The Crazy Guy Who Invented History
Joseph Gould and the idea of oral history
Ideas have histories. All of history is fundamentally a history of ideas. Sometimes the ideas come from strange places at the margins of mental health.
It is February 27, 1916. Far away from Verdun, where a series of five attempted assaults to retake Fort Douaumont from the Germans fail at great cost in French life — far away from the English Channel, where the civilian ocean liner SS Maloja strikes a sea mine laid by a u-boat, the crew is unable to get the lifeboats into the water, and the ship sinks with 155 passengers onboard — far, far away from Persia, where the Russian Army of the Caucasus ruthlessly stamps out an uprising against foreign domination — far from the Albanian port city of Durrës, where Austro-Hungarian troops arrive today in the wake of the allied evacuation of the Serbs — a crazy man in North Dakota writes a letter to a legend.
Addressed to African American sociologist and civil rights leader William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois and preserved at the University of Massachusetts, it is ostensibly a cordial thank-you note for joining in a charitable cause.
“Miss Mary W. Ovington has written me that you have given your consent to the use of your name as one of the Prominent Endorsers of the Friends of Albanian Independence,” he writes, “and I presume that she has informed you of the objects of that organisation and given you the names of some of the other Prominent Endorsers.”
[…] It seems to me that moral insight is given to such a committee by those who represent groups that are unfairly treated in this country, and I hope to secure some Chinese and Japanese.
Certain of the Indian’s problems are the same as those which beset the Negro, especially that of exploitation and for that reason it seems to me that cooperation in some lines might be secured between the NAACP and the Society of American Indians. There would be certain difficulties in the way as the Indian on account of historical reasons still has a certain amount of prejudice against the Negro. I have recently joined the Society of American Indians, and will will do all that is in my power to bring about such a cooperation of forces. Certain states forbid the marriage of Indians and whites, and any at that the NAACP might give in fighting such a prejudice would help the objects of the NAACP. I am going to send The Crisis a letter on this topic, and a little later will send in an article on it.
Are you a member of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and history? It seems to me that this new organization ought to do a great deal of good.
Sincerely yours, Joseph F. Gould
Albania was in fact a disaster zone at the time and remained a disaster for a long time. Torn apart by the Balkan Wars, then Serbian ethnic cleansing in border areas, and then the tidal forces of global conflict, the barely-independent state was a geographic magnet for trouble in 1916. Tribal zone turned paranoid communist hermit-state turned capitalist-naive catastrophe, the state of Albania has become a peaceful place in the 21st Century.
While the suffering of Albanians was real and lasting, it is not clear that Gould ever forwarded any of the funds he collected to the actual benefit of Albanians. He may have, for he held informed opinions about Albanian independence. However, Gould’s entire career as a writer was characterized by fundraising for an endless series of causes, often in the street, frequently while homeless. Letter-writing for those causes was just one way he reached his hand out for support. Long before the invention of GoFundMe and PayPal, social justice crusaders busked for worthy causes by mail. On paper, Gould could be creative without coming across as crazed, or turn his crazy into creativity.
Dated March 10th, DuBois’s reply to Gould’s letter is noncommittal:
My dear Sir:
I am glad to join the Friends of Albanian Independence.
I was for a while a member of the Society of American Indians and sympathise with its objects.
Very sincerely yours…
Polite, but terse. What explains this response?
Perhaps the co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had heard through the grapevine that Gould was not what he often claimed to be, but that is unlikely.
Gould failed out of Harvard, but claimed to be a graduate of the class of 1911 as he applied for work. During 1916, Gould was in North Dakota recording the biometrics and skin tone of Native Americans for the Eugenics Record Office, which was trying to sort out a series of lawsuits related to ‘purity of blood’ and the ownership of reservation land at the time. His gift of gab proved an asset for interviewing and recording the stories of people with no reason to trust him. However, Gould worked for a program designed to assess racial anxieties over tribal affiliation, which eugenicists worried would let the children of former slaves ‘become white’ in the US Census. The ERO became controversial, shutting down at the eve of the Second World War, but in 1916 the idea of eugenics was pervasive in fashionable progressive politics. So was anti-Semitism, and Gould was an unrepentant anti-Semite in the genteel 19th Century American style, too.
Yet there is no way DuBois could have known all this, or any part of it. Maybe DuBois sensed that he was communicating with one of the most prolific dilettantes of the 20th Century. This seems unlikely, however. DuBois was a busy man. He did not have time to investigate his correspondent. He could not know that he was communicating with a history-maker, or he might have been more verbose.
The times were in transition. Anticipating the internet, wire services allowed newspapers to print breaking news from around the world on the same day it happened, while popular music was just beginning, and broadcast radio was still around the corner. America had always been the land of the fringe entrepreneur, the hustling sales pitch, and now technological mass media was enabling bullshit artists and empowering confidence men as never before.
Mail service was still a relatively new idea, too, and Gould was a constant letter-writer, communicating with all sorts of people on a daily basis. It is how he formed strong connections with the literary likes of poets William Carlos Williams, Millen Brand, Ezra Pound, and e.e. cummings, ending up the subject of two of the latter’s verses. It is how Gould managed to get his columns printed in publications like The Nation and The New Republic and The Crisis.
“Snail mail” is also how he spent decades harassing a black Harlem sculpture artist named Augusta Savage, in whom he took a level of unreturned romantic interest that would qualify as “stalking” today.
Gould pulled himself together during the fall of 1916, finished his degree, and moved to New York City, the emerging world-capital. London had been the center of world finance, but the wartime liquification of their accumulated assets shifted the center of global economic gravity to Manhattan. Arriving in the midst of this flush period, Gould announced himself to be the most brilliant historian of the century, and began writing a ‘history of the world,’ a literary endurance feat meant to last the ages.
Calling it the Oral History, or Meo Tempore, Gould wrote his endless epic in cheap composition books, which soon began to pile up, and referred to it in at least hundreds, probably thousands of letters. “Chapters” were published in magazines. He described the accumulated work as a seven-foot stack of notebooks, estimated at nine million words — ten times the length of the bible — but no one else had ever actually seen it all in one place. Often homeless, often institutionalized, often alcoholic, there are many stretches of Gould’s life where it would have been difficult to keep his mighty work safe and whole.
Even with a century’s hindsight, it is hard to know just what was going wrong with Gould at the time he wrote to DuBois. His family had a history of borderline behavior; sexually rapacious, he may have suffered from syphilis; or he may have been autistic, according to various speculations. Diagnosis at this distance is impossible. What we do know for sure, and what impresses the historian most, is the sheer volume of his constant writing.
Gould suffered from hypergraphia, an acute need to keep scribbling. Always revising his work, pen always in hand, Gould encouraged people to believe that he was making notes for his Oral History when he was merely scratching out thoughts and anecdotes at near-random. Whenever he was not writing, Gould begged for small change in the name of charities he claimed to represent, or entertained children in the street by squawking like a seagull — a tic, compared by some to Tourette syndrome, that he had exhibited since childhood.
Though not without talent, Gould’s magnum opus never saw the light of day as a completed work. In 1942, New Yorker writer James Mitchell became fascinated with the Oral History and its author, calling it “a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay” that “may well be the lengthiest unpublished work in existence.” Mitchell’s profile, “Professor Sea Gull,” appeared the next year. But by that point, Mitchell was beginning to have serious doubts that the Oral History was real. Mitchell kept these thoughts to himself until after Gould’s death in 1957; they form the backbone of Joe Gould’s Secret, a book Mitchell published in 1964. It remains a classic of the literary nonfiction genre.
More a legend as subject than author in his chosen realm of literature, Gould’s ambitions as a historian would follow a similar pattern.
Upon America’s entry into the Great War during 1917, Gould tried to enlist in the Army three times, rejected each time as unfit. Meanwhile, the conflict was irrevocably altering the literary landscape. The Victorian age was waning, and modernism, a new style characterized by personal experiences made political, was deeply affecting many writers, including Gould’s friend Ezra Pound. Disillusioned by the useless waste and horrors of the First World War as well as the loss of friends in battle, Pound gravitated towards the fascist futurist art movement, moved to Italy, and embarked on his own unfinished epic series of poems, The Cantos. An admirer of Mussolini, Pound was arrested by the American occupation during the Second World War, imprisoned in an open-air cage, and institutionalized in the United States — all while maintaining a regular correspondence with Gould.
Although only eleven notebooks filled with nonsensical ramblings from the years 1943 to 1947 were ever recovered, Gould had invented social history, or as he called it, “the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitudes.” In fact, Columbia University Professor Alan Nevins coined the term ‘oral history’ after meeting Gould in 1948.
Having helped bridge the gap between bohemians and beatniks, the original oral historian spent his final years in a New York state mental hospital, where he is believed to have undergone a ‘therapeutic’ lobotomy. It was an inglorious end to an unfulfilled life.
Yet Gould left a curious legacy. Nevins began with the elite, recording their experiences and transcribing them to produce primary sources for historians. The idea caught on in academic historical studies. By the end of the 1960s, one hundred American colleges offered oral history courses, and the focus of their efforts had shifted to heretofore-untapped reservoirs of experience. Union workers, miners, minorities, women, gays and lesbians, disappearing tribes, veterans, farmers, and countless other cohorts have been studied by oral historians, often in great depth, adding their voices to the library of historical record.
A creature of the margins who squiggled endless notes in his margins, Joseph Gould had always intended to make history and alter the global literary consciousness at the same time. He succeeded, just not in person.
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