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Obsession and Isolation: The Oral History's Tragedy of Professor Seagull

"Joe's Gould's Teeth" (Jill Lepore, 2016) is a story about Joseph Ferdinand Gould (1889 – 1957), also known as Professor Seagull, an eccentric American man who aspired to write the greatest literary work of his time, “The Oral History of Our Time: MEO TEMPORE”. At first glance, it may seem like a story of privilege. Born in 1889 in Boston, Massachusetts, into a family with a medical tradition in which both his father and grandfather worked at Harvard Medical School, Joe undoubtedly had privileged access to education and higher learning. However, he was not in a position to attain it.

Joe Gould had the idea of recording people’s oral stories. Although the title and concepts of this novel changed throughout his life, it would eventually be divided geographically and focus on the lives, traditions, and folklore of the autochthones communities of the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia. The fascination with oral history and folklore, primarily viewed through the lens of white men, aligned with the intellectual trends of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Notable figures like William Drake Westervelt wrote "Legends of Maui" based on Hawaiian traditions. Luís da Câmara Cascudo meticulously documented oral Brazilian folktales in “Contos Populares do Brasil,” while Adolfo Coelho in Portugal became known for his work “Contos Tradicionais do Povo Português". These and other scholars were drawn to anthropology, playing influential roles in shaping and unifying emerging national concepts. Perhaps Joe Gould wanted to join their ranks and leave a lasting impression on the pages of American history.

As a white man, Joe Gould also had access to the intellectual, literary, and even eugenic communities in North America. It remains uncertain, however, how many of these relationships were real and how many were the product of his imagination. Among the alleged friendships, we can almost certainly identify connections with writers Joseph Mitchell and John Dos Passos, poet and editor of "The Best American Short Stories" - Edward J. O'Brien, sculptor Gaston Lachaise, poet Ezra Pound, and Charles B. Davenport, leader of the American eugenics movement. Augusta Savage, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, distanced herself from Gould, while W. E. B. Du Bois never responded to his letter.

With the support of Davenport's Eugenics Record Office, Gould conducted body measurements on Mandan Indians in North Dakota, even using a child's toy made by Milton Bradley. Access to Native American Reservations was undoubtedly a privilege reserved for the few. However, his fascination with oral traditions went beyond anthropological research, as he reported meeting numerous people during his travels to his family town in Canada.

This could have been a promising start to a career for someone who seemed to have all doors open. But that was not the case for Joe Gould. Behind the facade of superficial privilege lived a man ensnared by mental illness, marginalized by society, and driven into solitude, all the while harboring an unshakable obsession with his craft of writing. His tireless quest to record the oral narratives of the world culminated in an entry in a hospital record, likely identified as Case No. 231 at Pilgrim State Hospital Islip - known as the largest mental hospital in the world. There he was probably subjected to electroshock therapy, lobotomy and experimental pharmacological treatment. He died in loneliness and isolation.

Why is it worth paying attention to the figure of Joe Gould? His story is that of a man consumed by an unyielding curiosity about the world - a world that seemed to reject him professionally, academically, socially, and even within his own family. Privileges were granted to him briefly, only to be snatched away later.

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