My Lunch With Mr. Mitchell

The New Yorker‘s anniversary issue (Simon Greiner’s cover of a tattooed Williamsburg hipster as Eustace Tilley is at left) has a lot of delights in it. Ian Frazier on Staten Island! Susan Orlean on Walmart art! Fiction by Zadie Smith! Emily Nussbaum on Girls! Poems by Philip Levine and W.S. Merwin! Cartoons by Jack Ziegler and Edward Koren! But the wonder of wonders is a memoir by the late Joseph Mitchell called “Street Life.” (The magazine has made the full text available only to subscribers, but maybe there’s a workaround. If not, buy the damn magazine.)

If there are novelist’s novelists and poet’s poets, Mitchell (1908-1996) was a journalist’s journalist. A native North Carolinean, he worked as a New York City newspaperman before joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1938. As I wrote in my cultural history of the magazine, About Town, in Mitchell’s early articles, you can sense a writer taking the familiar “grammar of facts” (Malcolm Cowley coined that phrase in a review of Mitchell’s 1943 collection, McSorley’s Wonderful  Saloon) “and using it in altogether new ways.”

His amalgamation of humor and profound sadness was new, and so was the way he tried to write nonfiction “stories,” with beginnings and endings. At first these attempts met with some resistance at The New Yorker. “The conventional way of reporters when I began to write a lead and then hang from it the details connected with the lead,” Mitchell said years later. “And that dominated Mr. Ross’s [Harold Ross, the founding editor of the magazine] ideas for a long time—he wanted everything in the lead, just like in the newspaper. He’d write some query about some missing information in the beginning of the story, and my response would be, ‘What do you want me to do, tell the whole thing in the first paragraph?’ Then he began to see that the surprise and development of the thing was part of it.”

Mitchell’s masterpiece is Joe Gould’s Secret, which was published as a two-part article in The New Yorker in 1964 and as a book the following year. (It was made into a film in 2000, with Stanley Tucci as Mitchell.) The opening sentence gives a sense of Mitchell’s style (and also evidence that he paid sufficient attention to Ross as to retain some who-what-when-where in his leads): “Joe Gould was an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years.” The book is in some ways a mystery story, and in other ways a profound study of journalism itself, especially the eternally troubled reporter-source relationship (at least as much so as a later New-Yorker-piece-turned book, Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer.) It was also, one realized in retrospect, a deeply personal meditation on writer’s block.

Joe Mitchell in 1952. Photo by Therese Mitchell, published in The New Yorker, February 11 and 18, 2013, courtesy of Nora Sanborn Mitchell

As Mitchell became more revered among journalists, he became more obscure among the general public. A large part of the reason for both is that, after Joe Gould, he never published another original book or article. Nevertheless, through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and into the 90s, he continued to show up in his New Yorker office most every day, hang up his hat, close the door, and occupy himself in unknown activities. Such was the unusual culture of the magazine that, with the seeming exception of Tina Brown—who became editor in 1992 and unsuccessfully asked him to write about the South Street Seaport—no one inquired as to what he was doing. (Mitchell did get some much-deserved attention in 1992, with the publication of a nearly complete collection of his works, Up in the Old Hotel. If you purchase it, you will not be sorry.)

When I started work on About Town, in 1995, I naturally sent Mr. Mitchell a letter asking for an interview. One day a couple of months later, I came home and my wife said that a man with a shaky voice and a Southern accent had called and left a number. “I think his name was Mitchell,” she said. Not long after that, I met Mitchell in his New Yorker office, after which he gave me lunch at the Century Club. My memory of that day is cloudy; it feels as long-ago and dreamlike as if I had had a meal with Sinclair Lewis or Mark Twain. But I know it happened, because I have the cassette tape of our conversation. The quote in the text block above is on it, as is this one, in which Mitchell talks about his adjustment to working at The New Yorker:

I had written about a great variety of people, and, working for an afternoon newspaper, I had to work very fast. But there was an anomaly: You can write something and every sentence in it will be a fact, and inside that is another fact. You’ve got to get the true facts. When I got here, I said to myself I don’t give a damn what happens, I am going to take my time.

That comment would have been a natural lead-in to a question along the lines of, “Yes, it seems you’ve ended up taking quite a bit of time. What have you been working on since Joe Gould’s Secret?” But I didn’t ask it. Why not? Well, what I told myself was that unlike such admirable previous works as James Thurber’s The Years With Ross and Brendan Gill’s Here at The New Yorker, my book wouldn’t traffic in set-piece anecdotes about the eccentrics who wrote and worked for The New Yorker, but would rather focus in on the magazine’s content and how it got that way, so the nature of and reasons for Mitchell’s long silence weren’t really relevant. That was true as far as it went, but it wasn’t the real reason I kept my counsel. Rather, it was that I sensed the subject was painful to this extremely gracious, courtly, and generous man, and I didn’t have the heart to bring it up. Maybe that reflected badly on me. If that’s the case, I’ll paraphrase Huck Finn: “All right, then, I’m a bad reporter.”

This week’s New Yorker reveals that Mitchell was not in fact silent all those years. An introduction says the text is “the initial chapter of a planned memoir that Mitchell started in the late 60s and early 70s but, as with other writings after 1964, never completed.” It casts him as—as his near contemporary Alfred Kazin titled one of his own memoirs—a walker in the city. The piece is about Mitchell’s irresistible urge to trample sidewalks  throughout New York. The third sentence is 428 words long—a catalog of some of the streets he has walked, which he can close his eyes and immediately summon up: for example, “North Moore Street, down on the lower West Side of Manhattan, which used to be lined with spice warehouses and spice-grinding mills and still has enough of them left on it to make it the most aromatic street in the city.”

The sense of Mitchell’s being obsessed with the city is so intense that it does not come as a surprise to read, late in the New Yorker piece, that he eventually experienced an emotional crisis, such that “I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was.” He says “something happened” that led him out of his depression. And then the piece ends.

I don’t know what that something is, or if Mitchell indeed continued the memoir to the point of revealing it. I do know that when I had lunch with him in 1996, he seemed at peace, at least on the surface. Some younger fact writers at the magazine, such as Lawrence Wechsler and Alec Wilkinson, treated him with deferential affection. And, as the tape reveals, he was a spirited conversationalist, responding to my halting observations about Ross and the magazine with his trademark North Carolina “Ah know!”

I characteristically neglected to write the date of the interview on the tape, but I know it was  February 16, 1996. That’s because,  at the end of the day, he gave me a copy of a new edition of Joe Gould’s Secret that the Modern Library had just put out. And here’s what he wrote in it:


Joe Mitchell passed away three months later, just shy of his 88th birthday.

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