A Oral History of My Future

Not long ago, I finished reading The Story of Joe Gould as told by Joseph Mitchell, a columnist at The New Yorker magazine from the 1930s until the mid-’60s. Living solely off his friends’ contributions to “The Joe Gould Fund,” he spent his days as an ec

May 6, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Not long ago, I finished reading The Story of Joe Gould as told by Joseph Mitchell, a columnist at The New Yorker magazine from the 1930s until the mid-’60s.

Living solely off his friends’ contributions to “The Joe Gould Fund,” he spent his days as an eccentric, drinking and interacting with the city’s pop society of the time, inviting himself to parties or shocking people with his poetry readings, some of which had been translated into seagull.

But the main focus of his life was a book he was writing called An Oral History of Our Time, which was said back then to be the longest unpublished work in existence. Over the years Gould could consistently be found scribbling away in his grammar school composition books, which were invariably greasy and coffee-stained from his rugged lifestyle.

The bulk of his material was said to be stored in a farmhouse cellar in upstate New York. This stockpile allegedly contained a stack of notebooks seven feet high containing first 6, then 7, then 8 and finally 9 million words.

Gould himself was thoroughly convinced that, in posterity, his collection of eavesdropped conversations between diner patrons, ambulance drivers, Bellevue asylum interns and Greenwich Village poets would be regarded as the principal textbook of American culture.

And he wasn’t the only one with faith in his tome. There were dozens of men and women who supported his long career as a bohemian and who all (or most) had faith that this epic piece of writing would more than justify the years of weekly contributions to the Joe Gould Fund.

So upon news of his death in a mental institution in 1957, there was a mad scramble among his friends and acquaintances to find these composition books. But where were they? It was common knowledge that they were supposed to be hidden away in a farmhouse basement, but Gould had always been cryptic when answering questions about the location of this farmhouse or the name of its owner. Aside from the first five chapters, the stash was never found.

Gould spent decades of his life preaching to anyone who would listen that he was the author of a work of historical literature that never existed. It’s anyone’s guess why he never got past those initial five chapters.

He might have intended to get around to writing down the conversations he quoted from memory, but at some point he surely convinced even himself that somewhere there really was a cellar with stacks of stained and dog-eared notebooks. And real or not, the Oral History as a concept sustained him.

In just a few months I will be “celebrating” the milestone of having spent seven of my 24 years as a prisoner. For seven years I have done my best to convince whoever will listen that the future of Whitney Holwadel Smith is a bet worth wagering. I’ve prophesied the college degrees, the good jobs, the on-time mortgage payments and tax refunds.

In my rhetoric to family and friends who have all in their own way contributed to “The Whitney Smith Fund,” I present a character in a vaguely written play who is unremarkable as a citizen but remarkable as a concept of myself, the two-time felon.

With more than half of my current sentence done and a little over three years to go, I should be giddy about the prospect of proving my words to be more than just empty rhetoric. But the mundane nature of my life in “the hole” has all but deadened my hope and anticipation. I have begun to wonder if all those things I claimed to my contributors are real or just a series of fictions of which I’ve even convinced myself.

I am teetering on the edge of becoming institutionalized.

After spending three years in a medium-security Ohio prison, I was asked by a friend if the time spent there had institutionalized me. At the time, my idea of what it meant to be institutionalized consisted of simply forming habits specific to life in prison. So I answered that, yes, I’d become institutionalized to a certain extent.

But I was wrong. It’s impossible to truly know what it is to be institutionalized without actually experiencing it.

To be institutionalized means to adapt your mind completely to life enclosed by walls and razor wire. It is the transformation of the outside world from a real place and a goal to a novelty, a queer thing that’s written about in the newspapers but with about as much significance as Los Angeles has to a poor Ethiopian villager.

Institutionalization occurs somewhere around the time when a prisoner says, “I can’t wait to get home,” and is referring to his cell.

I’ve spent seven years trying to convince those I care about that I’m worthy of their contributions. But are they empty promises? Will the time come to pass that, like Gould’s five raggedy installments, I can’t see past the chapters of my life spent in a cage?

Will this be the only world I truly know? As my mind becomes slowly wrapped in the wet blanket of institutionalization, I am fearing so.

But my promises and hope are all I have left. I cannot abandon them.

These are the thoughts that consume a prisoner on a daily basis. This prisoner, at least.

WHITNEY HOLWADEL SMITH published the Super Friends blog from the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., where he’d been forced to spend more than a year in the Segregated Housing Unit (“the hole”). This column was edited from a post he published on Dec. 18, 2008, and is reprinted with permission. Smith died April 4 of suicide at age 24.