Thursday, August 16, 2012

His Own Sweet Time:
Joseph Mitchell’s Omnibus 20 Years On, Part II

(Editor’s note: This is the second and concluding installment of Matthew Fleagle’s remembrance of author and New Yorker magazine writer Joseph Mitchell. Part I can be found here.)


Joseph Mitchell and his elder daughter, Nora, in the 1940s. (Photograph by Therese Jacobsen Mitchell, used courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell and Nora Mitchell Sanborn.)

Joseph Mitchell’s writing evolved over the course of his career at The New Yorker, which is presented in Up in the Old Hotel pretty much as it unfolded. More than half of that anthology is taken up by the book McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, which is his most famous book, though few scholars would call it his best. In McSorley’s Mitchell wrote mostly about oddballs or unusual places or events for their own sake. You don’t get the sense in these early stories, as you do later on in Old Mr. Flood and The Bottom of the Harbor, that Mitchell was picking his subjects for what they represented about disappearing traditions or forgotten lore. Or at least, if there was something of what Noel Perrin calls an “elegiac” aspect about his early subjects, Mitchell wasn’t emphasizing it. You do get a strong sense that he had a genuine regard for people who in the face of an apathetic world, or a hostile world, or even a world changing around them, grabbed hold of life with both hands and squeezed everything they could out of it. He let them speak for themselves and he didn’t judge them.

The most famous of those people (famous after Mitchell wrote about him, that is, since Mitchell had no interest in celebrities), and one who spoke volubly for himself, was Joseph Ferdinand Gould (1889-1957).

Joe Gould was a Harvard drop-out, a homeless, seldom-washed Bohemian who claimed to be able to speak the language of sea gulls and trawled the streets of Greenwich Village looking for friends to hit up for “contributions” toward the finishing of his opus, a closely guarded manuscript he claimed was already nine million words long, “eleven times as long as the Bible,” a book he called An Oral History of Our Time. The opposite of “formal” histories of generals and politicians and kings, which Gould considered “largely false,” the Oral History would be what he termed “the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude.” It contained things that everyday people said to each other. In Mitchell’s words, it was “a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey.” Gould believed that what regular people said every day was a truer history, and it has been pointed out by many observers that this is a belief that might have been voiced by Mitchell himself, that in fact Mitchell’s writing was that very credo put into practice. If Gould had not been verifiably real (an essay and a poem or two by Gould were actually published, Malcolm Cowley and William Saroyan admired him, and E.E. Cummings was Gould’s close friend and wrote a poem about him that began, “little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn't know where to find them”), you might be tempted to think Mitchell made him up because he was such a good idea, such a great vehicle for Mitchell’s own themes. Mitchell first profiled Gould in 1942 in a New Yorker story called “Professor Sea Gull.”

Gould is also the subject of Mitchell’s last published piece, “Joe Gould’s Secret,” which appeared as a two-part profile in The New Yorker in 1964 and as a book of that same name the next year. In this second profile of Gould, which he waited to write until after his subject had passed away in 1957, Mitchell reveals what he himself only learned some years after profiling Gould the first time: that despite all of Gould’s talk about the Oral History--how he kept parts of it stashed in friends’ apartments all over town, for example--not a single word of it had ever been written down. This was a shock to Mitchell, who felt betrayed and, from a journalistic standpoint, guilty of being an accessory to a big lie. But he didn’t have the heart to expose the already humble Gould while the man lived, and he wrestled with his conscience as to whether to disclose the secret at all.

(Left) Joe Gould, aka “Professor Sea Gull,” in a photo from a 1947 edition of Collier’s magazine.

The story line of Joe Gould’s Secret follows Mitchell’s growing suspicion over the years that Gould has never written down a word of his now famous Oral History, a confrontation between author and subject in which Mitchell accuses Gould of deception and laziness, the subsequent fall-out in the relationship between the two men, and a comparison of Gould’s unwritten masterpiece with a semi-autobiographical novel that Mitchell himself had carried around in his own head for decades and never committed to paper. That novel, whose storyline Mitchell unfurls in startling depth, is about a southerner who comes to New York City, has a crisis of faith and finds a kind of redemption, or more accurately a release, in the words of a black Harlem preacher. The synopsis is so thorough, interrupting the story of Gould for more than two full pages, that it becomes instantly clear that Mitchell is divesting himself of the option to ever write the story down in full. It’s a moment in Joe Gould’s Secret that reaches out of the book into real life, like a bomb in a painting exploding and destroying the room it hangs in. Given that this was the last new article Mitchell ever published, the implications of this passage are enormous. We become unable, as Mitchell did, to see a difference between the drunkard Gould and “normal” or “decent” people. The thought that any of us is just a change of clothes and a missed bath away from being Joe Gould is a horror that Mitchell’s “narrator-I” (if not his “author-I”) must confront.

The fact that the book has such a thunderous dramatic pulse was unprecedented in Mitchell’s work for The New Yorker to that point, and it makes for a different kind of story. Gould’s portrait is painted more fully here, for one thing; he comes across as much less charming than he appeared in Mitchell’s initial, 1942 article about him, even taking on a disgusting cast. For another, Mitchell actually struggles visibly as a character in the piece. And for a third, it’s uncomfortable; Gould’s antics and posturing amounts to daring the civilized world to look at his reactionary, exuberantly indecorous existence, and when Mitchell does so, he falls into Gould’s life and can’t get out, discovering that it is his own.


The opening of Joe Gould’s Secret, in which Mitchell (played by Stanley Tucci) meets the eccentric Mr. Gould (Ian Holm).

I’ve been surprised to learn that many Mitchell scholars regard Joe Gould’s Secret to be a step down from The Bottom of the Harbor and even from Old Mr. Flood. I know what they mean in terms of the craft--it seems less controlled, more emotional, not as subtle or nimble--but I would argue that Joe Gould’s Secret is the logical outcome of what Mitchell was doing all along. He wrote about other people and used their stories to express his own appetites and sorrows and enthusiasms, however discreetly. Joe Gould was the subject that turned on Mitchell, a tar baby that he couldn’t escape because, as he said, “Gould became me.” Joe Gould’s Secret is brilliant in a kind of accidental way, as though the author of a book got trapped inside it. As a story, it is hugely compelling and unlike anything else. It was compelling enough that the actor and director Stanley Tucci made a movie out of it in 2000 starring Ian Holm as Gould and himself as the southern-born writer.

The Bottom of the Harbor is generally regarded as Mitchell’s masterwork. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” and “The Rivermen” are two stories from that collection often cited as examples of how Mitchell somehow removed “the marks of writing from the page,” as Calvin Trillin put it. These stories feel effortless, as though all Mitchell did was type them up. He often appears to be merely serving as a conduit for the monologues of other people in these pieces, although the details of both the monologues and the narrative suggest worlds beyond the bare facts and events. The filtration process is often invisible on the first read-through, but in the subsequent readings in which Mitchell fans often indulge, you can begin to see another, subtler narrative in his choices of what to include. A pages-long quote by 87-year-old George H. Hunter about the black families who founded his little Staten Island community, one of the longest monologues in Mitchell’s oeuvre, is interrupted only by two short sentences in which the old man swats and kills a fly that has been hanging around. Then he continues talking where he left off. This is the Mitchell graveyard humor in spades, and you can imagine him chuckling about it as he writes. The fly reminds us of the death and decay that we can’t escape. But you can still make comedy of it, and in Mitchell’s worldview, you must.

Dan Frank, who was an editor of non-fiction at publisher Pantheon in 1992 and is now its editor in chief--and for whom the publication of Up in the Old Hotel “remains certainly one of the highlights of my publishing life”--told me during a recent phone call that Mitchell took 400 pages of handwritten notes for “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” ”Those notes represented maybe 50 trips out there [to Staten Island]. He had enough notes for a book-length story.” The fact that Mitchell presents the story as having occurred over just two days doesn’t bother Frank any more than does the reconstruction and splicing-together of quotes that Mitchell must obviously have done in an age before handheld recording devices. “What you’re sure of,” I was glad to hear Frank say, “is that they said these things.”

Mitchell said he’d always been pretty pleased with “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” “I just stumbled on that story,” he told an interviewer with The New York Times in 1992. “When someone’s willing to talk, you can let it lead wherever.” “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is my own favorite Mitchell story, and The Bottom of the Harbor is my favorite collection of this author’s works. It contains the stories “Up in the Old Hotel” and “The Bottom of the Harbor,” two pieces that are ostensibly about an old building and the Hudson’s riverbed, respectively, but are really about the things that lie unremembered in dark places and the fact that nothing lasts. Death haunts all of the stories in The Bottom of the Harbor. In the first paragraph of “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” are these lines:
When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there. … Invariably, for some reason I don’t know and don’t want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk.

* * *

It’s been suggested that editor Harold Ross hoped to capitalize on Mitchell’s prodigious output when The New Yorker imported him from the dailies, but if that’s true then he was soon to be disappointed. Mitchell immediately slowed down and started taking his time. (It might be worth noting that Mitchell did not include in McSorley’s any of the stories he wrote for The New Yorker before joining the magazine as a staff writer.) And the interval between his published pieces began to grow from weeks to months and then from months to years. The six stories collected in The Bottom of the Harbor were spread out over 15 years, from 1944 to 1959, during which period Mitchell published only four other stories.

After “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, he published nothing new at all. He continued to go to work at the magazine every day when he was in New York (he spent a lot of time in Fairmont, especially after his parents died and he became holder of the deed of title to the family farm), and he clacked away on the typewriter in his little office located off what came to be called Sleepy Hollow--a quiet hallway in The New Yorker’s offices away from the main bustle--and once someone reported that he had a manuscript laid out all over the room. But the years went by and the work never emerged. None of his fellow writers asked him what he was doing. The culture at The New Yorker respected the sanctity of each writer’s process and even envied those who suffered longest over their work.

Every article you read about Mitchell will give you a different reason for his years-long silence. He was bereft at the loss of his friend A.J. Liebling in 1963 and his mother around the time of the second Gould piece. The business with Gould wounded him and wore him out. He was suddenly worried that his next piece would not live up to the reputation of his earlier work. He was unwilling to use people for his own gain anymore. The city changed on him. Most of these things he acknowledged himself, and there is much to ponder in this passage from “Joe Gould’s Secret”:
Suppose he had written the Oral History, I reflected; it probably wouldn’t have been the great book he had gone up and down the highways and byways prophesying it would be at all--great books, even halfway great books, even good books, even halfway good books, being so exceedingly rare. It probably would have been, at best, only a curiosity. A few years after it came out, copies of it would have choked the “Curiosa” shelves in every second-hand bookstore in the country. Anyway, I decided, if there was anything the human race had a sufficiency of, a sufficiency and a surfeit, it was books. When I thought of the cataracts of books, the Niagaras of books, the rushing rivers of books, the oceans of books, the tons and truckloads and trainloads of books that were pouring off the presses of the world at that moment, only a very few of which would be worth picking up and looking at, let alone reading, I began to feel that it was admirable that he hadn’t written it. One less book to clutter up the world, one less book to take up space and catch dust and go unread from bookstores to homes to second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes to still other second-hand bookstores and junk stores and thrift shops to still other homes ad infinitum.
Nevertheless, Mitchell was writing right up until the end of his life, and for me it is enough to imagine that this perfectionist, who had been in a sense spoiled by the total absence of deadlines since before the Second World War, was just taking his own sweet time, and he took it all the way.

Mitchell said in a 1989 interview that “I have continued working on a book, and one of these days if I am not terminally interrupted, I hope to finish it.” Among the interruptions were the numerous organizations and associations he became involved in during his last few decades. Mitchell was appointed by Mayor Ed Koch to the New York Landmarks Commission, a post he held for five years. He helped charter the South Street Seaport Museum. He served as vice president and secretary of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He was vestryman for Grace Church in Manhattan, and according to Raymond J. Rundus’ thoroughly researched bibliography, Joseph Mitchell: A Reader’s and Writer’s Guide (2003), the Society of Architectural Historians and the Society of Industrial Archaeology and the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture and the British Gypsy-Lore Society and the Century Club of New York City all claimed portions of Mitchell’s time.


Even though he spent his whole adult life discovering New York City, Mitchell remained attached to the people and the land of Robeson County, North Carolina. Here he hoses down some local produce. (Photograph by Therese Jacobsen Mitchell, used courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell and Nora Mitchell Sanborn.)

Nora Sanborn told me she’d recently gone to an event called “Joseph Mitchell’s Harbor,” a celebration of her father’s contributions, literary and otherwise, to the South Street Seaport, which was the location of Fulton Fish Market that Mitchell was so attached to. The panel was headed by the architect James Sanders and included the writers Luc Santé, Mark Kurlansky, Nathan Ward and Robert Sullivan. Sanborn said that when the panel was discussing what they thought Mitchell would have said about how access to Manhattan’s riverfront is gradually becoming a commodity for the new gentry--the upper classes can jog and ride bikes from the Battery to Fort Washington--while the poor and working classes can’t get near it, Sanborn raised her hand and said, “Well, I’m Joseph Mitchell’s daughter and I’ll tell you exactly what he would have said about it. He would have said ‘the g-- d-- sons of bitches.’” Sanborn told me that that was one of her father’s favorite phrases, and that it was his wonted response to pretension.

When she mentioned Sullivan’s name, I got excited. In my mind Sullivan, a Brooklyn-born New York writer and historian (he penned the acclaimed bestseller Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants and has a new book, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78, coming out in September), is one of Mitchell’s literary heirs. The fact that he was on that panel supported my suspicion that he was a Mitchell fan.

I managed to get Sullivan on the phone and he corroborated Sanborn’s story. The appearance of Mitchell’s daughter among the seated attendees startled him; it was only the second time he’s spoken publicly about Joseph Mitchell and it’s the second time he’s had one of the author’s descendants turn up in the audience (last time it was a grandchild, which makes him worry that “you know, if you do the math, the next time Mitchell himself might appear”). Sullivan’s father had a printer’s shop down by Fulton Fish Market and knew the kind of people Mitchell wrote about (his father ate at Sloppy Louie’s, the setting for the story “Up in the Old Hotel”) and he was only too happy to talk with me about Mitchell. He spoke at length about how fascinated he was to discover Mitchell’s writing with its connection to his own father’s life, and we digressed happily into a conversation about how the printing trade and the shipping industry have always gone hand in hand (something that hadn’t occurred to me). But the thing he said that stuck out most for me was a remark tying Mitchell’s literary legacy with the work he did for all these groups later in his life.

“What you see in preservation movements these days,” said Sullivan, “is that the goal is not just restoring the structure--the physical building--but also the use of the building. And you can’t restore the use of a building if you don’t know how it was used. One of the things Joseph Mitchell did in his writing that is so important is that he showed us, in a very practical way, what the uses of these places were that he wrote about. You hear the word ‘folkways’ a lot now, and you could apply it here. We have used our harbor, we have used the river and this geography in certain ways, and Mitchell has captured those folkways for us, he’s preserved that knowledge of our use of places.”

* * *

Mitchell died in Manhattan on May 24, 1996, just long enough after the publication of his omnibus to see that it had done very well. He chose to be buried in a family plot back in Fairmont. Fortunately for all lovers of good writing and the folkways of New York and the Hudson River, Up in the Old Hotel is still in print in the Vintage paperback edition, and Vintage UK--a Random House sibling--released a British paperback version on July 5 of this year.

By the way, the anthology almost didn’t happen.

Mitchell had not allowed reprints of any of his books and he was reluctant even when the project was underway, according to Pantheon editor Frank. I’d called Frank to find out if he could tell me anything about why Mitchell had not wanted his books reprinted, and why he finally changed his mind, and how it all worked out.

“The anthology was very much his idea,” said Frank, “but it wasn’t a priority. During the time his wife was ill his life became more about taking care of her and so he wasn’t really thinking much about his past work. And there was a shyness about Joe. He didn’t want to be the focus of attention. It was Sheila McGrath, his companion during his last years, who convinced him to go ahead. I wasn’t privy to those conversations, but I understand that she told him, ‘Look, there are new generations of people who don’t know your work. Your writing needs to be available for them.’

(Right) A marker honoring “native son” Mitchell in Fairmont, North Carolina. (Click to enlarge)

“One of the reasons he was reluctant to have his work reprinted,” Frank added, “was that he felt people would ask the question, ‘What have you been working on since those early works?’ And that was a very uncomfortable question for him. In his mind he had never stopped writing, but he wasn’t satisfied with the work he was doing. Also, he felt there was a continuity to his work. Publishers had approached him over the years about doing just one of his books, and he wasn’t interested in that. He was close friends with another writer there at The New Yorker named Joseph Liebling [A.J. Liebling], who died in 1963. And he saw what happened, how various publishers would come out with one of Liebling’s books and it would be available in hardback for a short time and then in paperback, and then it would be out of print. That didn’t seem very satisfactory to him. He didn’t want that.”

I asked Frank whether Mitchell, or he himself, had worried that no one would remember Mitchell, and whether he recalled marketing Up in the Old Hotel in any particular way. “Publishing a book of previous work by an author who has fallen into some obscurity is a dicey proposition,” Frank admitted. “What we tried to suggest to people was that if you like reading John McPhee or Calvin Trillin, here’s the man who came before them.” (With regard to the self-proclaimed New Journalists, McPhee is reported to have said that Joseph Mitchell was creating artistic material through factual writing “when Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote were still in knee pants.”)

Frank told me that Pantheon did a first run of 8,000 to 9,000 copies of Up in the Old Hotel in hardback and sold 4,000 to 5,000 of them to bookshops right away. He said they did six or seven printings and eventually sold 35,000 hardcover copies. The book was released the second week of August, 1992, and reached the New York Times Best Sellers List on September 20 at spot number 12, which pretty much put “paid” to any doubts about whether Joseph Mitchell still had a place in the hearts of readers.

I asked whether Mitchell was pleased, and I imagined I could hear Frank’s smile suddenly widen.

“He was thrilled.”

(Copyright © Matthew Fleagle 2012)

READ MORE:Joseph Mitchell, Chronicler of the Unsung and the Unconventional, Dies at 87,” by Richard Severo (The New York Times); “Joe Mitchell’s Secret,” by Clay Risen (The Morning News); “The Grammar of Hard Facts: Joe Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel,” by Tucker Carrington (The Virginia Quarterly Review); “The Collector of the Everyday,” by Sam Stephenson (The Oxford American); “Reporter Remembered,” by Amanda Munger (The Robesonian).

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