With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Jill Lepore explains why she wrote a book about a man who’s unbearable

Jill Lepore, David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History, is enthralled with unusual and fascinating writing projects. Out of teaching “History 97” came Lepore’s search for a 9,000,000-word manifesto written by a bohemian madman who considered himself a historian, an effort resulting in her recent book “Joe Gould’s Teeth.” The prize-winning scholar will join the “Humanities 10” faculty in the fall and teach the ultimate speed history course, a sweep of the United States from 1492 to now, in the spring called “The Great Experiment: A History of the United States.” In a Q&A session, Lepore discussed her work on Gould, who, although he had prominent artistic friends, also had deep racist and anti-Semitic beliefs.

GAZETTE: At first glance, it seems hard not to be drawn to these characters in your new book, especially Gould. How did you get along with him?

LEPORE: He’s unbearable company. That’s what repelled me from the project, frankly. I remember years ago I wrote about Edgar Allan Poe. I was racing to finish it, and I made a bet with one of my kids that he wouldn’t memorize the poem “The Raven” before I could finish my essay. Poe is so damaged, but he’s not evil. I ended up really enjoying Poe because he’s so fascinating in the ways he’s trapped. Gould, from the first day looking at his Harvard undergraduate records, I saw he was terribly ill, and the prospect of spending time with someone who was born in 1899 and was terribly diseased wasn’t enchanting. I thought, “There are a lot of things people think they know about Gould that are completely wrong. What if his ‘Oral History’ isn’t a figment of imagination?” That’s what spurred me on the project. I had to grit my teeth and deal with Gould.

GAZETTE: Was it difficult presenting a history so infused with racism and anti-Semitism?

LEPORE: It’s important to note what that world was. There are two kinds of historians, those who like to read about other historians, and sleuths. I’m both, but I tend to fall into things that are sleuthier. Yeah, there was a lot of eugenics, that’s not a discovery. What was hard about Gould was when he lost control of himself. The venom with which he spoke to people was unhinged, but the form it took was racism and anti-Semitism. Gould’s obsession was with the color line and sex across the color line. He was just spewing raw hatred.  ...

Read entire article at Harvard Gazette