When I write a story about someone else, I keep me, myself and I, out of it. I feel strongly that I, and my proxy pronouns, do not belong.
But a few years back, I wrote about someone else and did belong in the story; I was an undeniable part of it. The story centered on two retired ballplayers and a secret. The old men had discussed the secret (that one of them had cheated playing against the other) for the first time only after I had written about it and them in the Wall Street Journal. Their lives and relationship had then changed — because of me.
And so, when I was then writing a book about the men — and reached the point in the narrative when I entered and altered their lives — I was unsure how to proceed. I emailed my editor, Dan Frank. He suggested that I read Joe Gould’s Secret. I already had. But I had paid little attention to how the writer, Joseph Mitchell, had incorporated himself into the story. So, I read his little book again. It helped me at once.
Joe Gould’s Secret was published in 1965. It was a composite of two articles Mitchell had written in The New Yorker about Gould, a bohemian who lived in New York City flophouses through the Depression. The first article, “Professor Sea Gull,” published in 1942, told of Gould and An Oral History of Our Time, a gargantuan book he was composing of spoken conversations, the better to preserve the true patter of humanity. The follow-up, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” a two-part story published in 1964, revealed (SPOILER ALERT!) a startling fact: An Oral History did not exist. Gould had in fact filled only a few notebooks, with repetitive scribblings about little more than tomatoes, Indians and the deaths of his parents.
Joe Gould’s Secret was a classic. And I had loved it for the reasons others do, including its very conception — the book born of Mitchell’s unending interest in the urchins others neglected. The book was free of judgment, rich in heartbreaking detail (the young Gould described, for example, as ambisinistrous, left to negotiate the world with two left hands), and was a page-turner besides. Right away, Mitchell alerts the reader that he knows why An Oral History was not found when Gould died. But he does not tell the reader the reason — that the book is a figment — for 65 pages, unfurling his narrative casually, stopping along the way for the “digressions within digressions” and “wheels within wheels” that Mitchell saw in Gould and we come to see in him.
But rereading the book, I now marveled most of all at how Mitchell incorporated himself into it. Just five pages in, he writes: “In 1942, for reasons I will go into later, I became involved in Gould’s life.” Thus, Mitchell the narrator introduces Mitchell the character. The narrator then takes the reader back in time, from 1964 to the winter of 1932, when the character first met Gould in a Greek diner in Greenwich Village. The reader slowly becomes invested not only in Gould but also in Mitchell as he decides to profile the rogue and then researches him and interviews him and becomes entwined in his life. And as the years, and pages, then pass — the story slowly making its way back to the present — Mitchell the narrator cedes more and more ground to Mitchell the character.
It was my close friend Darcy Frey who helped me to see the relationship between these two Mitchells. And he noted something fascinating: As the book progresses, Mitchell the character takes on the characteristics of Mitchell the narrator until he too is omniscient.
By the book’s end, Mitchell is not only omniscient but also vulnerable and exposed. For no sooner does he let us know that Gould never wrote An Oral History than he confides that he too never wrote a great book that he had intended to write. He begins:
My novel was to be ‘about’ New York City. It was also to be about a day and a night in the life of a young reporter in New York City. He is a Southerner, and a good deal of the time he is homesick for the South. He thinks of himself as an exile from the South. He had once been a believer, a believing Baptist, and is now an unbeliever. Nonetheless, he is still inclined to see things in religious terms, and he often sees the city as a kind of Hell, a Gehenna. He is in love with a Scandinavian girl he has met in the city, and she is so different from the girls he had known in the South that she seems mysterious to him, just as the city seems mysterious; the girl and the city are all mixed up in his mind.
And so, in one long, mesmerizing swoop — the description of the unwritten novel spans three pages — Mitchell both breathes beautiful life into his own character while also engendering sympathy for Gould (whose crime is suddenly pardonable). And just in time. For Gould has died. And he can now be mourned with a full heart. “God pity him,” writes Mitchell, “and pity us all.”
Guided by Mitchell, I wrote myself into the last chapter of my book, The Echoing Green. I wrote of the genesis of my story and also of meeting the old ballplayers. The book was better, more honest, for my being in it. And the ballplayers appreciated that I was.
I had worried of their reactions to the book. But even before they had approved of it publicly, I had again found comfort in Mitchell, who had embedded in his masterpiece two great justifications for writing it. First, he had to write the book. “If [Gould] came right out and admitted that the Oral History did not exist—that it was indeed a mare’s nest,” writes Mitchell, “I might be put in the position of having to do something about it.” Second, Gould would have wanted him to. “I concluded,” writes Mitchell, “that if it was possible for the real Joe Gould to have any feelings about the matter one way or the other he wouldn’t be in the least displeased if I told anything at all about him that I happened to know.”
That Mitchell particularly hoped to do right by Gould makes sense. For he saw himself in his most famous subject: a fellow non-New Yorker bent on cataloguing life in the big city. “You pick someone so close that in fact you are writing about yourself,” he told the Washington Post in 1992. “Talking to Joe Gould all those years he became me in a way.”
Joshua Prager writes for publications including Vanity Fair, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, where he was a senior writer for eight years. His second book, Half-Life: Reflections from Jerusalem on a Broken Neck, was recently published as a Byliner Original. His first book, The Echoing Green, was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. He was a 2011 Nieman Fellow and a 2012 Fulbright Distinguished Chair at Hebrew University. He grew up in New Jersey, and lives in New York.