Wednesday, August 15, 2012

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

(Editor’s note: This is the opening installment of a two-part feature looking back at the career of Joseph Mitchell, a renowned staff writer for The New Yorker, two decades after the release of his last collection of essays. The author of this piece is Matthew Fleagle, a technical writer at a small software company in Seattle, Washington. In a previous life, Fleagle contributed frequently to newspapers and magazines, but he explains that “This is the first article I’ve written specifically for publication in a dozen years.”)

Journalist-author Joseph Mitchell in 1959

Scott’s Bookstore was an independent shop that occupied 5,000 square feet of an old mill and granary built in 1907 in Mount Vernon, Washington, about an hour and a half north of Seattle. Before we had children, my wife and I used to drive up there on lazy Sundays and have brunch at the Calico Cupboard, a restaurant that occupied the rest of the building, and then we’d spend a long while browsing the books in Scott’s, which always seemed to be more interesting than those in the big chain stores. I hear Scott’s is gone now, but I haven’t been up there to look. The thought makes me too sad.

In addition to the fond memories I hold of less-hectic days with my wife, there is another reason why Scott’s Bookstore will always occupy a place of honor in my mind and heart.

It was there on one of those trips north that I came across the writing of Joseph Mitchell for the first time. His book was on a table near the entrance with other books the staff had written recommendations for by hand on vanilla-colored card stock. Whoever chose that book for the table, I’ll thank them forever. Thumbing through it I found this passage from a story called “Hit on the Head With a Cow,” in which Charles Eugene Cassell, “a relentless and indiscriminate collector” who runs Captain Charley’s Private Museum for Intelligent People in a Harlem tenement basement, speaks to Mitchell while looking for something he’s mislaid:
“Look at this lunch bucket,” he said. “Use to belong to Al Smith when he was in Fulton Fish Market. Never used such a common thing myself. Always had money, never broke; had the chicken pox, had the sleeping sickness, had the dropsy, had the yellow johnnies, had the walking, talking pneumonia. Didn’t miss a thing in the medical line. My old man was a big man with shoulders like a mule, born on a farm in Nova Scotia, lived most of his life in Boston. He was born in a barn. When he went in a place he always left the door wide open. People would yell at him, ‘Shut the door! Were you born in a barn?’ and he’d say, ‘That’s right. How’d you guess it?’ He was biggity as sin. What you call a beachcomber. He did odd jobs on the fish docks, and he fed us on fish until the bones stuck out of our ears. Comb my hair in the morning, I’d comb out a handful of bones. It got so my stomach rose and fell with the tide. Fish, fish! I was almost grown before I found out people ate anything else.”
I had never heard of Joseph Mitchell before, although I should have. Mitchell left the rural swampland of North Carolina’s coastal plains in 1929 and came to the most urbanized spot in the world, documented the last remnants of 19th-century New York City in a new kind of reportage that astounded readers, continued to astound readers during a long and celebrated career as a staff writer at the world’s most pre-eminent city magazine, then stopped publishing at the peak of his craft and vanished from the public consciousness, never to publish another article. His silence became legendary. For decades Mitchell refused to allow the five books in which he had collected his stories to be reprinted, and people who wanted to read them had to root around for them in used book stores. His paper trail virtually disappeared.

(Right) Entrance to the National Association Building, where The New Yorker had its offices from 1935 to 1991.

Many readers of The New Yorker who had eagerly awaited each new Mitchell piece assumed after many years of his silence that he was dead, even though Mitchell continued to show up at his office for 30 years after the publication of his last article and was known to be working continually and determinedly on something big. Some of his younger colleagues at the magazine knew little of the older gentleman who always wore the Brooks Brothers suit and a fedora and kept a tidy office, until someone would hand them a hard-won copy of one of Mitchell’s out-of-print books and say “read the master.”

It was therefore a startlement to many of Mitchell’s old fans and an eye-opening discovery for new ones when in 1992--20 years ago this month--four of Mitchell’s books were reprinted in an omnibus edition called Up in the Old Hotel. The four books are McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943), Old Mr. Flood (1948), The Bottom of the Harbor (1960) and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965). (A 1938 collection of features from his early days as a newspaper reporter, My Ears Are Bent, was excluded.) All of the stories in the four books represented in Up in the Old Hotel were originally published in The New Yorker.

Up in the Old Hotel is an anthology of profiles and other articles Mitchell wrote for the magazine from 1938 to 1964 and it’s the last book he published before he died in 1996. Within its 700-plus pages are 37 stories about, among other things, street preachers, fishermen, clammers, restaurateurs, bums and lunatics, bartenders, a bearded lady and the Mohawk Indians who worked untethered at the tops of skyscrapers being constructed in Manhattan. The stories paint a picture--a pathetic one in the truest sense of the word--of the city’s human heart, or one corner of it anyway. Mitchell sought out people and places that few other writers were paying any attention to. Not only were his subjects unusual for journalistic reportage at that time--everyone but the rich, famous and powerful--but he wrote about them in a style that foreshadowed the New Journalists by decades and that was never successfully appropriated by them.

Mitchell was known for his Olympian powers of observation and attention to detail, and for the dark sense of humor that drew him to the subjects he wrote about. “In going over these stories,” Mitchell explained in the introduction to Up in the Old Hotel, “I was surprised and pleased to see how often a kind of humor that I can only call graveyard humor turned up in them. In some of them it is what the story is all about. In some of them it lurks around in the background or in between the lines. It turns up often in the conversations between me and the people I interviewed, or in the parts of the conversations that I chose to quote. I was pleased to discover this because graveyard humor is an exemplification of the way I look at the world. It typifies my cast of mind.”

* * *

Joseph Quincy Mitchell was born on his grandparents’ farm at a place called Iona, North Carolina, in 1908 and grew up in nearby Fairmont, a tobacco market town. Mitchell’s ancestors on both sides, he said in the same introduction, had been farmers in that region since before the Revolutionary War. His father grew and traded tobacco, and when he wasn’t tagging along with his aunts Annie and Mary on trips to the Iona Cemetery (where he was tutored in their graveyard humor), Mitchell spent hours and hours at the tobacco market listening to his father and other men conduct business. Although the energy of the market thrilled him, he chose not to follow his father into the business, instead traveling to New York with the hope of becoming a political writer. He’d attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and written for the Chapel Hill Weekly and the Daily Tar Heel, and on the strength of a single article about the tobacco industry in Robeson County, which he sent unsolicited to the New York Herald Tribune and which that paper published in the summer of 1929, an editor there invited him to Manhattan and helped him find a job at the then-fading New York World, Joseph Pulitzer’s old paper.

Mitchell later wrote that he spent “eight long sorrowful years as a reporter” for newspapers in New York City, first phoning in to a rewrite man the details of a “murder, or stick-up, or wreck, or brawl, or fire, or whatever,” and eventually composing feature stories. His adventures on the daily broadsheets are the stuff of his first book, My Ears Are Bent. Mitchell wrote his first signed piece for The New Yorker in 1933, “They Got Married in Elkton,” a piece about two reverends in a New Jersey town who competed in a booming marriage industry. He came on staff in 1938, hired along with Abbott Joseph (“A.J.”) Liebling by St. Clair McKelway, who had been charged by the magazine’s creator, Harold Ross, with the task of building a stable of feature writers with reporters’ chops.

(Left) Mitchell debuted in the November 11, 1933, edition of The New Yorker.

Liebling and Mitchell, the two Joe’s, became close, lifelong friends. They often went out for lunch together at a place called the Red Devil near The New Yorker’s offices and ate seafood. They had much in common, but could not have been more different as writers. Mitchell was reserved and quiet, never showing his work before it was finished and never seeking to draw attention to himself or his writing. He wrote simple sentences that were complex in shade but not in grammar. Liebling was a big-bellied, happy gourmand who wrote Baroque sentences and enjoyed his own turns of phrase so much that after setting himself a-chuckle with something he’d just typed, he would yank it unfinished from the typewriter, run down the hall to Mitchell’s office and make his friend listen to it.

By this time, Mitchell had discovered Fulton Fish Market, a bustling trading center that opened in The Bronx in 1822, more than 100 years before Mitchell arrived in the city. It reminded him of the tobacco market back home and became a touchstone for him in a city that too often trampled people and history in its mad rush toward the future. The market was a crossroads of real people doing real work--venerable, honest work--as well as real sounds and smells. Mitchell begins the story “Up in the Old Hotel” (the anthology’s title track, as it were) this way:
Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands in the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast, and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me.
Mitchell settled into life in the city. He married a photographer, Therese Dagny Jacobsen, and with her raised two daughters in the city, Nora and Elizabeth. But he never stopped returning to Fairmont (he held the title to the family farm until he died), and he never stopped feeling that he didn’t really quite fit in in either place. His father, Averette Nance Mitchell, never thought much of Mitchell’s journalism career, at one time asking him, “Son, is that the best you can do, sticking your nose in other people’s business?”

Mitchell just couldn’t stay away from graveyards. Here he takes notes from headstones--possibly those of his ancestors--in a cemetery in Iona, near Fairmont, North Carolina. (Photograph by Therese Jacobsen Mitchell, used courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell and Nora Mitchell Sanborn.)

Mitchell’s father came up in conversation when I finally got ahold of the writer’s daughter Nora, whose last name is now Sanborn, on the phone. “He was a hard man,“ she said of her grandfather. “You couldn’t live up to what he expected.”

I had tracked down Sanborn, a retired probation officer, now 72 years old, to see if she’d talk with me. Even if just briefly. I knew she’d had an art gallery some years ago in Keyport, New Jersey, where she still lives, and that one of her first exhibits was a collection of images taken by her photographer mother accompanied by passages from her father’s writings.

After a number of e-mail exchanges Sanborn agreed to speak with me on the phone, and she eventually sent me some snapshots of her father, also taken by her mother. Sanborn told me that Mitchell was “undone” by his wife’s demise in 1980 after a long illness.

“He never got over my mother’s death,” she says. “They had a wonderful, long marriage and he was lost without her.”

Mitchell never married again, but a woman named Sheila McGrath, who worked at The New Yorker and whom he had known for years, became a friend and companion, and ultimately the executor of the author’s estate. McGrath never responded to a letter I wrote her in February of this year, asking her for help in writing this article, and Sanborn says she has also not responded to requests from Nora and her eight-years-younger sister, Elizabeth, who lives in Atlanta, to be granted access to their father’s papers, of which Sanborn says there are “oceans” in storage.

(Right) A.J. Liebling

“He had reams of notes about all kinds of things,” Sanborn says. “In his breast pocket he kept a sheet of the yellowish paper that all the New Yorker reporters used. It was unlined. He had a sheet of it folded once vertically and then once horizontally, so it formed a rectangle, and he took one of those wherever he went, for note-taking. He didn’t have a typewriter at home. He would take his notes to the office and type them up so they were neat.”

Sanborn says her father was “pretty canonical. He left for the office at nine and was home at six. That’s why church bells are so sad to me. We lived on Tenth Street between Fifth and Sixth. The Church of the Ascension was on the corner. I would hear his keys in the door and that was the same time the church bells rang on the corner. Whenever I hear church bells I miss him and they make me sad. I can’t stand hearing them.”

* * *

Joseph Mitchell’s reputation as one of the best chroniclers of life along the Hudson River in the first half of the 20th century--if not one of America’s greatest journalists ever--is so uniform among his colleagues, his reviewers and literary historians that after a while it becomes a little disorienting to read about him.

Consider the superlatives: as early as 1943 Malcolm Cowley said that “in his own somewhat narrow field, which is that of depicting curious characters, Joseph Mitchell is the best reporter in the country”; in 1965, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman called him “the paragon of reporters”; the scholar Noel Perrin considered two of the stories in Mitchell’s collection The Bottom of the Harbor “the best reporting I have ever read”; to his colleagues at The New Yorker Brendan Gill, Calvin Trillin and Alec Wilkinson, respectively, Mitchell was “the finest writer on The New Yorker,” “the New Yorker reporter who set the standard” and “the great artist/reporter of our century”; the author and critic William Zinsser said that The Bottom of the Harbor was “perfect--one of the best of all American nonfiction books.”

(Left) Mitchell’s “old hotel,” the New York waterfront’s former Fulton Ferry Hotel, in 1928.

All that while he yet breathed. After his death another New Yorker staff writer, Lillian Ross, referred matter-of-factly to Mitchell as having been “the greatest living reporter”; John Keenan reckoned he was “the finest staff writer in the history of the magazine, and one of the greatest journalists America has produced”; and in describing his influence at the magazine where Mitchell was a staff writer for nearly six decades, colleague and writer Charles McGrath, who’s now at The New York Times, said, “his reportage became the measure for those who followed him there.” McGrath (no relation to Sheila McGrath) also said, “if Joseph Mitchell wasn’t the single best writer who ever appeared in The New Yorker, then it was a tie between him and E.B. White.”

Now consider this: I live in a big city full of alert, well-read people, yet aside from booksellers and longtime subscribers to The New Yorker I have never met a single person who has ever heard of Joseph Mitchell.

Could it be that an author most people have never even heard of is truly worthy of so many bests and finests and greatests and standards and measures? Well, some might say, the majority of the people quoted above are or were, like Mitchell, writers for The New Yorker and the sort of people who would pick someone obscure to make their hero. But few reviewers I’ve ever read take the slightest issue with any of these encomia*, a fact that might seem strange to someone who had only encountered the accolades and never the writer’s work. And Mitchell wasn’t always obscure. Old-time readers of The New Yorker eagerly awaited each new piece to roll off of the platen of his typewriter, and before he joined The New Yorker staff his stories in the daily newspapers where he cut his reporter’s teeth were so popular that ads touting the latest Mitchell feature adorned the sides of the papers’ delivery vans. People knew who Joseph Mitchell was throughout the second third of the last century.

All of this might make the uninitiated suspect that Mitchell’s writing casts some kind of a whammy over people’s critical faculties when they are lucky enough or foolish enough to dust off his work and peer into it. Well, don’t look at me for a dissenting opinion about the man, or even a balanced one.

I am fully under the Joseph Mitchell spell.

* * *

Up in the Old Hotel found me the way a rescued puppy finds a new owner in an animal shelter. It caught my attention and when I regarded it, it beckoned to me in a deep and irresistible way. What drew me first was the cover, which depicted part of the façade of an old brick building, each of its eight visible windows occupying a unique state of dilapidation, each crooked and flaking sash catching sunlight and shadow in its own way, some with graying half-pulled shades behind them, some with three lights, some with eight lights, and some with 12. I instantly wanted to know what secrets this doughty Vintage paperback housed, so I picked it up and flipped it over and flipped through it. I’m a slow reader, and I feared I would never finish a book with so many words in it. But I knew it had to come home with me.

I read the book steadily over many months. I read or tried to read a few other things, but I kept finding myself back in the pages of Mitchell’s anthology, not only entertained by the characters and nurtured by the sense I got that the author valued things that I valued--old people with stories to tell, old buildings and things made to last, the details of how things used to be done and how things got to be the way they are--but also rocked into a kind of attentive stillness by the writing itself, the very sentences, the way they were put together. Mitchell took his time, utterly confident that I would abide, that I would follow the long lists of items and names as patiently as he had listened to someone else enumerate them. And I was surprised that he was right about me in this regard. He wasn’t writing to every reader, it seemed, certainly not to those who loved flamboyant prose. He was writing to his readers. He was writing to me, even though it took me a while to be able to hear his voice. At first I was distracted by the repetition, the fact that he didn’t take the obvious syntactic shortcuts that would have made his writing ... well ... more efficient. His sentences are like trains of fact, and yet at the same time they are somehow deeply resonant. Listen to this passage from a story in The Bottom of the Harbor called “The Rivermen”:
At least once a day, usually when the tide is at or around dead ebb, flocks of harbor gulls suddenly appear and light on the wrecks and scavenge the refuse that has collected on them during the rise and fall of the tide, and for a little while they crawl with gulls, they become white and ghostly with gulls, and then the gulls leave as suddenly as they came. The hulks of three ferryboats are out in the flats--the Shadyside, the George Washington, and the old Fort Lee. Nothing is left of the Shadyside but a few of her ribs and parts of her keel. There are old tugboats out there, and old dump scows, and old derrick lighters, and old car floats. There are sand-and-gravel barges, and brick barges, and stone barges, and coal barges, and slaughterhouse barges. There are five ice barges out there, the last of a fleet that used to bring natural ice down to New York City from the old icehouse section along the west shore of the river, between Saugerties and Coxsackie. They have been in the flats since 1910, they are waterlogged, and they sit like hippopotamuses in the silt.
It was the kind of writing I had been looking for and just hadn’t known it. I had been a journalist in my early days and had gradually moved into marketing writing and then technical writing, and while I missed the creativity in newspaper and magazine writing, I had grown tired of the cynical and even jaded style that seemed to me to be more and more entrenched in the business--from the pun in every headline and the same tired old lead paragraphs and the same precious, postmodern wit right through to the same non-committal, shrug-shouldered last lines.

Reading Mitchell, I felt as though I had discovered reading, and journalism, all over again. I felt I had found my narrative home.

(Part II is available here.)

* A notable exception is Jack Shafer’s humorless prosecution of Mitchell, H. L. Mencken and A.J. Liebling as prevaricators and fibbers in Slate, posted Thursday, June 12, 2003.

(Copyright © Matthew Fleagle 2012)

Labels: , ,


Anonymous James said...

Always nice to read about Joseph Mitchell, but especially so in this case.

The Charlie Rose video was an extra treat. The obvious highlight is Angell's ancecdote about "the peter bone of the male armadillo," but the best moment is when Remnick mentions how interviewers listening to recordings of themselves must always want to kill themselves for interjecting so much and so stupidly. So true, and so perfect to be said in front of Charlie Rose. Too bad he never took the message to heart--learning the lesson, I mean, not committing seppuku.

Friday, August 17, 2012 at 6:48:00 PM PDT  

Post a Comment

<< Home