Finding Teeth in the Archives

Jill Lepore, the prolific, award winning historian and New Yorker writer, has published another book about her sense of archives and their importance. Joe Gould’s Teeth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) follows the story of Gould and his supposedly writing the longest book ever, portrayed by him as a history, but more likely a diary or oral history. Gould may have suffered from graphomania, but the real point of Lepore’s book is determining whether this manuscript ever existed in the form Gould represented it to others and that gained him fame in some contemporary New Yorker profiles. Lepore visits many archives searching for traces of it and for clues about Gould, causing her to reflect on the nature of historical sources. For example, she states, “Reporting begins with history; history begins with reading” (p. 18). At another spot, Lepore declares, “Two writers guard an archive. One writes fiction; the other writes fact. To get past them, you have to figure out which is which” (p. 41). In this statement, you have the crux of the challenge in doing research in the archives. You also have the challenge for the archivist in representing archives. I’ll let you discover what teeth has to do with any of it, although any archivist will tell you stories about their equally bizarre discoveries (for me it was the shards of a broken shoulder blade, the remnants of a wound inflicted at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1814).

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