Joseph Mitchell wrote about New York City and the multiplicity of people who inhabit it. Mitchell wrote nonfiction portraits of quirky people, overlooked trades, unknown professions, obsessive collectors. His warm, meticulous prose brought people to life before your eyes. He wrote beautifully, and with great respect for the endless diversity of humanity, long before diversity was a buzzword.
|First edition, found here.|
Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained.I can't recall how I discovered Joseph Mitchell's writing. It was before his work was reissued in new editions - and before the internet gave easy access to any title you might want - so his books were always on my list to hunt down in used bookstores. It was also while Mitchell was still alive, so I was able to tell him, by letter, how much his gift meant to me, how illuminating, how transporting his writing was.
This week and next week, The New Yorker is publishing the initial chapters of what Mitchell intended to be his memoirs. This is their introduction, print edition only.
Joseph Mitchell was on the staff of this magazine from 1938 until his death, in 1996. Born in 1908 into a prosperous family of North Carolina cotton and tobacco growers, he came to New York City at the age of twenty-one, to pursue a career as a writer. Arriving just as the Depression set in, he heeded the advice of one of his first editors, at the Herald Tribune: walk the city; get to know every side street and quirk and character. He did this, obsessively, for the rest of his life. Mitchell profiled the Mohawk steelworkers who erected many of Manhattan's skyscrapers; and McSorley's Old Ale House, the city's most venerable tavern; and George Hunter, the caretaker of a ramshackle African-American cemetery on Staten Island; and Lady Olga, the bearded lady in countless circus sideshows. What follows here is the initial chapter of a planned memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies but, as with other writings after 1964, never completed.Joseph Mitchell's stories are collected in the books My Ears Are Bent (1938; reissued in 2001), McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943), Old Mr. Flood (1948), The Bottom of the Harbor (1959), Joe Gould's Secret (1965). In 1992, most of those stories were combined in Up in the Old Hotel.