“Joe Gould, Augusta Savage, and Oral History’s Dark Past” — Annual Meeting keynote by Jill Lepore

OHA welcomes Jill Lepore, the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University, as the keynote speaker at the 2017 annual meeting. Lepore is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. A prize-winning professor, she teaches classes in evidence, historical methods, humanistic inquiry, and American history. Much of her scholarship explores absences and asymmetries in the historical record, with a particular emphasis on the histories and technologies of evidence and of privacy. As a wide-ranging and prolific essayist, Lepore writes about American history, law, literature, and politics. She is the author of many award-winning books and is currently writing a history of the United States.

Lepore has been in the news this summer with the debut of the new Wonder Woman movie. Her book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (Knopf, 2014) was a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 2015 American History Book Prize. Learn more and listen to an interview at NPR.

Lepore’s lecture at OHA will focus on research for Joe Gould’s Teeth, published by Knopf in 2016. In the nineteen-teens, Joe Gould, a bohemian from Greenwich Village, began writing down anything that anyone ever said to him, especially in Harlem. Gould, who coined the term “oral history,” founded an Oral History Association in the nineteen-twenties. He wrote an extraordinarily long book called “The Oral History of Our Time,” said to be the longest book ever written. In 1931, Gould wrote to leading American historians, very likely including Allan Nevins at Columbia, explaining what he was doing. “My book is very voluminous,” he wrote. “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 inarticulate such as the Negro, the reservation Indian, and the immigrant. It seems to me that the average person is just as much history as the ruler or celebrity.” When Gould died in 1957, no one could find the manuscript and in 1964, Joseph Mitchell, a New Yorker writer, argued, in a beautiful story called “Joe Gould’s Secret” that “The Oral History of Our Time” never existed: Gould had made it up. Curious, and unpersuaded, Jill Lepore, Harvard historian and New Yorker writer, went to look for it, and found that Joe Gould had a very different secret, involving a woman who was the most important artist of the Harlem Renaissance, the sculptor Augusta Savage. The story Lepore tells in her latest book, Joe Gould’s Teeth, unravels a mystery, but also raises the deep ethical questions that lie at the heart of oral history. Gould is the founder of oral history. He also haunts it.

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