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Joseph Mitchell gets the best press of any print reporter, living or dead, in American history. His reputation as a listener, stylist, and portraitist is unrivaled. This treatment is in part deservedMitchell is a great writer, and his profiles of New York’s oddballs, old-timers, drunks, freaks, showgirls, and fishermen are at once soothing and unstoppable. His prose masterfully counterpoints the carefully reproduced (some would say reconstructed) speech of his subjects. He has spawned legions of imitators but remains basically unparalleled in what the critic Malcolm Cowley termed the “somewhat narrow field [of] depicting curious characters.”
His brilliance notwithstanding, Mitchell owes much of his fame to nostalgia. Though he published essay collections at regular intervals throughout his writing career, they were all long out of print by the time Up in the Old Hotel, a sampling of his best work from five of his six books, was published, in 1992. Mitchell had by then acquired an additional lacquer of legend because of his near-Wittgensteinian silence. He published his last New Yorker piece in 1964, even though he continued to show up in his office at the magazine faithfully for the better part of the next 30 years. In a New Republic review of Up in the Old Hotel, Luc Sante confessed to having learned that Mitchell was still alive. (Mitchell died in 1996.) “I was astonished,” Sante wrote, “that a living writer of such stature could be out of print and unknown to most people of my generation.”
Mitchell did not remain unknown for much longer. Up in the Old Hotel was a best seller. Harold Bloom listed the book in his 20th-century American canon, published in Esquire in 1994. More important, perhaps, the kind of idiosyncratic, personality-driven journalism pioneered by Mitchell and given form by such disparate practitioners as Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote had been given a name”creative nonfiction”and had commenced being taught alongside cop-shop reporting and news editing in journalism school. Given the conservative nature of mainstream journalism, Mitchell’s legacy will be with us for a long time to come.
It’s hard to say anything new about Mitchell’s work. He is a joy to read for his mastery of detail, his engagement with his subjects, and especially his ability to withhold judgment. Two recent reissues 1938’s My Ears Are Bent and 1943’s McSorley’s Wonderful Saloonwill introduce readers unfamiliar with Mitchell to a gifted writer working at the top of his game, but I’d like to make the small point that for journalists looking for inspiration, the gloomy panegyrics that characterize the magazine work of his maturity are a dead end. The essays in McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon are exercises in control, with nary a word out of place. This brand of precision is a hallmark of Mitchell’s personal style, one not easily imitated. Mitchell just about perfected the lowlife shaggy dog story. Still, year after year writers go to the docks, to bordellos, to the last surviving Bowery flophouse looking to be the next Joseph Mitchell. (To get an idea of just how ludicrous this is, imagine a painter setting up his easel in front of Starry Night hoping to become the next van Gogh.) Start instead with My Ears Are Bent, a collection of newspaper profiles that were not included in any previous Mitchell collections. It has been out of print since its initial publication.
To get an idea of the difference between Mitchell the newspaperman and Mitchell the magazine stylist, take a look at the opening passage to “Obituary of a Gin Mill,” which Mitchell published in the New Yorker in 1939 and is reissued in McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon:
It makes me lonesome to walk past the old yellow-brick building, just south of Washington Market, once occupied by Dick’s Bar and Grill. The windows are so dusty and rain-streaked and plastered with “For Rent” stickers that you can’t see inside, and there is a padlock growing rusty on the door. Dick’s prospered as a speakeasy throughout prohibition; after repeal, as a licensed establishment, it was just about as lawless as ever. A year or so ago, however, when Dick moved up the street, things changed. In his new place he commenced obeying the New York State Liquor Authority’s regulations: he refused to let his customers shake Indian dice on the bar for rounds of drinks; he refused to put drinks on the tab; he refused to sell liquor by the bottle late at night after the liquor stores had closed.
If you’re looking for an archetypical Mitchell lede, you won’t do much better than this. The setting is downtown, and the tone is pure Mitchell. The careful arrangement of simple sentences summons the mood that dominates the entire essay, a wistful remembrance of a dive bar and its sad denizens. He sounds oldbut Mitchell wasn’t more than 31 when he wrote this piece. The New York that Mitchell chronicled was dying even as he wrote about it. The gin mills, Bowery flops, burlesques, and quirky museums were remnants of an earlier time.
Mitchell was only 21 when he left North Carolina to come to New York. He’d published a few works of short fiction while still in college and sold features to area newspapers. He got his first job in 1929, as a police reporter for the New York World. After a few months there, he moved on to the Herald-Tribune for a brief stint and then back to the newly dubbed World-Telegram. The record doesn’t say for sure, but not more than two years could have passed before Mitchell was pulled off the general-assignment desk and allowed to seek out his own stories. In the intensely competitive newspaper market of the early ’30s, it must have been astonishing to find a man in his 20s so popular as a columnist that his name was splashed on the trucks that delivered the newspapers.
Very little is made of Mitchell’s relative youth by either his early champions or his later hagiographers. The pieces in My Ears Are Bent (this edition adds a few that were not in the first) were finished before he turned 30. But the book’s publishers have seen fit to cover it with a photograph of a much older Mitchell. This is the Mitchell that is handed down by professors of journalism: the author in his prime, writing gorgeous 10,000-word pieces about vagrants and harbormen for the New Yorker, not the ambitious young journalist who wrote in his introduction to My Ears Are Bent, “[A] newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature.”
It’s impossible to know whether Mitchell owed his premature slide into curmudgendom to his own growing pique or to the heavy blue pencil of his New Yorker editors, but it is easy to believe that much of the work in My Ears Are Bent was written by a relative youth. In “The Marijuana Smokers,” Mitchell exclaims fearfully when gunfire breaks out during a visit to a Harlem “rent party.” He feigns nonchalance in the company of a bevy of naked strippers. He revels in the interminable monologues of faith healers, street preachers, voodoo conjurers, and wrestling promoters, his absence of implicit judgment allowing the reader to peer over his shoulder as he humps it from assignment to assignment. The later works are permeated with a darkness that creates a buffer between reader and subject. These essays are more polished, more personalbut maybe more unreachable. Here, by contrast, is Mitchell in “Bar and Grill,” back in Dick’s during its heyday as a gathering place for newspapermen:
It is sometimes possible to see more amazing sites in fifteen minutes in Dick’sespecially on a night when Jim Howard, the rewrite man, finds it difficult to roll anything but five aces in one, or on a night when the city editor of the greatest afternoon newspaper in the United States imitates a tree frog, or on a night when Louie, the bartender who likes Chinese food, describes his last square meal at Tingyatsak’s, or on a night when Elmer Roessner, the feature editor, gets on all fours to locate a die he has rolled into the fantastic debris behind the barthan it is in an entire performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
I know that from a purely literary standpoint, the New Yorker piece is preferable. The comparison staged in the newspaper piece is marred by an unforgivably long aside. It’s hyperbolic and gushingqualities completely absent from Mitchell’s later work. But it is more immediate and vital than the prose of his later years. In many ways, this is the Mitchell that should be taught in graduate schoolthe unvarnished, enthusiastic deadline writer.
When Mitchell talked to reporters about his life and career, he made a point of mentioning that reading Ulysses in college had formed much of his early outlook on writing. It’s hard not to think of his coming to New York with the idea of capturing the city whole with one revolutionary literary gesture, as Joyce had done with Dublin.
It was Joyce who boasted that Dublin could be razed to embers and then rebuilt using only his great novel as a guide. Charles McGrath, a former colleague of Mitchell’s at the New Yorker, remembers, “[M]ostly we talked about writing. In particular about his beloved J.J., as he familiarly referred to James Joyce. As a young man, he told me, he had been so captivated by Ulysses that he sometimes imagined, or half-imagined, that he had written a book just like it.” How else to explain his obsession with the gloomy, forgotten corridors of New York and their rheumy denizens?
During Mitchell’s career, the Empire State Building was thrown up in little more than a year. The 1939 World’s Fair showcased a wild, technological future based in science. New York was on the cutting edge of the most optimistic, forward-looking American generation since the pioneers made their way West. For a time, Mitchell appeared engaged with this New York, but after a while, he would have none of it. His city became a necropolis; its citizens didn’t know they were deadand Mitchell, ever the courteous listener, was far too polite to break the news. CP