Joseph Mitchell – The Ghost of New York City
Joseph Mitchell, a 21 year-old aspiring newspaper reporter, arrived in New York City from his native North Carolina in October 1929 on the eve of the Black Tuesday Wall Street crash that heralded the Great Depression. Among the most (to use a word he rather overworked himself) salient personalities in contemporary journalism at the time was H.L. Mencken. A hugely influential figure in 1920s America – especially among the intellectually inclined under- and post-graduate generations – Mencken, a ferocious social Darwinist, wrote that a requisite for his own happiness was to be: “Full of a comfortable feeling of superiority to the mass of my fellow men.” The unifying theme of Mencken’s rumbustious, entertainingly diatribal prose was his vitriolic contempt for what he called the “undifferentiated mass”, as contrasted with the “civilized minority”, of which he, naturally, as a virtuoso polymath was an exemplar. Joseph Mitchell’s writings may, as a whole, be taken as an accumulating refutation of the Menckenian view: a vital testimony to the fact that ultimately there is no “undifferentiated mass”. The Author’s Note at the beginning of McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon reads: ”…The people in a number of these stories are of a kind that many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to as the ‘little people’. I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”
In 1993, like an original Rembrandt hung up in a Wal-Mart, and rather to the surprise of its publisher, a volume called Up in the Old Hotel appeared in The New York Times Book Review best seller list. The title had been given to the collected works of Joseph Mitchell including his books, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor and Joe Gould’s Secret along with several pieces previously unpublished in book form all of which had originally appeared in The New Yorker. Its publication came 28 years after the last appearance of anything printed over or under the bye-line of its author. The critical reaction to Up in the Old Hotel was uniformly warm, much of the comment echoing another New Yorker writer, John McPhee’s observation that: “When the self-proclaimed ‘New Journalists’ landed on the beach with their novel insights into non-fiction writing, Joe Mitchell met the boat. He was ahead of them in time, artistry and range. He was, in fact, an inspiration to them, as he had been to countless other writers before and since.”
The book also presented an opportunity to read Mitchell chronologically and to thus discern the progression and refinement of his writing from a skilful workaday journalism into lasting and treasurable literature. The studies of people and places that form the core of the McSorley’s… collection, fresh and funny and touching as they remain, are a recognizable development of the interview features that Mitchell wrote as a daily newspaperman. Many of these were collected in Mitchell’s first book, My Ears Are Bent, published in 1938, for many years virtually unobtainable and later regarded by its author as ephemeral juvenilia. A clear example of Mitchell’s evolving technique can be seen in his treatment of Mazie Gordon, the part-owner/operator of a dime movie house who is the city’s leading authority on Bowery bums. The 2,000-word sketch of her in the earlier book has grown in McSorley’s… to a fully rounded 6,000-word portrait replete with a surreal gallery of secondary characters and a wealth of New York low-life history and arcana.
In Old Mr. Flood Mitchell goes further with his profile-by-mosaic technique in three stories about a 93 year-old retired house-wrecker named Hugh G. Flood, who is determined to live to the age of 115 in order to prove the healthfulness of his ‘seafoodetarian’ diet. The delightfully cantankerous Mr. Flood is an invented character whose personality is a composite based on several old men with whom Mitchell became acquainted during his wanderings around Fulton Fish Market. Mitchell’s aim in these stories, he said, was to be “truthful rather than factual”, although the facts are many, amazingly various and all true.
The Bottom of the Harbor continues Mitchell’s fascinated explorations of the waterfront and seaboard of New York City and its environs. Published in 1960, the book contains stories about an Italian fish restaurateur and the building that houses his establishment; an old man descended from a community of black Staten Island oystermen; the rats of New York; the captain of a Stonington, Connecticut fishing dragger; a group of men who each Spring run lines of shad nets from the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River opposite the Upper West Side of Manhattan; and, the title story, the history, evolution and spoliation of New York harbour itself. Many, including myself, regard The Bottom of the Harbor as Mitchell’s most satisfying work; the one in which his longest and strongest threads of abiding concern are most artfully woven together. The pieces in it are, at 10-12,000 words, two or three times longer than those in McSorley’s… and the extended space allows fuller and more finely-shaded evocations of the subjects; the individuating and “differentiating” of them from the mass to which they all superficially belong.
Finally, in Joe Gould’s Secret, published in 1965, Mitchell returns to the subject of his 1942 McSorley’s… piece, Professor Sea-Gull: “…an odd and penniless and unemployable little man named Joseph Ferdinand Gould”, and devotes an entire book to the man and to his own relationship with him. Gould (a familiar figure of my own Greenwich Village childhood) bragged that he was the last of the true bohemians, and he died in 1957. Seven years later Mitchell felt able – indeed, almost compelled – to reveal the ‘secret’ that Gould had never written An Oral History of Our Times: an opus he had advertised to anyone who would listen as being several million words long in its unfinished state, and as a work comparable with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Gould, whom Mitchell saw as the archetypal ‘outcast’, fostered the myth of the Oral History and Mitchell was his Homer.
Joe Gould’s Secret exemplifies the constant Mitchell characteristics of meticulous reportage, vivid portraiture, deep humanity and descriptive and deadpan comic writing of a virtuosity that, for me, rewards any amount of rereading. The book is unique, however, for the degree to which it reveals Mitchell himself. Mitchell appears regularly in his own stories, not merely as anonymous reporter, but as a polite, reticent, listening young man who every once in a while interjects what he feels to be important personal reactions to, or reflections on, the milieux and personalities of his stories. What he has to say in Joe Gould’s Secret about himself and his working life differs in kind and in depth both from the occasional slices of editorial that he allows himself, and from the glimpses given in several lightly fictionalised autobiographical recollections of his North Carolina boyhood. The resulting insights strengthen the view of his work increasingly taken more recently by those who have considered Mitchell in a serious critical light. Earlier evaluations of Mitchell tended to present him as The Great Reporter; a kind of seminal doyen of feature journalism, the apotheosis of The Newspaperman. This was fair enough as far as it went but it did not begin to do justice to Mitchell as consciously imaginative artist. Nor did it much consider the remarkably consistent and coherent social, cultural and, by implication, political philosophy that underpins his work. It is true that most of Mitchell begins as reportage, and that he uses the journalist’s tools to great effect, but he returns too regularly and with too much relish to the same types of individuals and the same general social contexts to be regarded as a promiscuous tabla rasa reporter. He is not, certainly in his later writing, simply out to get the story. His purpose – like Mencken’s – has been to find vehicles for the expression of his own temperament and his highly individual view of various aspects of American reality.
Even to some who knew him Joseph Mitchell’s agreement to allow the preparation and publication of Up in the Old Hotel was unexpected. For years Mitchell had not allowed his books to be reprinted. He regarded paperbacks as weightless and ephemeral, and when proposals were made for anthologies of his work to be published in the manner of the Random House Modern Library The Portable…. series, his reaction was: “Why, that’s for dead people!” However, I had a personal experience of the softening of his attitude on the subject. In 1990 BBC Radio Drama producer, Ned Chaillet, sold the idea I had suggested to him that a selection from McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon might be suitable for one of Radio 4’s readings slots. I had then to address the problem (which I felt might be difficult) of obtaining Mitchell’s permission for his work to be not only broadcast but also abridged. In this I had the advantage of a personal acquaintance with Mitchell, he and his wife being friends and neighbours of my parents, both resident for many years in the same West Tenth Street apartment building in Greenwich Village. I met with Mitchell in his apartment four floors above my parents’ and, after some talk about the practicalities involved, he agreed, with certain business and editorial provisos, to leave the matter in my hands. I have always had a quiet suspicion that Mitchell – whose courtesy and social sensitivity were a byword among those who knew him – could not think of a polite way to refuse a request from the son of two of his oldest friends. The McSorley’s… stories I selected and abridged were broadcast as a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime in November 1992, produced by Ned Chaillet and read by Eli Wallach. They were subsequently repeated on the BBC World Service causing one of Mitchell’s daughters to observe, “Why, Daddy, you’re going to put the whole world to sleep.” The same abridging, producing and reading trio were reunited for the production of Joe Gould’s Secret as a Book of the Week. This was broadcast in March 2000, almost four years after Mitchell’s death in May 1996 and shortly before the release in America of Stanley Tucci’s film of the book.
I do not imagine that Mitchell’s agreement after so many years of refusing such requests was a turning point in his attitude to the dissemination of his work but I do think it may have helped to thaw a frozen pond that was already beginning to melt.
Despite nothing appearing with Mitchell’s name attached for so many years, no one who knew him doubted that he continued to write. He would come to his office at The New Yorker almost every day when he was in the city. (He spent significant amounts of time in Fairmont, North Carolina, where he grew up, and had family connections and business interests to attend to, these inherited from his father who had been a prominent farmer and tobacco auctioneer, as well as being himself a formidable personality by all accounts.) Mitchell was generally reticent about his works in progress but hints of on-going projects occasionally leaked out but as none ever came to fruition during his lifetime this is not the place to speculate about them.
The publication of Up in the Old Hotel and his transformation from a resolutely out-of-print cult writer into a best seller let Mitchell in for an unwonted amount of personal publicity that he privately admitted to finding tiring and not particularly congenial. He was, it should be remembered, nearly 85 years old and had been a widower since 1980. In the course of several interviews – some conducted in places like McSorley’s Old Ale House on Seventh Street and Sloppy Louie’s Fulton Fish Market restaurant, which had featured in his stories – Mitchell said that he had now come to see himself as a kind of ghost of New York City, feeling more akin to the shades of people and places he had written about and that were now gone than he did to the New York and New Yorkers of the present.
A year or so before the appearance of Up in the Old Hotel I was privileged to share lunch with Joe Mitchell and a friend of his at Overton’s restaurant in London. However spectral he may have felt in relation to the city that has been his great subject, there was no lack of corporeality in the way he dealt with a meal consisting of oysters, fish pie, strawberry shortcake, bottled Guinness and coffee. To meet and talk with Mitchell in such circumstances was to feel him as a character typical of some in his own stories. Many of those whom Mitchell reports with obvious admiration have three sets of over-lapping characteristics, each containing paradoxes that they bear with comparative equanimity. Throughout Mitchell there is a celebration of unbuttoned appetite in people, coupled with a puritan, pastoral abhorrence of blind wastefulness. And in wastefulness Mitchell explicitly includes the whole headlong rush of modern urban materialistic consumerism and gadget fetish. To read the stories in Old Mr. Flood and The Bottom of the Harbor 50, 60 and more years after they were written, is to read what (their literary merit apart) should be seen as classics in any canon of ‘Green’ writing. A similar contradiction lies at the very heart of a typical Mitchell subject’s view of the world and humanity. The expressions of feeling that Mitchell consistently records with approval have a wonderful balance between their extremely opinionated and judgemental acuity, and their larger overall generosity of spirit. Few of Mitchell’s people lack a solid set of prejudices wrought out of hard experience, but they don’t tend to expect any more from others than they do from themselves, and they have little problem in admitting when they have been wrong about something or someone. Mr Flood, for instance, is spikishly intolerant about many things but mindless bigotry enrages him. When a young racist Southerner challenges his friendship with a black man he had once employed and asks sneeringly “What race do you belong to, anyhow?”, he replies vehemently, “The human race. I come from the womb and I’m bound for the tomb, the same as you, the same as King George the Six, the same as Johnny Squat.”
A final contradiction common in Mitchell people is that while most of them are, to say the least, worldly, that does not keep a significant proportion of them from spiritual and often specifically religious preoccupations. A few are orthodox churchgoers and seekers after righteousness, but others tend to be ‘religious in their own way’ while being variously sceptical, especially of the clergy. Mr. Flood again, “…broods about religion and reads a chapter of the Bible almost everyday. Even so, he goes to church only on Easter. On that day he has several drinks of Scotch for breakfast and then gets in a cab and goes to a Baptist church in Chelsea. For a week thereafter he is gloomy and silent. “I’m a God-fearing man and I believe in Jesus Christ crucified, risen and coming again, but one sermon a year is all I can stand.’” Another calls himself a ‘Just In Case Christian’ and says, “Still and all, I can’t endure preachers. Deep down in my heart I don’t believe in pie in the sky; I believe in T-bone steak in the here and now.” Mazie Gordon, who is Jewish, admires the local Roman Catholic nuns for their undiscriminating, compassionate humanity, which she contrasts with the self-regarding rectitude of the Bowery evangelist types. The message that comes out again and again is the simple one that only a day to day decency of behaviour can be used as a criterion for people in judging themselves and one another; each individual’s covenant, or lack of one, with his or her creator is no one’s business but their own. This scrupulously Constitutional position is consistent in Mitchell’s work, from which he emerges always as the classical type of the Jeffersonian, egalitarian, libertarian democrat. Unlike the Mencken type, Mitchell looks for dignity in people and he almost always finds it.
On the rare occasions when he doesn’t find it his temperamental habit of empathy and fellow feeling is unbreakable. Even when he comes as near to personal outrage as he seems in his writings to be capable his indignation is full of reservations and second thoughts. On becoming instinctively convinced that Gould’s Oral History is a figment he is appalled and angered, but scarcely an hour later he feels ashamed of himself for having lost his temper with the abject bohemian, for he realizes almost immediately that Gould must have invented and promoted the Oral History not only “…in an attempt to dupe people like me, but also to dupe himself.” Mitchell then relates why he has good reason to understand this. It reminds him, he writes, of a project conceived when he was 24 and newly converted by Ulysses to worship of James Joyce. He had planned to write a novel ‘about New York City’. He goes on to give a synopsis of this imagined book: basically the rite-of-passage story of young Southern newspaper reporter, built around a Bloomsian peregrination of Manhattan south from the Battery north up to Harlem. “I had thought about this novel for over a year. Whenever I had nothing else to do, I would automatically start writing it in my mind. Sometimes, in the course of a subway ride, I wrote three or four chapters. Almost every day I would discard characters and invent new ones… But the truth is, I never actually wrote a word of it. These recollections filled me with an almost unbearable embarrassment, and I began to feel more and more sympathetic to Gould.”
This climactic section of Joe Gould’s Secret holds a key for much that is basic to my own understanding of Mitchell’s work, and particularly to its curious indefinableness as to genre. In it Mitchell gives a directly quoted extract of his putative novel in the form of a street preacher’s sermon as heard by his young protagonist. The quality of the writing in this brief passage; the choice of metaphor and image, and the characteristic Mitchell rhythms, indicate a highly skilled and disciplined literary imagination, and distil remarkably the author’s methods and concerns. But the burden of these evocative few pages is, in essence, a scenario; a projection of a story and not the story itself, and as such is, in its retrospect, an explicit admission of failure.
One reviewer of The Bottom of the Harbor described it as “…what James Joyce might have written had he gone into journalism.” Mitchell’s devotion to Joyce was one shared with my father. They would often sit – sometimes for hours together – engaged in a two-handed exegesis of this or that aspect of the sacred texts: both men holding the view that Leopold Bloom was the greatest man who never lived. The two went often to the meetings of the James Joyce Society at New York’s Gotham Book Mart. Mitchell always listened with interest but rarely spoke in the post-lecture question-and-answer sessions. He was with my father on one occasion when he did speak. The cause was a talk by a particularly cloth-headed academic who had hit on the idiotic idea of counting the number of times the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ occurred in Ulysses and deciding on that basis whether it was a ‘positive’ or a ‘negative’ work. Despite the famously affirmative ending of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at its close the lecturer concluded as a result of his word count that the book was essentially negative. Joe Mitchell was absolutely outraged by this and broke his customary silence to deliver a heart-felt sermon on the folly of attempting to quantify a work of art in such an absurd manner. My father, after his own temperament and characteristic style, asked the benighted academic if he had ever heard the old popular song, Your Lips Tell Me No, No, But There’s Yes, Yes in Your Eyes.
It may seem a kind of intellectual scrupulosity verging on the sinful to say that if one cannot hope to write Ulysses one should give the novel as a form the go-by, but that may well be what Mitchell came to feel. It is worth considering what the influence of Joyce’s enormously fecund fictions must have been on a young writer who, as a 1930s New York newspaper reporter, would presumably have been schooled in the journalistic virtues of a terse, factual and essentially impersonal style of writing. I think that ultimately the effect may have been inhibiting. It is my idea that Joseph Mitchell was a first rank imaginative artist who, after Joe Gould’s Secret failed to find – at least for publication – a form that was flexible enough to accommodate both his great particular gifts, and his quite specific social, cultural and spiritual concerns. Having pioneered one form of writing and feeling himself to have outgrown it, I can easily imagine him spending a third of a creative life searching for another.
Mitchell’s great friend and New Yorker colleague, A.J. Liebling, once made a distinction between “the reporter, who writes what he sees; the interpretive reporter, who writes what he sees and what he construes to be its meaning; and the expert, who writes what he construes to be the meaning of what he hasn’t seen.” Mitchell, even as an imaginative writer belongs firmly in the first category, and his art lies in the way in which he makes clear what he ‘construes to be the meaning of what he has seen’ while very rarely saying so overtly. Considering his own genuine modesty, Mitchell, not at all accidentally, achieved some very ambitious things. Despite a vivid sense of place and character that is distinctly Joycean, taken as a whole his writings may not constitute the Ulysses-on–the-Hudson about which he dreamed as a young man, but they do make for a very real and thoroughly legitimate Oral History of his time.
My personal view of Joseph Mitchell has three main facets. One sees him as the writer of a flavoursome, highly nourishing prose that is full of fibre and protein and very short on fats and carbohydrates. To again take a cue from Leibling who said of his friend and subject Colonel Stingo – The Honest Rainmaker – that he was the best curveball writer since Anthony Burton and Sir Thomas Browne; able to make his longest, most elaborate sentences break over the plate. He also credited Col. Stingo with having – unlike his 17th century predecessors – a change of pace. Carrying on with that metaphor, it seems to me that Mitchell also, as a prose writer, was not an over-powering Nolan Ryan-style high heat artist, his strengths – like those of Greg Maddux in his prime – lying in his pin-point control and variations of speed. If he can be considered to have had a literary ‘money’ or an ‘out’ pitch it was his change-up. The second facet is in his role as social anthropologist and natural historian of the city in which I was, in the old Irish phrase, bred and buttered. And thirdly I see him as a dialectical philosopher who spent his personal and professional life trying to find the country of his youth in the city of his manhood, and the specifically spiritual in the worldly generality.
As I wrote in a 1996 Guardian obituary of him: “I have a clear and recurring mental image of Joseph Mitchell in which I see him, wearing his soft snap-brim hat and anonymous three-piece suit, listening, notebook in hand, while a few of the Serpent’s surviving cronies sit around, drinking whiskey, cutting up old touches, and complaining that things have certainly gone to hell in the Garden of Eden lately.”
Joseph Mitchell was born 27th July 1908 and died 24th May 1996.
Note Postscriptum: Even at the time, over five years ago, when the above study was first composed, I had become aware that following the publication of Joe Gould’s Secret a number of people had contacted Mitchell to say that they had at one time or another seen and read chapters of Gould’s Oral History. These various, as it were, witness statements, seemed to attest that in some wildly scatter-gun and apparently inchoate form the Oral History had had a real existence outside Gould’s own equally ungoverned imagination. Although he may not have realized it at the time, these testimonies in their way confirmed Mitchell’s original “Professor Sea Gull”description: “The Oral History is a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay.”
I’ve been prompted to revisit this Oral History business by both Professor Jill Lepore’s recent New Yorker piece “Joe Gould’s Teeth” – published, I’m sure, purposefully in the July 27th 2015 edition of the magazine; that date being what would have been Joe Mitchell’s 107th (and Old Mr. Flood’s 165th!) birthday – and by Thomas Kunkel’s admirable recent biography “Joseph Mitchell – Man in Profile”.
In the course of her piece Professor Lepore likens a preoccupation with Joe Gould to a form of mental illness to which she, in her researches, becomes – as did Mitchell – a victim. I suffer a similar malady in relation to Mitchell himself. But I find myself unsure if the antidote to this psychic virus is more or less delving and study.