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What is biography? Who can be trusted? asks Jill Lepore in 'Joe Gould's Teeth'

What is biography? Who can be trusted? asks Jill Lepore in 'Joe Gould's Teeth'

One winter, Jill Lepore, the prolific historian and New Yorker correspondent, taught a course called “What Is Biography?” To coax her Harvard sophomores to ponder whether we can truly know another person, she assigned Julian Barnes’ novel “The Sense of an Ending.” She also gave them two famous New Yorker profiles by Joseph Mitchell: “the delightful, Pickwickian 1942 story ‘Professor Sea Gull,’ and the much longer and much darker, Poe-like 1964 tale ‘Joe Gould’s Secret.’”

So far, spot on. And then Lepore, in her trademark forensic way, began fact-checking the life of Joe Gould. Originally, Mitchell depicted...

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