Monday, February 18, 2013

“New York’s First True Biographer”

Last August, we posted on this page Matthew Fleagle’s wonderful two-part remembrance of Joseph Mitchell (here and here), the legendary and once prolific New Yorker writer who stopped publishing anything in 1964, yet maintained regular hours in the magazine’s Midtown offices for the next three decades.

Then, just last week, The New Yorker finally brought readers “Street Life,” the first of three promised excerpts from a never-before-published memoir Mitchell composed sometime prior to his demise in 1996, at age 87.

Finally, a new posting on the New Yorker Web site, by Erin Overbey, looks back at the journalist’s tenure with the magazine. Early in that article, Overbey recalls that
His first big piece after joining the magazine was a Reporter at Large about a former ship captain who founded a private museum in midtown called the Museum for Intelligent People. Mitchell contributed over sixty pieces, many of them Profiles and long features, to the magazine between the mid-thirties and mid-sixties. He composed city narratives exploring the lives of gypsies and saloon owners, Bowery preachers and oystermen. Editor Harold Ross sometimes referred to his pieces, which tended to defy easy classification, as “highlife lowlife” stories. A “listener of genius,” as the Times once called him, Mitchell made an art out of detailing his subjects’ magical, wandering commentary. “If you were speaking with him,” Roger Angell told me, “he was quite charming. He would listen intently, nod his head in agreement with you, and then he would say in a light North Carolina drawl, ‘Ah know it!’” The only people he didn’t care to listen to, Mitchell once remarked, were “society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors, and any actress under the age of thirty-five.” He developed a close friendship with his colleague A. J. Liebling, and they would often lunch together with S. J. Perelman and James Thurber. Beginning in the fifties, he also struck up an occasional correspondence with Ernest Hemingway, after they found common cause over their mutual indignation at the public shaming of Ingrid Bergman when she had affair with Roberto Rosselini.
Click here to enjoy the full piece.

Are we being wildly optimistic, or might all of this recent activity in the Zeitgeist have the potential to spur a mini-revival of interest in the North Carolina-born Mitchell? If so, it doesn’t come too soon. Just a decade and a half after he went to his grave, the journalist seems at risk of being forgotten, especially by younger readers. We can only hope that with the release of more excerpts from Joseph Mitchell’s previously elusive memoir, and a few more articles in prominent publications other than The New Yorker, readers will be provoked to search out his books (including Up in the Old Hotel and Joe Gould’s Secret), and the wheels on the rediscovery of this great American writer will slowly but surely start to spin.



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