Left in Andover: Joe Gould kills his own pig

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Joe Gould’s Teeth, by Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, explores the life and times of renowned Greenwich Village graphomaniac Joe Gould.

In the 1920s, this Harvard educated artist/madman bursting with noblesse oblige, proposed to write an “Oral History of Our Time:”

“Apart from literary merit it will have future value as a storehouse of information. I imagine that the most valuable sections will be those which deal with groups that are most inarticulate … It seems to me that the average person is just as much history as the ruler or celebrity.”

Endowed with a photographic memory, Gould recorded on paper his every interaction, including dialogue, on subways, in stores, on the street.

The poet Pauline Leader who left Bennington for New York.

Simultaneously, my aunt Pauline Leader was feeling stultified in her home town of Bennington. She ran away as a teen in the mid 1920s to fulfill her dream to be an East Village poetess. She got on friendly terms with Gould, whom she met in 1927, at the automats and SROs frequented by their circle of bohemian artists.

Gould’s outsized reputation as the most brilliant historian of the early 20th century was a mirage built on relentless self-promotion. “Alcoholic, antisemite and stalker” were equally accurate descriptors for him.

Lepore teases out a particularly damning explanation for Gould’s psychosis. He was hopelessly infatuated with the African-American sculptress Augusta Savage, prominent in the Harlem Renaissance.

Gould stalked Savage relentlessly, imposing his unwanted attentions upon her. His obsession with her flew in the face of his own racist subscription to the pseudo-science of eugenics.

My uncle, Millen Brand, a member of the Greenwich Village literati, rose to Augusta Savage’s defense, threatening Gould to call the cops on him if he did not cease harassing Savage. Gould refused to comply.

According to Lepore, Gould even stooped so low as to write a threatening and obscene letter to Brand and Leader’s young son, my cousin Jon, in the 1930s.

Joe Gould wrote an obscene letter to Jon Brand, right, seen as a young boy with his sister Elinor.

A peculiarity Joe Gould and Augusta Savage shared was the compulsion to destroy their own work. Savage systematically smashed or hid a multitude of her sculptures.

It remains a mystery how much of an “Oral History of Our Time” Gould ever wrote. More’s the pity. He filled countless notebooks, but lost or destroyed virtually all of them. Joe’s friends and celebrity boosters, among them E.E. Cummings and Ezra Pound, schemed to get him publication deals.

Lepore surmises this was partly a bluff to cover up Gould’s insanity. A regular income would have helped Gould dodge the institutionalization to which he sometimes became subject.

The concept of willful destruction of one’s life work could not be more foreign to country folk. Our only hope for survival is to conserve, building upon what has come before. Farmers would never willfully destroy stone walls, breeding stock. Or would they?

Ludlow’s Abby Maria Hemenway, 19th century author-collector of the comprehensive Vermont Historical Gazetteer (1860s-1880s), highlights the folly of two Andover founding fathers. One, a “red-hot Anti-Mason,” unwittingly kills his own pig, which has gotten into his garden under cover of darkness, mistakenly believing it to be the property of his neighbor, a “red-hot Free Mason.”

“The Masons and some others passed it round for a bye-word long after: when a man to spite another, proposed to do injury to himself (as the local saying went): ‘Don’t kill your own pig.’ ”

Unlike Gould, whose work proved ephemeral, Hemenway really did write a common man and woman’s history, covering every single town in Vermont. Importantly, she made sure it was published and distributed immediately throughout the state, an enduring gift across the ages.

As for Joe’s teeth … You’ll have to read the book yourself.

 

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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