Study Guide

Joseph Mitchell

Joseph Mitchell Essay - Critical Essays

Mitchell, Joseph

Introduction

Joseph Mitchell 1908–1996

American journalist and nonfiction and fiction writer.

A leading staff writer at the New Yorker magazine for over half a century, Mitchell became well known for his stories and sketches about a variety of eccentric and bizarre people he met while exploring New York City. Uninterested in the city's elite and famous and their activities, Mitchell preferred to write about the people and places of Harlem, Greenwich Village, the Bowery, and New York harbor. The subjects of his profiles are mainly oddballs and misfits, many of them homeless, who exist on the fringes of mainstream society—gypsies, drunks, bums, street preachers, strippers, panhandlers, carnies, clammers, oystermen. At the height of his creativity, from the late 1930s to the mid-1960s, Mitchell published five collections of his writings, all of which were enthusiastically received by critics and the public. Many critics labeled Mitchell the best reporter in the country in his chosen field, remarking upon his exceptional skills as an interviewer, photographic representation of his characters and their speech, deadpan humor, and graceful, unadorned prose style. These features of Mitchell's writing, combined with his respect and compassion for his subjects and his exploration of the themes of mortality, change, and the past, have led many commentators to credit Mitchell with transforming the craft of reporting into an art.

Biographical Information

Mitchell was raised on his family's cotton and tobacco farm in Fairmont, North Carolina. He enrolled at the University of North Carolina in 1925, leaving four years later without a degree to pursue a career as a journalist in New York City, with the ultimate aim of becoming a political correspondent. His first job was as a police reporter for the New York World. Initially assigned to the Brooklyn precinct, he was quickly transferred first to a district on the west side of Manhattan and then to Harlem. Although Mitchell stayed at the World for just a few months, his job there had an important influence on his career. It was while working the night shift in Harlem that Mitchell discovered his niche as a writer. He disliked writing crime stories, but he found life in Harlem fascinating; even when he was off duty, he would walk the streets, talking with the many unusual people he encountered. After leaving the World, Mitchell worked briefly for the New York Herald Tribune, where he began to write about the people he had met in Harlem. Later, as a feature interviewer for the New York World-Telegram from 1931 to 1938, he specialized in writing about New York City's eccentric and obscure. Most of the forty articles included in Mitchell's first book, My Ears Are Bent (1938), were reprinted from the Herald Tribune and World-Telegram, but the collection also contains some pieces that first appeared in the New Yorker, where Mitchell worked from 1938 until shortly before his death from cancer on May 24, 1996.

Major Works

As its title indicates, My Ears Are Bent is comprised of articles about people who talked to Mitchell at length about their lives. In one portion of the book, Mitchell writes, "I have been tortured by some of the fanciest ear-benders in the world … and I have long since lost the ability to detect insanity." Among the people profiled in My Ears Are Bent are members of the United Fan, Bubble, and Specialty Dancers of America; a buxom blond Jewish woman who runs a dime movie theater in the Bowery and looks after the neighborhood drunks; an accomplished pickpocket; a man who sells racing cockroaches to the wealthy; and a lady boxer who claims to be a countess. Mitchell's subject matter and technique changed very little over the course of his career. Although he became increasingly interested in the activities on New York's waterfront and the old men who spent their time there, he continued to portray mainly loners, down-and-outers, and freaks. Few of Mitchell's characters are happy; some have had bad luck, others have succumbed to temptation, and many are old-timers whose lifestyles are threatened by progress and technology. Yet despite adversity, they fight to survive, aided in their struggle by their appreciation of life's absurdities and their enjoyment of simple pleasures, especially hearty eating and drinking, one of Mitchell's own frequent pastimes. Mitchell's approach to his work is objective and factual. He records detail upon detail about his subjects in simple, straight-forward prose, and he allows his characters to speak for themselves, never passing judgment. He is equally precise when describing his favorite New York City landmarks. One of these was New York's oldest bar, McSorley's Old Ale House, which supplied Mitchell with the title for his second book, McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943). A collection of twenty stories and sketches, McSorley's, like all of Mitchell's later books, consists entirely of material that first appeared in the New Yorker. In the first piece in McSorley's, "The Old House at Home," Mitchell describes the atmosphere and clientele of the bar, relishing the fact that neither have changed much since the establishment's founding in 1854. Located on East Seventh Street near the edge of the Bowery, McSorley's is a men-only, working-class saloon. Cobwebs hang from the ceiling, gas lamps supply the only lighting, and there is no cash register—patrons drop coins in soup bowls to pay for their mugs of beer. "The Old House at Home" contrasts sharply with another sketch in McSorley's, "Obituary of a Gin Mill," in which Mitchell relates how Dick's Bar and Grill, a rowdy, low-class saloon, loses its charm and character when the owner moves it to a new location and equips it with chrome bar stools, a neon sign, and a mahogany bar. Other pieces in McSorley's are devoted to an array of New York personalities, including Cockeye Johnny Nikanov, a self-proclaimed leader of thirty-eight gypsy families with a five-quart-a-week gin habit; Jane Burnell, a bearded lady who travels with the freak shows; and Commodore Dutch, who subsists on the proceeds from an annual ball he gives for his own benefit. Mitchell's third book, Old Mr. Flood (1948), which he described as "stories of fish-eating, whiskey, death and rebirth," is unique among his writings because it deals with a fictional character. Hugh G. Flood, a ninety-three-year-old widower who believes he can live to be 115 by maintaining a strict diet of fresh fish untainted by modern chemicals, is a composite of several old men Mitchell met at the Fulton Fish Market. Mr. Flood and his aged friends are preoccupied with thoughts of death and the past, which to them was infinitely better that the present because of its simplicity, yet they pursue life with gusto, taking comfort in telling tall tales and overindulging in food and liquor. The theme of the past is also an important element in Mitchell's fourth book, The Bottom of the Harbor (1960). The six articles collected in The Bottom of the Harbor are entirely concerned with the waters around New York and the people who live and work nearby. Most of the people in these articles are old men, whose memories provide the reader with a history of New York as a seaport and its old fishing families. In one of the pieces, Mitchell describes what is literally at the bottom of the harbor; in another, he recounts a visit with one of the oldest surviving members of a nineteenth-century black village on Staten Island. The most frequently discussed piece in the collection, "Up in the Old Hotel," finds Mitchell at a waterfront fish restaurant, Sloppy Louie's, which is just across the street from the Fulton Fish Market. As Mitchell eats, the proprietor, Louie Morino, talks to him, and the two eventually decide to explore the four abandoned floors above the restaurant, the former site of the Fulton Ferry Hotel. Mitchell's next book, Joe Gould's Secret (1965), chronicles the life of a derelict bohemian eccentric who was well known in Greenwich Village from the 1920s to the 1940s. Gould, a member of the Harvard graduating class of 1911, crashed parties, sponged drinks at bars by imitating the cries of sea gulls, and claimed to be writing a book called An Oral History of Our Time that was eleven times longer than the Bible. Mitchell first profiled Gould in a 1942 New Yorker piece entitled "Professor Sea Gull," which was the outcome of several lengthy interviews during which Gould cadged large quantities of gin and beer. After the appearance of this article, Gould hounded Mitchell, going so far as to use Mitchell's office as his mailing address. Exasperated by Gould's endless gabbing about himself and his legendary book, only a few paragraphs of which Gould had allowed anyone to see, Mitchell made repeated attempts to locate the manuscript of Gould's oral history. When Mitchell confronted Gould with his suspicion that the book did not really exist, Gould dropped out of his life and eventually ended up in a psychiatric hospital. Mitchell exposed Gould as a fraud in two New Yorker articles that ran in 1964, which, along with the 1942 profile, make up the contents of Joe Gould's Secret. Mitchell published no new material after the appearance of Joe Gould's Secret, although he continued to go to work at the New Yorker until shortly before his death. During these years, Mitchell closely guarded his privacy, avoiding interviews and refusing to allow his books to be reissued. However, he finally agreed to be anthologized, and in 1992 Pantheon Books brought out Up in the Old Hotel, a compendium of Mitchell's New Yorker writings including McSorley's, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, Joe Gould's Secret, and seven additional pieces. Modern Library editions of The Bottom of the Harbor (1994) and Joe Gould's Secret (1996) have since followed.

Critical Reception

By the time Up in the Old Hotel appeared, Mitchell's books had long been out of print. Welcomed by both die-hard New Yorker fans and readers unacquainted with Mitchell's writings, Up in the Old Hotel made it to the New York Times best-seller list. It was also widely reviewed in newspapers and magazines, where Mitchell was once again praised for his ear for dialogue and eye for detail, genuine interest in the lives of his subjects, and rhythmic, simple prose. Many commentators credited him with pioneering a new type of "literary journalism" that served as a model for later generations of nonfiction writers. Most critics of Up in the Old Hotel questioned why Mitchell had not published anything new for so many years. Some speculated that he had developed writer's block as a result of being hoodwinked by Gould. Others concluded that he had been deprived of his subject matter, noting that Mitchell's innocent world of lovable drunks and bums no longer existed. Mitchell offered his own explanation in a 1992 interview: "The city changed on me…. I can't seem to get anything finished anymore. The hideous state the world is in just defeats the kind of writing I used to do." Like the subjects of many of his profiles, Mitchell felt threatened by change and was saddened by the passage of time and the demise of long-standing traditions. While critics have remarked that the tone of Mitchell's writings became increasingly nostalgic, they also emphasize that Mitchell's melancholy is tempered by his earthy sense of humor and obvious delight in making new discoveries about New York. His writings are a testament to his insatiable interest in the city. As Noel Perrin observed, "Mitchell described the life and even the very soul of New York as perhaps no one else ever has."

Principal Works

My Ears Are Bent (nonfiction) 1938
McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (nonfiction) 1943
Old Mr. Flood (fiction) 1948
The Bottom of the Harbor (nonfiction) 1960
Joe Gould's Secret (nonfiction) 1965
Up in the Old Hotel (nonfiction and fiction) 1992

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Criticism

Robert Van Gelder (review date 23 January 1938)

SOURCE: "Some Talk That Bent a Reporter's Ears," in The New York Times Book Review, January 23, 1938, p. 5.

[In the following review of My Ears Are Bent, Van Gelder describes the types of people Mitchell most liked to interview.]

Mr. Mitchell is a sort of Stephen Crane of this generation's newspaper city rooms, a somber athlete with an exceptional writing talent who finds Harlem and the lower East Side the most interesting localities in town. The book's title [My Ears Are Bent] is his comment on the listening he has been obliged by his trade of daily newspaper interviewer to go through. He has become a connoisseur of talk and holds that the best talk is...

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Otis Ferguson (review date 2 March 1938)

SOURCE: "About People," in The New Republic, Vol. LXXXXIV, No. 1213, March 2, 1938, pp. 108-09.

[In the following essay, Ferguson comments on Mitchell's creative approach to feature writing.]

There are hundreds of fancy feature writers scattered through the newspaper business, but few of them ever show up as the creative people they hope to be (sufficient unto the day is the newsprint thereof). Joseph Mitchell is an exception, that writer's mirage of a man who can cover an angle of the news neither inspiring in itself nor congenital to him, get the stuff in for the home edition, and still be able to collect it for a second or third reading.

Mitchell...

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Malcolm Cowley (review date 26 July 1943)

SOURCE: "The Grammar of Facts," in The New Republic, Vol. 109, No. 4, July 26, 1943, pp. 113-14.

[In the following review of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Cowley comments on Mitchell's style, which he considers factual and repertorial.]

In his own somewhat narrow field, which is that of depicting curious characters, Joseph Mitchell is the best reporter in the country. Some of his favorite subjects are Bowery angels, barflies, small-time Broadway sports, coffee-pot poets and Calypso singers. He writes about them with more sympathy and factual precision than you will find in the recent biographies of any famous authors or statesmen. In his new book, McSorley's...

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William S. Lynch (review date 31 July 1943)

SOURCE: "Raw Onions and No Ladies," in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXVI, No. 31, July 31, 1943, p. 20.

[In the following review of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Lynch praises Mitchell for his powers of observation and description, and especially for his compassion for his subjects.]

A good saloon can be a lovely thing. The place where a man can join his fellows in free and easy camaraderie over a mug of ale or a pony of whiskey is an institution that deserves the literary and artistic recognition that so frequently it gets. New York has its share of such places, and they are not the chromium-plated cocktail bars of the post-Prohibition drinking age....

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Stanley Walker (review date 1 August 1943)

SOURCE: "Historian of Queer—Not 'Little'—People," in New York Tribune Weekly Book Review, Vol. 19, No. 49, August 1, 1943, p. 5.

[In the following review of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Walker ranks Mitchell as the best writer in his field, which Walker labels "low-life biography."]

Joseph Mitchell is pretty generally accepted as the ablest practitioner of low-life biography, a field in which many talented writers have operated over the last few years. It has been said that he "must be about the best interviewer in the world," which may be true, although "interviewer" is not precisely the word. He is psychographer, historian and an extraordinarily acute...

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Time (review date 2 August 1943)

SOURCE: "Bowery Botanist," in Time, Vol. XLII, No. 5, August 2, 1943, pp. 98, 100.

[In the following review of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, the critic describes the atmosphere of the bar and supplies thumbnail sketches of three of the people profiled in the book.]

Joseph Mitchell is as gloomy as only a humorist can be. For years he has been studying, with the prying patience of a botanist, the queer human weeds he finds growing in the dingier interstices of Manhattan's bum-littered Bowery. But Mitchell is saddened when readers of The New Yorker, Esquire and other magazines chuckle at the results of his researches, these 20 profiles and stories, now...

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Jerome Mellquist (review date 14 August 1943)

SOURCE: "Mitchell's Wonderful McSorley," in The Nation, Vol. 157, No. 7, August 14, 1943, p. 190.

[In the following essay, Mellquist likens the sketches and stories in McSorley's Wonderful Saloon to genre paintings.]

Genre paintings resemble feature stories. They take a mellow, or raffish, or appetizing area of life and memorialize it by the affection they have for their subject. Too often, unfortunately, they remain ephemeral, registering but a moment of warmth. But John Sloan's painting of McSorley's, an old bar on East Seventh Street, in New York, is still remembered. And other painters, though somewhat less impressively, have also inscribed their affection...

(The entire section is 533 words.)

George Conrad (review date 24 October 1948)

SOURCE: "Fish Every Day," in New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, Vol. 25, No. 10, October 24, 1948, p. 20.

[In the following essay, Conrad judges Old Mr. Flood to be an accurate representation of a rapidly disappearing phase of Manhattan life.]

As a reporter of the New York scene whose integrity equals his human insight and his admirable command of a disciplined prose that is never loosely journalistic or falsely literary, Joseph Mitchell informs his readers that this portrait of Mr. Flood [in Old Mr. Flood] is not one man but the composite of several venerable Fulton Fish. Market habitues. His purpose has been to make the stories "truthful rather...

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Horace Sutton (review date 20 November 1948)

SOURCE: "Fish Fan," in Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XXXI, No. 47, November 20, 1948, p. 18.

[In the following review of Old Mr. Flood, Sutton commends Mitchell for faithfully capturing the atmosphere of the Fulton Fish Market.]

Never let it be said that Mr. Joseph Mitchell is a social climber, that he hobnobs with the aristocracy, rubs elbows with mink. Firsthe spent ten or more nights in a barroom and came up with a fine book called McSorley's Wonderful Saloon. I was in McSorley's Old Ale House on East Seventh Street once and, believe me, I'm glad I got back uptown with my whole hide.

And just where do you think Mr. Mitchell has...

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Brooks Atkinson (review date 24 April 1960)

SOURCE: "The City's Dockside," in The New York Times Book Review, April 24, 1960, pp. 3, 36.

[In the following essay, Atkinson praises The Bottom of the Harbor as both literature and as a travel guide.]

Since Joseph Mitchell is an unselfconscious writer, readers of The Bottom of the Harbor are never distracted from the subject matter of his book. He is discussing and describing the natural phenomena of the waters around New York—fish, clams, oysters and lobsters, and the natives who are equally indigenous.

Occasionally Mr. Mitchell, author of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and other books, appears in his pages as the man talked to...

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Bennett Epstein (review date 8 May 1960)

SOURCE: "All Around This Area with J. Mitchell," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, Vol. 36, No. 40, May 8, 1960, p. 4.

[In the following review of The Bottom of the Harbor, Epstein considers the influence of Mitchell's prose style on his profiles of his subjects.]

Half a dozen stories which appeared in The New Yorker from 1944 to 1959 make up the latest volume [The Bottom of the Harbor] designed to give a longer lease of life than guaranteed by ephemeral magazine covers to some of its articles. Few of them have been worthier than Joseph Mitchell's of preservation.

The author of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon has poked...

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Harry C. Kenney (review date 12 May 1960)

SOURCE: "Waterfront Metropolis," in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 52, No. 142, May 12, 1960, p. 86.

[In the following review of The Bottom of the Harbor, Kenney applauds Mitchell for giving readers a chance to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and noises of New York harbor.]

Much of New York is exposed to view by its mighty sky-piercing buildings, its snarled traffic on the broad avenues, the roar of subways; the shifting of great greyhounds of the sea in the busy harbor; and even fishing in Central Park and sun browsing on the steps of the public library on Fifth Avenue.

But Joseph Mitchell, in The Bottom of the Harbor, has...

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Noel Perrin (essay date Spring 1983)

SOURCE: "Paragon of Reporters: Joseph Mitchell," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XCI, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 167-84.

[In the following essay, Perrin provides a detailed summary of Mitchell's career, attempting to show the development of his craft and the means by which he transformed reporting into an art.]

There are, at a generous estimate, about a dozen North Carolinians who belong to American literature. That's not meant as a slur. There are states, my own included, where you'd be hard pressed to find five. North Carolina has Thomas Wolfe, of course. And it has O. Henry and Charles Chesnutt—the first important black novelist this country ever produced—and...

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Roy Blount, Jr. (review date August 1992)

SOURCE: "Joe Mitchell's Secret," in The Atlantic, Vol. 270, No. 2, August, 1992, pp. 97-9.

[In the following review of Up in the Old Hotel, Blount suggests reasons for Mitchell's decision to stop publishing after 1965, focusing on his experiences with Joe Gould.]

If I could play around with time, I would make myself alive and literate on that week in 1940 when I could flip suspensefully through the latest New Yorker (whose table of contents in those days was minimal), come upon a piece titled "Lady Olga," savor its first sentence ("Jane Barnell occasionally considers herself an outcast and feels that there is something vaguely shameful about the way she...

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Malcolm Jones, Jr. (review date 10 August 1992)

SOURCE: "The Paragon of Reporters," in Newsweek, Vol. CXX, No. 6, August 10, 1992, pp. 53-4.

[In the following essay, Jones briefly summarizes Mitchell's career, discussing his style, the subjects of his profiles, and his association with the New Yorker.]

One recent balmy summer afternoon, Joseph Mitchell stood in the middle of New York's Fulton Fish Market and grinned like a schoolboy playing hooky. "As soon as I came down here in the '30s as a reporter, I felt at home," he said. Over a half century later, he is still prowling the market's cobbled streets. "It's so exciting, with the colors, the smells, the noise as the background to all that trading," he said. "Most...

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Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg (review date 14 August 1992)

SOURCE: "His Ears Are Bent on Hearing Talk of Town," in The Wall Street Journal (Eastern Edition), Vol. CCXX, No. 33, August 14, 1992, p. A8.

[In the following essay, Trachtenberg briefly describes the contents of the four books included in Up in the Old Hotel.]

As media circles buzz over the naming of high-voltage Tina Brown to the top post at The New Yorker, Pantheon has released a collection of the best works of Joseph Mitchell, a New Yorker persona of a far more diffident stripe.

So shy was he that the author's photo for Mr. Mitchell's first book, My Ears Are Bent (1938), showed him seated on a couch, a newspaper covering his...

(The entire section is 830 words.)

John Schulian (review date 16 August 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Up in the Old Hotel, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 16, 1992, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following essay, Schulian uses the publication of Up in the Old Hotel as an opportunity to express his long-standing appreciation for Mitchell's work.]

Getting hit on the head with a dead cow isn't necessarily a bad thing. Provided, of course, that you survive the experience, it can heighten your appreciation for the absurdities of life as well as for the people who revel in them. For the stalwart bearded lady and the saloon keeper who closes up because the joint's too crowded and the ticket taker who brags that nobody ever got fleas in her Bowery...

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Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 16 August 1992)

SOURCE: "This Was New York. It Was," in The New York Times Book Review, Vol. XCVII, No. 33, August 16, 1992, p. 7.

[In the following review of Up in the Old Hotel, Klinkenborg emphasizes the historical value of Mitchell's writings.]

There were many great eaters at The New Yorker in the 1940's, but surely the magazine's greatest eaters of that decade were A. J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell. Their tastes differed. Liebling loved French food, as it was served in France before and between the world wars. He could describe a meal as if it were a procession of wise old courtesans. Joseph Mitchell had—perhaps still has, for he is 82 years old and divides his...

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Luc Sante (essay date 5 October 1992)

SOURCE: "Heard on the Street," in The New Republic, Vol. 207, No. 15, October 5, 1992, pp. 43-6.

[In the following essay, Sante describes the distinguishing features of Mitchell's stories and sketches, commenting on his characters, themes, and prose style. Sante also compares Mitchell's career to that of A. J. Liebling, his closest colleague at the New Yorker, and discusses the author's relationship with Joe Gould.]

The title of this omnibus edition of Joseph Mitchell's books (four out of five of them) [Up in the Old Hotel] was an apt choice: it is both mysterious and deceptively cozy, and the 1952 piece from which it derives epitomizes a great deal about...

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William Zinsser (essay date Winter 1993)

SOURCE: "Journeys with Joseph Mitchell," in The American Scholar, Winter, 1993, pp. 132-33, 136-38.

[In the following essay, Zinsser assesses the enduring worth of each of the four books collected in Up in the Old Hotel, basing his judgments on both Mitchell's technique and subject matter.]

Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Street 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...

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Joe Mysak (review date February 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Up in the Old Hotel, in The American Spectator, Vol. 26, No. 2, February, 1993, pp. 62-3.

[In the following review, Mysak welcomes the publication of Up in the Old Hotel and briefly describes the subjects of some of Mitchell's best-known stories.]

Joseph Mitchell, now 84, is the last of those great New Yorker writers of the magazine's heyday. Most of us got to know him through Brendan Gill's Here at The New Yorker, in which Gill profiled all the magazine's great stylists—White, Thurber, Benchley, Liebling, Gibbs, McNulty, Maloney, Edmund Wilson—and putMitchell at the top of the list. Up in the Old Hotel...

(The entire section is 1188 words.)

Richard Severo (essay date 25 May 1996)

SOURCE: "Joseph Mitchell, Chronicler of the Unsung and the Unconventional, Dies at 87," in The New York Times, May 25, 1996, p. 12.

[In the following obituary, Severo provides an overview of Mitchell's career.]

Joseph Mitchell, whose stories about ordinary people created extraordinary journalism in the pages of The New Yorker, died of cancer yesterday at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He was 87 and lived in Manhattan.

At the height of his creative powers, from the 1930's to the mid-60's, Mr. Mitchell tended to avoid the standard fare of journalists: interviews with moguls, tycoons, movie stars and captains of industry....

(The entire section is 2208 words.)