Sea Gull​

Marco Montagnin

During 1889, near Boston, Joe Gould was born into a family of doctors, yet he was not one. He was born well-off but soon became a beggar. He was an alcoholic, one of the last well-known bohemians in Greenwich Village. He died alone and sober in a cold hospital bed in 1957. Joe Gould was, in his own way, an aesthete of life.

He was known by several weird nicknames that mirrored his personality and the one that suited him best was Professor Sea Gull; he claimed to be able to understand the language of seagulls and would often behave as one: by stretching his short thin body, squirming his arms while squawks came out of his toothless mouth, he would transform himself into one of them.

He translated some of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poems into the language of seagulls, claiming that they sounded better that way and wrote other poems in the same idiom.

He wore large used clothes and ate mostly ketchup since it was the only free thing in bars despite claiming that the tomato was the cause of a disease, he called solanacomania as he wrote in THE DREAD TOMATO HABIT, OR WATCH OUT! WATCH OUT! DOWN WITH DR. GALLUP! A CHAPTER OF JOE GOULD’S ORAL HISTORY.

Gould was a writer who wrote, or said he wrote, the longest book in the world: An Oral History.

Gould was a writer who wrote, or said he wrote, the longest book in the world: An Oral History. There are only fragments and testimonies of this book that led one to think that it was never truly written. It remained an oral history in the mind of the writer who played parts and later asked for donations for the Joe Gould fund.

He became famous thanks to the article Professor Sea Gull.[1] He despised fame but at the same time was drawn to it. He wanted to be remembered forever as a young boy – the village buffoon – had moved to New York to write great things and maybe he did write them and they were somewhere in a cellar that was mouldy; or they were destroyed, or they were never written and he wore a mask for his entire life convincing the world that he was a writer, convincing himself that he was a writer. Nevertheless, he became famous.

Edward Estlin Cummings, a friend of his, testified to get him out of a mental hospital; he quoted him several times in his poems and dedicated some of them to this eccentric character and his work.

 «… a myth is as good as a smile but little joe gould’s quote oral history unquote might (publishers note) be entitled a wraith’s progress mainly awash while chiefly submerged or an amoral morality sort-of-aliveing by innumerable kind-of-deaths».[2]

Gould was not loved due to his personalities, that took over one another and made him an unpredictable person. Many saw him as a fool, a time waster, a good-for-nothing; few people perceived his depth and one of them was Ezra Pound who immortalised him in his Cantos:

«to the shame of various critics / nevertheless the state can lend money / and the fleet that went out to Salamis / was built by state loan to the builders / hence the attack on classical studies / and in this war were Joe Gould, Bunting and cummings / as against thickness and fatness / black that die in captivity / night green of his pupil, as grape flesh and sea wave / undying luminous and translucent / / Est consummatum, Ite».[3]

Gould was a self-taught person, he attended Harvard, was later expelled, he travelled to North America where he learned the customs of certain Indian tribes as he described in DRUNK AS A SKUNK, OR HOW I MEASURED THE HEADS OF FIFTEEN HUNDRED INDIANS IN ZERO WEATHER. A CHAPTER OF JOE GOULD’S ORAL HISTORY. Later on, he was able to finish his studies after which he moved to New York but never gave any importance to his degree.


Precocious for his age and towards the end of his life, Gould was affected by senile dementia. He spent his last years at Piligrim State and became his own shadow by spending those years in silence. He was the last aoidos, dumb in a hospital bed. He seldom stretched out his short skinny body, squirmed his arms while squawking but his figure was no longer funny. His shadow projected sinister images into empty corridors, his chirps echoed in the silence of death. Was it really worth living a life like this?

 «little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn’t know where/to find them(and found a secondhand set which click)little/gould used to amputate his appetite with bad brittle candy/but just(nude eel)now little joe lives on air/ /Harvard Brevis Est for Handkerchief read Papernapkin no laundry/bills likes People preferring Negroes Indians Youse/n.b. ye twang of little joe(yankee)gould irketh sundry/who are trying to find their minds(but never had any to lose)/ /and a myth is as good as a smile but little joe gould’s quote oral/history unquote might(publishers note)be entitled a wraith’s/progress or mainly awash while chiefly submerged or an amoral/morality sort-of-aliveing by innumerable kind-of-deaths/ /(Amerique Je T’Aime and it may be fun to be fooled/but it’s more fun to be more to be fun to be little joe gould)».[5]

[1] J. Mitchell, Professor Sea Gull, The New Yorker, New York 1942

[2] Collected Poems n.261 E.E. Cummings

[3] E. Pound,I Cantos, Mondadori, Verona 2005, pp. 850-852

[4] E.E. Cummings, Complete Poems, Liveright, U.S.A. 1991, p.700

[5] Ivi, p. 410