – long-winded conversations and short and snappy conversations, brilliant conversations and foolish conversations, curses, catch phrases, coarse remarks, snatches of quarrels, the mutterings of drunks and crazy people, the entreaties of beggars and bums, the propositions of prostitutes, the spiels of pitchmen and peddlers, the sermons of street preachers, shouts in the night, wild rumors, cries from the heart….I resolved that I would never again accept regular employment unless I absolutely had to or starve but would cut my wants down to the bare bones and depend on friends and well-wishers to see me through. The idea for the Oral History occurred to me around half past ten. Around a quarter to eleven, I stood up and went to a telephone and quite my job…Since that fateful morning the Oral History has been my rope and my scaffold, my bed and my board, my wife and my floozy, my wound and the salt on it, my whiskey and my aspirin, and my rock and my salvation. It is the only thing that matters a damn to me. All else is dross.”

From Joseph Mitchell’s Joe Gould’s Secret

Mentioned in an e.e. cummings poem, featured in (high-brow literary magazine of the 20s) the Dial and sitter for painter Alice Neel, it was Joseph Mitchell’s 1942 New Yorker profile that brought ‘Professor Seagull’ to the wider public. On his death the NY Times reported that the Village’s last bohemian left a work that stood at more 9,000,000 words, but, as recounted in Mitchell’s second piece on Gould in 1964 (again, for the New Yorker), the truth was that the Oral History never existed.

Further: Excerpts from Oral History / Tao Lin on Joe Gould / Revisiting Joe Gould’s Secret / ‘The Diary of a Legendary Village Bohemian Surfaces at NYU’ / Secrets & Lives, a review of the Stanley Tucci movie based on Mitchell’s book / Speaking Seagull & Recording the History of the World, on the privately printed chapbook VI by Joseph Ferdinand Gould / Joseph Mitchell’s second profile in the New Yorker

Previous Cult Heroes: Arthur Cravan / Blaise Cendrars / Patrick Hamilton / Alexander Trocchi / Terry Southern / Clarice Lispector / J.G. Ballard / Charles Bukowski / Léo Malet / Jean Cocteau / Albert Cossery / Julian Maclaren-Ross / B.S. Johnson / Friedrich Glauser / Sylvia Beach / M. Ageyev / Georges Perec / Kathy Acker / Serge Gainsbourg / Witold Gombrowicz / Félicien Marboeuf

First posted: Wednesday, August 11th, 2010.

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