Excerpts from Joe Gould's
Oral History of the Contemporary World

Edited by O. Nenslo

Editor's Note: Joe Gould (Professor Seagull) was one of America's great Kooks. Often homeless, he was maintained by an anonymous patron for the last years of his life. He was a wild poet and a walking performance. His Oral History of the Contemporary World was scrawled in hundreds of Big Chief tablets, and if it had survived, would have been the World's Largest Sociological Study. The fragments reprinted here, and others which appear in his biography, Joe Gould's Secret, are all that remains of this vast work. The selections you are about to read haven't been reprinted since their original publication in the 1930s.


Nearly everyone is perplexed by the human instinct to either lord it over other people or bow down to them. In the eyes of the Infinite, all pride is dust and ashes. But as we must live with our brother man, it is natural that each of us should have his ideal of proper society.

I believe that we need an aristocracy in which each person can be an aristocrat. That is to say every human being is entitled to a legitimate pride in his environment and antecedents. The Socialist vision is somewhat similar. However it insists too much on material values. Its appeal is to those people who cannot respect themselves without good clothes and well-filled tummies. That is a wrong assumption. An Indian no matter how dire his poverty can dispense hospitality with dignity. He is his own welcome. Roger W. Babson [economist and founder of the Gravity Research Foundation in New Boston, New Hampshire --DK] once asked me what I thought was the solution of the high cost of living. I answered, "The Indian system. Fewer wants." He that knows he is as good a man as his neighbor does not need to impress by evidence of material wealth.

The aristocrat is the highest type I can attain to. I believe that if one only pushes aristocracy far enough it becomes dem-ocracy. In all externals, the two viewpoints keep the same code. One serves from love of humanity, the other to satisfy himself.

I believe that no higher race of men ever lived than the backwoods Yankee farmer. Made independent by the toil of his own hands he exacted no servility from others and he yielded it to none, those of higher social position in the artificial sense have had to pay for it by various acts of flunkeyism.

I am very cosmopolitan and have met specimens of European, Asiatic, American Indian and African nobility. Not even excepting Water Chief have I ever met anyone with more reason for pride in his immediate family and remoter ancestry than myself. I said to God once, "You know I am very proud. If I should ever meet anyone with better blood in his veins than flows in mine what should my conduct be?" The All Mighty answered me, "Be not alarmed. Until I repeal the law of the survival of the fittest, you will never meet anyone with a higher claim to pride of race. Your pride, of course, is nasty as all pride is, but it is the seed of so much of the good that is in you, that I want you to keep it, until you find something better. Remember however that every human soul is as big as its environment and heredity allow it to be."

Civilization brings distinctions of caste apart from individual attainment. Thus is developed the patrician and the peasant. Each has a different set of virtues, and both are needed for the complete sum of humanity. When you find a patrician without pride or a peasant without avarice, you get very nearly the perfect man.

The European is usually descended from ancestors who were all of the same caste. A Southerner's progenitors were all either F.F.V's [First Families of Virginia --N] or all poor white trash. In New England there has always been the mingling of the two strains. One of my ancestors was the first Governor of Connecticut. Another came as an indentured servant. Mrs. Bowie said to me once, "There are two types of gentlemen. One is the gentleman by the grace of God. I knew a slave who was that. Then there is the gentleman by virtue of inherited culture. You belong to both types." At one time I would have been greatly pleased with this compliment. Now however, I feel that if I am not big enough to belong to all humanity, I want to think of myself as belonging to the masses rather than to the classes. I do not want to consider myself a gentleman in the archaic sense unless this distinction permits me to feel as proud of my progenitors who lived lives of modest toil and were first nowhere upon the fields of battle, as I am of colonial governors, knights, nobles, kings and emperors who also had to live that I might be.

The past has many claims upon me. I regard the continuity of life as the great miracle, and through genealogical research I like to project myself back into the past. Hence I am a confirmed ancestor wor-shipper. I can still remember the mental glow I experienced when I first learned of my descent from William the Conqueror. At the present time I feel differently. The early kings and nobles were very promiscuous. I doubt whether there is an Englishman alive who is not descended from William the Conqueror, or a European who is not descended from Charlemagne. I would like to be really exclusive. I wish I could trace my pedigree back to some common person who lived in the eleventh century.

My racial work brought me into contact with certain celebrities. My father and mother treated them with dignity and courtesy giving them the best they had. When I invited a Negro deckhand to visit me they treated him in the same way. They were sure enough of their own position to be able to do this. That is real aristocracy. I do not consider anyone quite my social equal who can not do the same. Ralph Watson said to me when I expressed this idea to him, "You would find your social equal among bar tenders then." I replied, "Not among all. They might be able to entertain a Negro deckhand and yet be flustered by a celebrity. On the other hand I feel as if I were slumming when I visit households where the Negro deckhand could not be entertained."

Goni Katundi the proprietor of the Albanian restaurant, Vatru, did not wish me to invite Miss Culot there, although she had been in Albania, because he thought she was of too high a caste. When I took her there, I apologized for this neglect on his part and told her the reason. I said he was wrong because the Albanian restaurant was good enough for me, and what was good enough for Joe Gould was good enough for any one else that God had made. She smiled approval and said, "That's the proper way to feel about it." At the time she did not hear what I added, that whatever was good enough for anybody else that God had made was good enough for Joe Gould. I would use this addition to illustrate the difference between the aristocrat and the snob.

I feel very cocky when I think of the three highest social honors that I have ever received. The one that I valued least was when I tried so hard to get into the army that Captain A. J. Boyce was impressed and spoke to Roosevelt about me and the doughty colonel told him to bring me to Oyster Bay. Roosevelt was out of luck, for Captain Boyce lost track of me. As Roosevelt had no backwoods Yankee blood in him, of course, he was not quite my equal, but I was honestly pleased that despite my poor physique I had made such an impression upon Captain Boyce as a man among men that he deemed me worthy of the highest honor he could pay me.

I was more pleased by what happened the first time I met Mrs. Rust, the widow of the Confederate general who commanded in the battle of Port Hudson in which my grandfather participated. Her grandfather and her husband were congressmen, and she had moved in the highest society in Washington and danced twice with Edward VII. She was akin to the aristocratic families of the Old South and the list of her relatives was lousy with distinguished names. It was supposed that we would clash bitterly because my Negrophile prejudices were so strong. By a few proofs of deference, I won her so completely that on offering me a second helping she said, "Will you have some more veal, Joe?" She did not call others by their first name whom she had known a much longer time. My head was a bit turned then by this unexpected acceptance by the feudal South, but I now feel that the real point of the honor was that I had pleased an old woman. The old and children are the best judges of character because they are less observant of the superficial.

I have also had the highest social honor possible. Water Chief offered my his peace pipe as a personal friend and an equal. Any ruling dynasty among white people is a mere mushroom in comparison. Hereafter, if I am invited to meet kings or emperors or even Police Commissioner Enright, I will feel that I do them more honor than they do me.


Insanity is a topic of peculiar interest to me. Despite my theory that people with strong will-power and a sense of humor never go off their nuts, I almost have first hand information about it. There have been times when the black mood was on me. I needed every bit of self-control that I possessed to refrain from shouting aloud or waving my hands in wild gestures that would have brought a curious crowd around me and eventually have landed me in the police-station. I could very easily imagine myself locked up as a maniac. Yet all the time, the real me was not in sympathy with these impulses. It made me feel that perhaps there was a basis of truth in the old idea that insanity was caused by forces external to the soul, such as witchcraft. Science affirmed this once. It may do so again.

It seems to me likely that many who are held under observation or in detention are in just this pitiable state. They may be adjudged lunatics because of the unconventional antics of the outer body, with which the mind may not be in accord, and may consider absurd. The grim part of it is that the line which divides sanity from insanity has no logic in it. The wildest ravings of any lunatic are no more incongruous than the creeds which are solemnly held by sober, unimaginative people.

If a man claimed to be George Von Kaiser Wilhelm he would be locked up. His pretentions would border on sacrilege to many people. Yet the attitude of the normal person toward royalty is equally crazy. Think of the high honor which is paid to him who inherits a throne, and ye he eats and drinks in the same way as the rest of us, and his dead carcass will feed no more maggots and fertilize no more weeds than that of any other mortal.

The insane person is a victim of self-deception. Yet in a measure we all have this virtue. One is his own imaginary creation of himself. Before our soul-mirrors we strut and swagger. When we are not actively enhancing our importance in the scheme of things we indulge in self-pity. Every man Jack of us has some mental trickery to justify his instinctive feeling that he is the center of the universe. Texas Wilson said to me once, "If we could only see ourselves as we really are, life would be insupportable."

One of the commonest delusions is when a man feels himself to be Jesus Christ. That is not altogether absurd. We are all of us a part of the godhead, portions of the everlasting miracle of the continuity of life. The man who says that he is Napoleon is merely dramatizing the sublime egotism of human nature. Who does not aspire to some dominion over others, even though it be in petty matters? Nevertheless the person who seeks to alter by one iota the personality and conduct of another is fundamentally on the same footing as he who seeks to conquer a continent or lay toll upon the commerce of the sea.

Consider that woman whom I saw in the insane asylum at Central Islip. She hid under the bed all day in the alternate belief that she was a cat pursuing a mouse or a mouse fleeing from a cat. At first sight it would seem as though we could all afford to laugh at her and pity her at the same time. How many people are there who neither spend their lives plunging into darkness in search of more futile prizes than mice nor fleeing shadows as fantastic as her fear of cats?

The fallacy of dividing people into sane and insane lies in the assumption that we really do touch other lives. This is a matter open to serious doubt. Our physical senses differ so much with respect to sight, hearing and so forth that we have no certain means of telling whether any two of us live in the same tangible world or not. When we use words we cannot be sure that any of us apply the same meaning. Even more personal and private to each individual is his thought-process and spiritual texture. Hence I would judge the sanest man to be him who most firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly. I suppose I feel about it in this way because I have a delusion of grandeur. I believe myself to be Joe Gould.


When a very charming young lady nearly sent me to jail for a letter I wrote during a nervous breakdown, I did not look forward to the experience at all. I felt rather ashamed of my bashfulness and modesty. Heretofore I had welcomed adventure. I had been democratic enough to meet the Chief-Justice of Nova Scotia socially. My theory was that I should always avail myself of the opportunity to study new types and here I was passing it up.

At first I had no terror. There were times in my life when I had envied prisoners. I knew that they had enough to eat. When they were depressed with their own problems no burdens of others were thrust upon them. It seemed to me that for a while prison might be a place of freedom to me because it would release me from the heavy ball-and-chain of economic worry.

Faced with an opportunity to test my theory, I weakened. My principal reason was that I was told that they served rotten coffee in fail. That seemed more than I could bear. Fresh air, sunlight, freedom of motion -- these are almost as necessary to me as food and drink. Yet I felt I could be deprived of them and retain my balance. Through sun-baths I have absorbed a surplus supply of solar rays and ozone. Sunlight is always inside me. I love the beauty of the outdoor world but what I have had of it can never be taken away from me. Were the bars to lock me inside grey walls, my soul would still traverse the Canadian Rockies where my weary feet once trod. Freedom of motion that is partly mental. No barriers of space or time intrude themselves upon my ever active mind. I can live in a glorious past and an exciting future. My memory is sufficiently full to keep me from boredom.

It is true that in a jail I could not move about. That would be arduous for one whose social life is as varied as mine. I am a part-time member of several diversified social groups and at home wherever I go. Much choice is mine. Restricted into narrow confines, I could not eat chitlings in Harlem, wander through the woods, visit art galleries of flirt with all the women I meet. Yet, after all, only freedom of choice would be mine. That is a delusion and a snare. No man can eat at two tables, walk on two paths and sleep in two beds at once.

When I had all the sunlight that filtered through Western mountain peaks I had moods when I wanted the gloomy coolness of libraries. When I was gorging myself to repletion with facts sufficiently useless to be interesting I would all of a sudden be seized with an intense longing to be again on horseback speeding into the sunset when the ice was breaking up in the Missouri river.

Miss Moore, who thinks that millionaires as such are important, was shocked when she realized that their life was not completely Elysian. She said that even they had to submit to the common tyrannies of time and place, and appetite. An unjust cosmos did not honor their triumph of the acquisitive spirit as did their fellow-mortals.

It would seem that no finite mortal can be free unless he is so single of purpose that he knows what he wants to do and wants only that. The indecisive wavering man is unfree no matter what wealth is at his command. He who can neither be bribed nor threatened is free and only he; God is not free because he has to pay so much attention to bores and stupid people.


The best definition of love that I have been able to formulate is that it is the captivity of the imagination. This is almost equivalent to saying that it is all imagination. Because I repudiate common sense in most of the affairs of life, I believe that marriage ought to be regulated on a common sense basis.

I do not approve of the European system whereby the older generation has complete responsibility for the mating. After all, they are not the chief parties to the contract. On the other hand, very young people are too little experienced to know with certainty what they really want.

Besides the problems between the two parties there are other phases which demand mention. Two people might be personally so well adapted to each other as to be ideal mates on a desert island and yet be unable to make the same social adjustments. For example, in my own case it would be inadvisable for me to marry a woman who could not make a Negro deckhand as welcome to my home as she could a celebrity. As a rule, I believe that people who inhabit the same background are happiest together.

Modern life brings a conflict not found elsewhere. Every human being has two primary impulses. One is to build a home, and the other is for self-development. Being responsible for other lives is a handicap toward pursuing one's own ambition. Oriental civilization solves this problem in favour of the male. His needs take precedence and woman is regarded merely as a means of satisfying them. In actual practice, perhaps this system works as well as any, but for humanity as a whole it is desirable that women contribute toward ruling the world.

The problem of marriage then is essentially how to give every worthy individual the right to parenthood and the chance to express the best that is in him.

Men and women differ as much in character as in physique, and for this reason, they will always be necessary to each other mentally and morally as well as physically. The proper mate is the one who can stir the deepest chord that the individual can reach.


I have never been able to adapt myself to civilization. It is too needlessly complex and too materialistic. My father's death focused my attention upon that point. We build so many sky-scrapers and steamships and automobiles that we think of life as consisting of such bric-a-brac. Therefore we are sorry at the dissolution of the body , and do not realize that mind and soul continue to exist.

Bertram Sill wanted me to try selling stock in an automobile company. I told him that I was not interested in the proposition because I did not believe in selling stock and I thought we already had too many automobiles. He replied that I was damn contrary.

I believe in gambling. Poker or shoo-ting craps or the moccasin game of the Indian, anything that takes off the grinding edge of the monotony of life is a boon to humanity. But buying or selling stocks in not a man's game. It is a fuddy-duddy old maids's game. It is trying to have all the excitement and profit of gambling and none of the risks. The legitimate way to make money is to buy sheep and kine and horses, to tend them carefully or have someone who loves them tend them for you and nature will send them increase.

It seems to me that the auto is unnecessary. If all the perverted ingenuity which was put into making buzz-wagons had only gone into improving the breed of horses humanity would be better off. A horse is a thing of beauty and an automobile is only a machine. I was very proud of my father when he came back from Fort Benjamin Harrison. He did not talk about automobiles like a Chicago junk-dealer, but he talked about horses like a man and a gentleman.

Next to the sturdy independence of my own legs, I like to have a cayuse under me. If you are late, you can spur your steed and if you are ahead of time you can let your horse nip the grass. Compared with this how dull and trivial is a train. It gets you there quicker, but it makes you the slave of schedule. Ed Goodbird told me that the Indians considered themselves smarter than white men, because they had more time to think. They realize that punctuality is the thief of time. The more time a man gives to his engagements the less he has for himself.

My sister's fiance Dr. Patrick McCarty served during the war at a hospital in Cilicia. He employed an automobile. I told Mother that it was sacrilege to use a gasoline-smelling buzz-wagon on roads that God intended for the horse and the camel. She said, "Think of all the lives he could save." I replied that this was no excuse because the people were only Orientals and knew that they would die anyway when their time came and had rather die quietly like gentlemen than violate the fundamental fitness of things by being attended in a buzz-wagon.

It is in the presence of death and other vital issues that the collapse of civilization is seen. Just as we have weakened our legs by depending upon steam and electricity, we have weakened our souls by huge cathedrals, elaborately organized sects, and sophisticated philosophies. We would do better to stick to the simple ritual and basic faith of savage life and childhood.

Maude Harris told me that all was well with the world because medical science had profited by the war. That is an epitome of civilization. We continually invent new diseases and almost catch up with them by our invention of remedies.