joseph mitchell, master writer of the master city

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. . . .

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 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.

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.


johngoldfine said...

I love Joseph Mitchell too and think I've read his everything. I certainly have had many of the short steins they serve at McSorley's.

But his story is so fucking depressing--all those years, all that tapping away at the keyboard.

My hero: Anthony Trollope:

Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next. The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week. Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years. Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

The New Yorker, June 14, 2004

allan said...

Links to three previously unpublished New Yorker pieces, one from a partially-completed memoir.

laura k said...

Joseph Mitchell's infamous writer's block is one of the saddest writing stories there is.

I have said many times that if I could write half as well, if I had written anything as good as his work, ever, I'd gladly exchange it for a decade or so of tap-tapping away to no end. But I doubt it's true, even as I say it.

Henry Roth was another infamously blocked writer, then in his elderly years he started churning out novels again!