Sunday, February 10, 2008

His Story as History

This week I walked down past where the Bowery ends, to meet up with some young men of my generation before a red-bricked building on 15th Seventh street, at McSorely’s old Alehouse. The doorman allowed me in without looking at my i.d., saying in a soft Irish twang, that he trusted my face. When I walk in my senses were overwhelmed with the smell of men, sweating beer, hops, sawdust and history. The chandeliers above the wooden bar are covered in a thick past of black dust, and wishbones mark the lives of those who did not return to their local jaunt from the world’s wars. This is New York. It opened in 1864, and is New York City’s oldest saloon. My eyes are devouring the surrounding walls, aged pictures and glassy eyes of the men around the room. I see a framed book-cover, ‘McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon’ by Joseph Mitchell and I consider the way that he would describe the ever-raw setting with such a truthful, humble and human approach. I think of Joe Gould.

It was a true surprise to learn that after publishing Joe Gould’s secret Mitchell was not to write or publish anything more. Does this reveal a certain potency of their relationship over the course of 20 years? Was it Gould that challenged and betrayed Mitchell and the integrity of his story? Or did Gould act as a reflection of Mitchell, or some illustration of a quality that he should like to bring alive? I cannot be sure why Mitchell didn’t write anything after Joe Gould’s Secret, but I do see a connection in the coincidence, because Joe Gould both entrapped and liberated something inside Mitchell, the literary artist. I believe that Gould presented a sense of freedom that was enhanced by being outside of society; He didn’t owe anything to anyone, he said whatever he wanted, when he wanted, he went to and fro as he wished and he fabricated stories – creating his own reality. Mitchell indulged in Gould’s freedom, first only as a reporter, but quickly he was emotionally involved. Gould unlocked some part of Mitchell that would allow him to reflect on himself, while reporting on Gould. And because he published both the profile and it’s inclusion of his own personal account, his integrity as a journalist was stretched.

Journalism is supposed to be a verified account of the truth, who, what, when, where, why? And withholding the ‘What I think’ of personal opinion. The difficulty with the Mitchell’s reportage on Gould is that he became personally involved in the intricate, and fabricated truth of the ‘Oral History.’ Firstly, he was drawn into it because he wrote the first article, Professor Seagull introducing the Oral History as though it were tangible, yet it was purely on the account of old Joe Gould. It wasn’t until much later that he would discover that the Oral History was indeed only a mouthful of words, a few re-written essays of Joe’s life and not much else. So Mitchell had learned that his first article was fictitious in its telling of Gould’s work of art. Mitchell then feels a sense of duty to his work, but also an infusion of duty and pity for Joe Gould – which drives him to write the second article, ‘Joe Gould’s Secret.’ In the second article, Mitchell rewrites the story that we have already been told, except this time he withholds nothing, he shares all that he has discovered about old Joe Gould, including self reflections and challenges that he faced personally. Although some part of the Oral History and his relation to Gould left Mitchell in a written silence, it was the recording of Gould’s story, told by Mitchell that was an honest history of that time.

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