Friday, June 5, 2015

The Lost World of Joseph Mitchell

In times past, people like Joseph Mitchell and Alfred Kazin, young men in an exciting city, could walk the streets and probe the neighborhoods of their fair metropolis discovering the characters, the disparate worlds of 20th century New York and not get mugged, stabbed or beaten, but return with stories to beguile readers even in this new century in this very different world.  Those were the days.

Kazin was a critic, an intellectual American force.  His forays were side trips, alternate excursions between essays about literature and writers and art in America.  He walked because he had to think; one act precipitated another.  His feet kept moving because he had somewhere to be (the public library, where he wrote some of his early work), all the while pondering the words and texts he wrote about inside out and back again.

Joseph Mitchell came to writing and walking from the direction of journalism on a beeline into Manhattan.  A product of the farming life in North Carolina, Mitchell arrived in New York on the eve of the Great Depression and found work at the New York Herald Tribune and later, the New York World-Telegram before landing at The New Yorker under legendary editor Harold Ross.  He received some sage advice from one of his editors that “To really learn a city quickly…a reporter should live close to the areas he’s covering.  And he should walk, constantly…it’s vital to walk and take in as much as you can.”  The story is recounted in Thomas Kunkel’s excellent new biography of Mitchell, Man In Profile:  Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker (Random House, 2015).  Mitchell took that advice to the fullest, and although the world and the man are mostly gone now, we revel in the stories and use them as evidence of what journalism once was in this American life.

His stories and characters are legendary:

Joe Gould and his mythical An Oral History of Our Time; the denizens of Old McSorley’s Saloon; his tales of the old Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan; and the assorted circus performers, gypsies and other street characters that made their way into print through Mitchell’s typewriter.

Kunkel takes us through the streets in Mitchell’s shadow, and we learn the behind-the-scenes stories of stories, a treasure trove of insight into the life of New York through wars and peace and world events.  Mitchell’s portrait of that world was in miniature and found on the street, and as Kunkel recounts, his profiles and stories were the result of hard work with Mitchell sometimes filing several pieces a day when he worked for the newspapers.  Mitchell even made the weather a story, writing an impressive set of descriptive pieces about a “particularly oppressive heat wave that had the city in its grip.”

Mitchell’s writing has a nostalgic tone, a kind of melancholy strain that permeates the most effective evocation of a time past.  His work has a lyrical sadness that Kunkel says is simply part of who Mitchell was, an observer, a celebrator of street life and people.  One of the more revealing aspects of this biography is not the well-known writer’s block Mitchell suffered from 1964 until his death, but his penchant for utilizing fictional elements within his journalism.  Any student of The New Yorker lore knows of Mitchell’s daily routine after 1964 of going to the office, closing the door, and typing away only to emerge in the afternoon with nothing to show for his efforts, at least nothing to publish.  Kunkel addresses this.  He tells us that Mitchell, always a meticulous perfectionist, simply was never satisfied with anything to consider it finished and publishable.  There were fragments left behind:  at least three major chunks of a memoir have been published in The New Yorker in recent years, and they are well worth the reading, but they also leave a reader desperately wishing he had finished.  One section in particular just ends, almost in mid-sentence, leaving the reader hanging.

What Kunkel does in his biography, though, is fully air out and discuss the fictional elements in Mitchell’s work, the composite characters, the imagined dialogue and scenes.  Joseph Mitchell was doing so-called New Journalism before practitioners of the craft, like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson arrived on the scene.  Kunkel says that Mitchell was too much of a perfectionist to simply make things up.  He grounded “his stories in authoritative research, and lots of it.”  He goes on to say that “Mitchell’s main tools were the reporter’s classic ones—strong legs, acute observation, and unparalleled listening skills, not to mention the patience to engage in serial interview conversations with his subjects.”  Harold Ross encouraged Mitchell in his shaping of the story using fictional techniques, and knew full well when his writer was compositing characters or recounting long paragraphs of monologue from several conversations.  Undoubtedly, Kunkel asserts, this kind of fudging would not go on in journalism now, but in the dry, camera-captured stories of today, something is missing, some human truth that Mitchell managed to capture with his innovative technique.  The camera does not lie, but it also tells us a sterile story.  Mitchell’s work brims with life and grit and real world color.

Kunkel cites a letter from editor Don Frank to Mitchell as they wrestled with publishing an anthology of his writing.  In it, Frank quotes Eudora Welty on Walker Percy:  “only a judicious portion of this truth is the factual kind; much of it is truth about human nature, and more of it is spiritual.”  More than anything, this sums up Mitchell’s work.  He captured the truth even when using fictional tools to get there.

When his beloved wife, Therese passed before him, Mitchell’s later years were difficult as he battled depression and cancer.  Kunkel writes that in his final days, Mitchell told his family “There was so much I still wanted to do.”  He died on May 24, 1996, and with him, an era of journalism came to a close.  In the waning pages of his biography, Kunkel provides a melancholy image of his subject at the end of his life.  “Then Mitchell, who throughout his life had found so much beauty and comfort in graveyards, was laid to rest in the Floyd Memorial Cemetery, next to Therese.  As he once wrote in his journal:  ‘An old man walking alone down a cemetery path, [you] can tell by the way he walks that he knows exactly where he is going:  among all these graves, he has a certain one in mind.’”

Thomas Kunkel writes eloquently about Joseph Mitchell throughout the book.  As with his previous, connected biography of Harold Ross, he brings to Mitchell’s life story a clear-eyed yet elegiac tone that suits his subject’s writing style and oeuvre.  For students of journalism and American life in the 20th century, this is an excellent snapshot of an era long gone, but still mourned.

For Joseph Mitchell’s work, check out the following books:

Up In The Old Hotel (Vintage, 1993)
My Ears Are Bent (Vintage, 2008)

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