My desire is to get the reader, well, first of all to read it. That story [“The Bottom of the Harbor”] was hard to write because I had to wonder how long can I keep developing it before the reader’s going to get tired of this. Here and there, as I think a fiction writer would, I put things that I know—even the remark the tugboat men make, that you could bottle this water and sell it for poison—that are going to keep the reader going. I can lure him or her into the story I want to tell. I can’t tell the story I want to tell until I’ve got you into the pasture and down where the sheep are. Where the shepherd is. He’s going to tell the story, but I’ve got to get you past the ditch and through these bushes.
Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell.
. . . Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. . . .If you share my love and reference for the work of Joseph Mitchell, you'll want to read Janet Malcolm's long-form review of a new biography of Mitchell, from which this is excerpted, published in The New York Review of Books.
Much has been made of the fact that after “Joe Gould’s Secret” Mitchell published nothing in The New Yorker, though he came to the office regularly, and colleagues passing his door could hear him typing. I was a colleague and friend, and I always assumed that the reason he wasn’t publishing was because he wasn’t satisfied with what he was writing: he had been producing work of increasing beauty and profundity, and now the standard he had set for himself was too high. Mitchell spoke of James Joyce, Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Ivan Turgenev, D.H. Lawrence, and T.S. Eliot as writers he read and reread. This was the company he was in behind his closed door. We should respect his inhibiting reverence for literary transcendence and be grateful for the work that got past his censor.
If you haven't read Joseph Mitchell, and if you love great writing, you can now find all of his work lovingly reprinted. Start with McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and go from there.