A Previously Unpublished Essay by the Legendary New York Mystery, Joe Gould: “Why I Write”

Aaron Gilbreath
4 min readJan 4, 2020

Below is a previously unpublished essay written in 1934 by one of the most legendary figures in American letters: Joe Gould. New Yorker writer Jill Lepore unearthed it while researching her 2016 book Joe Gould’s Teeth. It’s an incredible book. After I spotted the essay in Lepore’s bibliography, I got a copy from Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library, where it sat in the Millen Brand Papers for years. “Why I Write” starts as an essay but ends as a fragment. I’m excited to share it with other readers of Lepore and Joseph Mitchell’s work.

First, a little background:

Stanley Tucci made a movie about Joe Gould, but not everyone has seen it. Gould identified as a writer, but he’s best known as the subject of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell published two stories about Gould: “Professor Seagull” in 1942 and “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964. An educated, heavy drinking bohemian who mixed talent with delusion, Gould lived much of his adulthood on the streets of Greenwich Village in the early 1900s, haunting bars, extracting alms, and telling anyone who would listen about the genre-defining, nine-million-word masterwork he was creating, called “The Oral History of Our Time.” The Oral History was a record of days as Gould heard it. He recorded what people said to him and said all around him. It was meant, in Gould’s words, “to preserve as much detail as I can about the normal life of every day people” because “as a rule, history does not deal with such small fry,” which meant it would qualify as the world’s longest book. Gould told everyone about it, but few had seen it. Whenever people pushed him for pages, Gould dodged or only had brief selections to offer.

Mitchell’s story “Joe Gould’s Secret” outs Gould as a liar whose magnum opus didn’t exist. In telling this secret, Mitchell created his own literary masterpiece, and one of the most well-known and admired pieces of longform journalism in America. In a strange twist, after Mitchell published this story, he never published again in his lifetime.

A modern biography of Mitchell caused a stir by showing that Mitchell invented many details and quotes in his famous reporting, creating magnificent fictive hybrids, not journalism, and that…

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Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.