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The Philadelphia Experiment and Joe Gould

Once there was a man called Carl Allen, otherwise known as Carlos Allende, who had within him a secret.  (Don’t we all?)

From that secret, as yet undiscovered, Carl Allen created a myth called “the Philadelphia Experiment” which reverberates within our culture to this day.  He died in 1994, penniless and obscure, in a nursing home in Greeley, Colorado.  He was 68 years old.

A little over a generation earlier there lived another man named Joe Gould, who also had a secret.  The myth that emerged from that secret was the myth of Joe Gould himself, which made him famous in Greenwich Village bohemian circles and won him two “profiles” in The New Yorker magazine, one while he was living and the other after his death.  He died in 1957, also penniless and obscure, in a mental hospital in Long Island.  He would have been 68 the following month.

What modern-day Plutarch will write “parallel lives” of these two strange, mostly insignificant yet wholly remarkable men?

I know Joe Gould entirely from the New Yorker profiles by Joseph Mitchell.  The second of these appeared in two parts in 1964, and I read it about five years later, from old issues of The New Yorker that lay scattered about my father’s house.  I forgot the name of the author but I never forgot Joe Gould or his secret, and when I retired from university teaching twelve years ago one of the projects for my leisure was to hunt up the articles and reread them.  A chance encounter in a bookstore, with a 1999 reprint of Joe Gould’s Secret by Vintage Books, spared me the trouble.  A few years afterward I saw the movie of that name, closely based on the book, and enjoyed it.  The film ended with a curious bit of information: although Joseph Mitchell lived until 1996, and continued to work at The New Yorker until his death, his 1964 piece on Gould was the last thing he ever published.

Joe Gould was a New England patrician and Harvard graduate.  He was also a failure and a bum.  Filthy and malnourished, intermittently louse-infested, he drifted on the edges of Greenwich Village society in the 1930s and 40s, begging his meals and his drinks and his friends’ cast-off clothing.  He purported to be engaged in a literary work of breathtaking scope, which he called “The Oral History of Our Time.”  By his account he’d scrawled the unfinished masterwork into composition books, dozens and then hundreds of them, until by December 1942 (when Mitchell published his initial New Yorker profile) the Oral History had grown to 9,000,000 words.  This is, as Mitchell says, “eleven times as long as the Bible.”

What exactly was the Oral History?  Mitchell described it as “a great hodgepodge and kitchen-midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey.”  “ ‘What people say is history,’ Gould says.  ‘What we used to think was history—kings and queens, treaties, inventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan—is only formal history and largely false.  I’ll put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude—what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows—or I’ll perish in the attempt.’ ”

Mitchell recorded these words in 1942—a year plentiful in big battles and would-be Caesars and Napoleons and Pontius Pilates, adept at crucifying human beings in ways of which their predecessors never dreamed.  (Not that you’d know that from reading the Gould profile; it contains a total of one passing reference to the world war.)  Twenty-two years later, returning to his subject on the pages of The New Yorker, Mitchell gave an account of the Oral History that’s substantially the same but with a shift in emphasis.  No longer just a record of its time, Gould’s book has become history as prophecy:

Some talk has an obvious meaning and nothing more, [Gould] said, and some, often unbeknownst to the talker, has at least one other meaning and sometimes several other meanings lurking around inside its obvious meaning.  The latter kind of talk, he said, was what he was collecting for the Oral History.  He professed to believe that such talk might have great hidden historical significance.  It might have portents in it, he said—portents of cataclysms, a handwriting on the wall long before the kingdom falls. … Everything depended, he said, on how talk was interpreted, and not everybody was able to interpret it. … ‘In time to come,’ he said on another occasion, ‘people may read Gould’s Oral History to see what went wrong with us, the way we read Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall” to see what went wrong with the Romans.’ ”

There speaks, not 1942 but 1964.  A comfortable time, of security and prosperity, will look to its internal rot and seek out “portents,” premonitory symptoms and handwritings on the wall.  Simon & Garfunkel would sing to the Sixties generation about how “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls / And tenement halls.”  Gould may have said such things in the 1940s, but it’s no wonder Mitchell didn’t mention them.  The shivery pleasures of apocalypse, the aesthetics of Mene mene tekel upharsin, lose their tang when the cataclysm’s happening here and now.  In 1942 the Medes and Persians, a.k.a. Nazis and Japanese, were already at the gates.  At horrendous cost, to America and the whole human species, they were beaten back.  We’re still paying the bill.

Whichever version of the Oral History one accepts, it had to have been an extraordinary book, the decoder’s manual one dreams of having for the twentieth century.  No wonder Gould’s friends and admirers—and there were many, including the poet E. E. Cummings and the dramatist William Saroyan—were willing to keep him going with handouts while he added the latest thousand or ten thousand or million words.  Unfortunately the book never existed, except possibly in Gould’s head.  This was Joe Gould’s secret, revealed for the first time by Mitchell in his 1964 “profile”; and once you know it, it seems so blindingly obvious you wonder how so many highly intelligent people could have been taken in for so long.

No one ever saw the book.  Or rather, they saw only a few chapters claiming to be from it, none of them fitting the description Gould gave of the overall work.  The one that cropped up most frequently, in a multiplicity of versions, was entitled “Death of Dr. Clarke Storer Gould, A Chapter of Joe Gould’s Oral History.”  There was also a chapter on the death of Gould’s mother, as if he were making repetitive, futile efforts to come to terms with the loss of the two people who might have been expected to prepare him for life and had done such a shoddy job of it.  That these ramblings were scrawled, only half legibly, into soiled composition books must have strengthened their authority in the eyes of those who saw them.  Fragments they must be, excavated like potsherds from some moldy cave underground, the communal unconscious of a troubled age.  They might serve as warrants for the existence of some greater Whole that would provide the key to our times, make everything clear.

Otherwise how explain the reception Gould got from the legendary editor Maxwell Perkins?  It’s a story to make any writer’s mouth water.  “He came in out of the blue one day not long ago,” Perkins’ secretary told Mitchell, “and insisted on seeing Mr. Perkins.  I saw him instead, and he gave me two perfectly filthy copybooks to give to Mr. Perkins, each containing a manuscript chapter of his history. … I spent most of the next day deciphering his handwriting and making copies of the chapter for Mr. Perkins to read.  One chapter was about the death of his father, although it wandered all over the Western Hemisphere, and the other was something about Indians.  Mr. Perkins read them and was not impressed.”

I spent most of the next day making copies???!!!  Mr. Perkins read them???!!! Forget the dismissive language—who nowadays could ever “come in out of the blue” to the office of a major New York editor and get treatment like this?  (Stephen King, maybe.)  But the myth of Joe Gould, and of the Oral History that only a Joe Gould was capable of writing, had its own power—in Freud’s words, its “irresistible claim to be believed.”  People who ought to have known better, not least Mitchell himself, were in its thrall.

(And here we circle back to Carl Allen, another little man who created a great myth, the Philadelphia Experiment, for which no evidence could be adduced beyond its inherent claim to be believed—and therefore was believed.)

Half accidentally, in a moment of exasperation, Mitchell stumbled across the truth: there was no Oral History.  He confronted Gould.  Gould fled, and Mitchell was left by himself pondering on books that are written and those that are not.  “Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. … I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written it.”  Mitchell thought about a novel that he himself had formed in his mind, as Gould had no doubt formed the “Oral History.”  It was the story of a young Southerner in New York City.  (Mitchell was from North Carolina.)  At the climax of the never-written masterpiece, the young man listens to an old black street preacher in Harlem.  Although an unbeliever he’s receptive to the sermon, indeed “enthralled” by it, because it echoes the Southern evangelists of his childhood, who “had left him with a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic.

(Polite reader: consider the “Allende letters” from which the myth of the Philadelphia experiment emerged, and the bizarre annotations to Jessup’s Case for the UFO—all of them, it turns out, the work of the selfsame Carl Allen—which provided an esoteric framework for that myth.  Ask yourself: is there a single one of Mitchell’s seven adjectives that will not apply to them?)

Mitchell made the decision to preserve Joe Gould’s secret.  The world, or at least that segment of it living in Greenwich Village, went on believing in the “Oral History.”  A tender-hearted woman painter made it her project—ultimately successful—to find Gould a patron to finance his hardly-existent literary activities.  “I have always felt,” the painter wrote in her fund-raising letter, “that the city’s unconscious may be trying to speak to us through Joe Gould.  And that the people who have gone underground in the city may be trying to speak to us through him.  And that the city’s living dead may be trying to speak to us through him.  People who never belonged anyplace from the beginning.  People sitting in those terrible dark barrooms.  Poor old men and women sitting on park benches, hurt and bitter and crazy—the ones who never got their share, the ones who were always left out, the ones who were never asked.  Sitting there and dreaming of killing everybody that passes by, even the little children.  But there is a great danger that Joe Gould may never finish the Oral History and that those anonymous voices may never speak to us ….

The painter, though wildly wrong, was right.  She understood the significance of the twentieth-century Decline and Fall that never existed and never could exist.  Joe Gould was a prophet for the era’s unconscious, failed but genuine.  Carl Allen, in his own very different way, was another.

And I called these men “mostly insignificant”?  Only as the world judges significance.  And the world mostly judges wrong.

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