Joseph Ferdinand Gould (12 September 1889 – 18 August 1957) was an American eccentric, also known as Professor Seagull. Often homeless, he claimed to be the author of the longest book ever written, an Oral History of the Contemporary World (also known as Oral History of Our Time or Meo Tempore). He inspired the book Joe Gould's Secret (1965) and its film adaptation (2000), as well as being a character in the 2009 computer game The Blackwell Convergence.
Gould was born in a small suburb outside Boston in 1889. Jill Lepore speculates that he had hypergraphia. In his room at his parents’ house, in Norwood, Massachusetts, Gould had written all over the walls and all over the floor. He exhibited what are today understood as symptoms of autism and did poorly in school. He attended Harvard because his family wanted him to become a physician; both his grandfather, who taught at Harvard Medical School, and his father, also a doctor, had gone to Harvard. During his senior year, he had a breakdown and was kicked out.
Two months after his departure from Harvard, he embarked on a five-hundred-mile walking trip to Canada, exploring its landscape, and then came back to Boston. He applied for readmission to Harvard and was rejected. In 1915, he did field work for the Eugenics Record Office in Spring Harbor. He then went to North Dakota to study the Chippewa and Mandan cultures. He gained respect for their cultures and he also learned how to ride horses, dance, and sing. Gould wrote again to Harvard, asking to be allowed to make up his outstanding credits by taking the examination in a class taught by the anthropologist Earnest Hooton. Gould passed, got his degree, and in 1916 he moved to New York. At some point he entered Manhattan State Hospital for the Insane although Gould never acknowledged having been institutionalized.
After his release, Malcolm Cowley hired him as a regular reviewer for The New Republic and Gould became known to local modernist artists and writers. In 1942, Horace Gregory told Joseph Mitchell that in 1930, after an “old maid” had Gould arrested for sexually assaulting her, he and Edmund Wilson signed statements attesting to Gould’s sanity in order to keep him out of an asylum. e. e. cummings also testified and Gould was released. As his illness worsened, he lost his reviewing job. His artistic friends wrote stories and harangued editors about him to try to help him, but Gould's condition worsened and he went in and out of psychiatric hospitals for many years. Jill Lepore speculates that he may have undergone a lobotomy in 1949.
Gould collapsed on the street in 1952, eventually ending up in Pilgrim State Hospital on Long Island where he died in 1957, aged 68. Time ran an obituary for him: "“Gould had no known relatives but many friends, including Poet E. E. Cummings, Artist Don Freeman, Writers Malcolm Cowley and William Saroyan." None attended his funeral.
An Oral History of Our Time
In 1917, Gould worked as a reporter for the New York Evening Mail. During his time at the newspaper, he had his epiphany for the longest book ever written. He would title this book An Oral History of Our Time. The book was supposedly based on a word for word account of people's lives, which Gould had listened to. Gould stood about five feet four inches and weighed no more than 100 pounds, but he said that he hoped his work would make a larger impression. Gould talked about the manuscript frequently and Mitchell in 1942 suggested that "It may well be the lengthiest unpublished work in existence." Edward J. O’Brien, the editor of Best American Short Stories and a Harvard classmate of Gould's, testified that, "Mr. Ezra Pound and I once saw a fragment of it running to perhaps 40,000 words," and deemed it to have “considerable psychological and historical importance.” Pound said: "Mr. Joe Gould’s prose style is uneven." "My history is uneven," Gould admitted. "It should be. It is an encyclopedia."
In 1923 Malcolm Cowley and Slater Brown published “Chapter CCCLXVIII of Joseph Gould’s History of the Contemporary World” in Broom: An International Magazine of the Arts. The poet Marianne Moore, as editor of in The Dial, published two chapters of An Oral History of Our Time and solicited further work before The Dial folded in 1929.
In 1964 Mitchell published the second of two profiles of Gould for The New Yorker, later collected in the 1965 book Joe Gould's Secret. Mitchell asserted that the Oral History never existed. Upon the publication of Mitchell's "Joe Gould’s Secret," in September, 1964, people began to write to him and send him notebook copies of the Oral History. "I wish I had had this information when I wrote the second Profile," Mitchell told people who wrote to him, "and if I ever write another article about Joe Gould, which I may do, I’d like very much to have a talk with you."
Representations and legacy
One of Gould's pastimes was going to beatnik poetry readings in New York, where he recited absurd poems he made up to mock the serious poetry of other participants. One of his poems was read in a 1958 episode of Peter Gunn, and a distillation of the same poem was included in an episode of Happy Days featuring beatniks.
William Saroyan wrote a short story about Gould in his 1971 book, Letters from 74 rue Taitbout or Don't Go But If You Must Say Hello To Everybody.
Ian Holm portrayed Gould in the 2000 film Joe Gould's Secret.
Gould is mentioned in several poems by E. E. Cummings.
In the "Annals of Annals" section of the July 27, 2015 issue of the New Yorker magazine, writer Jill Lepore discusses the legendary accounts and mysteries surrounding Joe Gould in her article, Joe Gould's Teeth. In a 2016 book of the same title, Lepore contradicted Mitchell's claim that Gould's manuscript never existed, providing circumstantial evidence to support her argument.
He is referenced in Blackwell, an adventure game series developed by Wadjet Eye Games, and appears as a spirit in the third game, The Blackwell Convergence.
He makes two brief appearances in "And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks", co-authored by William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, set in 1944, but finally published in 2008.