2.16.2013

two great reads from the new yorker, part 1: joseph mitchell on himself

The New Yorker has given us a singularly rare gift: new writing by Joseph Mitchell.

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.
Mitchell wrote from 1929 to 1964. Then he stopped writing - stopped completely, as far as we know. In one of the most famous writer's blocks known in this corner of the world, Mitchell continued to show up at The New Yorker magazine, sitting in his office every day, not writing. After Mitchell died in 1996, New Yorker colleague Roger Angell described it like this.
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.

4 comments:

laura k said...

I've just finished reading the first (of two) instalments, and I am just blown away by how perfect and beautiful it is. How wonderful to have this, and how sad that we will never read the book this was to be.

johngoldfine said...

Joe Mitchell's writer's block is too depressing to consider for long, but I read somewhere an interesting take on how his Joe Gould profile prefigured (or something) his own eventual problem.

laura k said...

It's on Wikipedia if you want to refresh your memory. I don't buy it, personally. To me it sounds like the explanations we get for hitting droughts in baseball, made up stuff because people want to see a reason for everything. But obviously I have no way of knowing.

I honestly think if I could write like Joseph Mitchell did for as long as he did, I'd gladly exchange that for a writer's block that lasted the rest of my life. Alas, that choice is not on offer.

laura k said...

New York Times item on these Joseph Mitchell memoir pieces, with a very nice quote from David Remnick: here.