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.
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.
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.
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."
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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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 artless, made up of the wandering comments of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves. He particularly fancies the intimate confidences of those who might roughly be classified as "screwballs." For instance, there was a Mr. Samuel J. Burger who telephoned Mr. Mitchell's office to say that he was selling racing cockroaches to society people at 75 cents a pair. Mr. Mitchell went to interview him and found him in a Broadway delicatessen buying ham and cheese sandwiches for a couple of strip-tease women. Mr. Burger talked for a while about his cockroaches, and then mentioned a side line, the renting of monkeys. "I rent a lot of monkeys," he said. "People get lonesome and telephone me to send them a monkeyto keep them company. After all,...
(The entire section is 581 words.)
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 covers several dozen news angles in the life of metropolitan New York, from freak to human interest, from behind the lines on headline sensations to strippers, reefer smokers, the life of a bar and grill. In doing it he has a perfect talent for hitting off the human equation. He is neither supercilious nor taken in; not a gawk, not a sob-sister; not Lucius Beebe nor a press agent, nor Winchell. He's got to make a story each time, but he makes it from the approach of a good novelist. His characters are realized in terms of how the world sees them and how they see the world revolving around themselves.
What with humor, kindness, straight candor, dramatic talent and the balance of a point of view being so infrequent in the...
(The entire section is 343 words.)
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 Wonderful Saloon, there is not a trace of condescension. He says in an author's note, after explaining that these portraits were first written for The New Yorker, "The people in a number of the stories are of the kind that many writers have recently got into the habit of referring to as 'the little people.' I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are."
They are in fact as big as life, because they are shown in perspective against their proper backgrounds. Mitchell's collection of portraits is the exact opposite of the books that choose an important subject, but are hastily written and have nothing much to say. These books,...
(The entire section is 1369 words.)
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. Joseph Mitchell, the author of My Ears Are Bent, has a nice feeling for the friendly warmth of a Third Avenue saloon, and has selected as the title forhis new book of stories and sketches [McSorley's Wonderful Saloon] the name of one that lies just off the Avenue on Seventh Street, the oldest alehouse in New York, McSorley's. By now most literate Americans should be familiar with this historic shrine, for it has had frequent reference in recent American letters; and paintings of it hang on the walls of some of our best museums. Its apotheosis came with the inclusion in Thomas Craven's A Treasury of Art Masterpieces, of John Sloan's McSorley's Bar. Mitchell's account, which first appeared in The New Yorker, is...
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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 observer of what some folk would call trivial. Whatever he is, there is little doubt that at the moment he is the Old Master of his particular type of stuff, which in his hands comes very near to being literature of a high order.
The sketches in this volume [McSorley's Wonderful Saloon] were printed originally in The New Yorker although some of them have been revised. For the most part they are portraits of persons who are generally regarded as of no importance; some, in fact, are downright vile. Some are amiable freaks. Some, in their way, achieve a sort of cockeyed heroic stature. In his note explaining and defending his choice of such characters the author says:
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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 collected for the first time in book form [in McSorley's Wonderful Saloon]. For Humorist Mitchell professes to find nothing comic in his wacky human jujubes. He says he does not caricature them. Instead, he describes them with a loving exactness which gives them an odd dignity. Such humor as they have, he implies, is incidental. It results from the lighting of an infallible eye on a fallible object.
Focus and locus of most of Author Mitchell's studies is the environs of McSorley's Old Ale House, which for 88 years has resisted change just off Cooper Square, where Manhattan's skidroad—the Bowery—ends. McSorley's has also provided a haven for Manhattan's literary transients—writers, newshawks, painters, poets...
(The entire section is 846 words.)
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 for the place. Now Joseph Mitchell, ex-newspaperman who contributes special features to the New Yorker, has assembled twenty of these pieces and put them in a book with the title of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon.
He begins with McSorley's, recounting its sawdust career under four changes of management in the last eighty-nine years. Then he ambles over to the Bowery, where he describes Mazie, the brassy blonde who presides at the ticket window of the "bums'" favorite movie palace. He inspects gypsies and museum-keepers; glorifies Joe Gould, the Greenwich Village eccentric who has translated several of Longfellow's poems into Seagull; chats with Madame Olga, the Bearded Lady, and laments the lapse into...
(The entire section is 533 words.)
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 than factual." Having become acquainted with Mr. Flood when he first appeared in the pages of The New Yorker we are reluctant to accept a multiple image. In his person and his philosophies, in his speech and in every detail of his deportment, old Mr. Flood remains intact and indivisible.
Widowed Mr. Flood, ninety-three-year-old retired contractor domiciled in a drowsy waterfront hotel, has his sights set on seeing his 115th birthday, and he is reasonably optimistic about it: "he has his own teeth, he hears all right, he doesn't wear glasses, his mind seldom wanders, and his appetite is so good that immediately after lunch he begins speculating about what he willhave for dinner." He knows definitely that dinner will...
(The entire section is 374 words.)
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 been spending his time lately? Down, if you please, at the Fulton Fish Market, New York's original Aroma Corner. Somewhere amid the shad and the haddock, Mr. Mitchell has turned up a character name of Hugh G. Flood, a retired housewrecker of ninety-three years and some means. Mr. Flood's object in life is to live to be 115, and, as you can see, he has a few to go. He plans to make the grade by maintaining a strict diet of fish—sea urchins, blowfish tails, winkles, ink squids, and bardnoor skates. Whereas you or I might knock off a stack of wheat cakes, Mr. Flood's breakfasts are apt to consist of fried cod tongues, cheeks, and sounds. Sounds, Mr. Mitchell informs us, are gelatinous air bladders along the cod's backbone. I wish he hadn't....
(The entire section is 787 words.)
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 or the man who went somewhere to meet a riverman or waterman. His function is that of a guide. Under his guidance you learn a good deal about Louis Morino, temperamental proprietor of Sloppy Louie's restaurant at 92 South Street; George H. Hunter, 87, chairman of the board of trustees of the African Methodist Church in Sandy Ground, Staten Island; Andrew E. Zimmer, tireless Shellfish Protector who patrols the harbor in a sea skiff; Ellery Franklin Thompson, knowledgeable skipper of the dragger, Eleanor, out of Stonington, Conn.; Harry Lyons, 74, a shad fisherman who has lived all his life in Edgewater, N. J., and has never been diverted from his attendance on the Hudson River by the metropolis on the eastern bank.
(The entire section is 892 words.)
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 around in out of the way corners in the city and its environs to dig up pursuits and the people who follow them that few New York inhabitants ever knew existed. In this collection Mr. Mitchell is interested in some traditional and still surviving activities in and about New York's rivers, harbor and Long Island Sound.
His first story tells about a waterfront fish restaurant, Sloppy Louie's, still flourishing in a mellow old brick building in Fulton Market. Mr. Mitchell is a meticulous reporter. He gives us the exact dimensions of the restaurant, the number, material and arrangement of the tables but he is mainly interested in the personality of the proprietor. Louis Moreno serves a larger variety of seafood than any...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
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 exposed off-the-track drama in New York. A drama that comes only to those who live here, walk the streets in sun, rain, fog, and at night. He intimately acquaints you with a personality, an activity, a smell, a noise, or an experience by making you a part of it all.
There is much suspense in the chapter "Up in the Old Hotel." This takes you to the Fulton Fish Market district and you learn about a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie's. Here, too, you will find the essence of New York and much of the flavor of it in a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon.
It is Louis Morino, born in Recco, Italy, who...
(The entire section is 691 words.)
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 Doris Betts and Reynolds Price. It also has Joseph Mitchell—in some ways the least known of the whole dozen, and in some ways the most remarkable.
What is remarkable about Mitchell, or one of the things, is that he has taken that form of writing which has the very lowest claim to being art, and made an art of it. Some would say a high art.
When you start ranking literary genres in order of prestige, poetry still comes out on top. The very act of writing a poem, even a bad one, sets one on the olympian or parnassian slope, however far down. At least in America novelists come next—Wolfe, for example, and Chesnutt, Betts, and Price. Then come dramatists, short-story writers, including O. Henry,...
(The entire section is 6780 words.)
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 makes a living"), scan its first paragraph, jump ahead a number of pages to the byline, and exclaim:
"Oh, glory. Joseph Mitchell has profiled a bearded lady."
I did have the pleasure, in 1964, of devouring fresh out of that magazine Mitchell's series of articles about Joe Gould, a bizarre Greenwich Village character whose literary pretensions and hand-to-mouth subsistence Mitchell had first chronicled, more briefly, in 1942. Gould had continued to pester Mitchell over the years, in person or as a kind of specter (Gould sometimes referred to himself as Professor Sea Gull, and did eerie sea gull imitations that no one who heard them ever forgot), until Gould's death in a mental hospital. The closing...
(The entire section is 2031 words.)
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 markets now are abstract. It's stocks and bonds. But this is the real thing that those old Dutch painters painted. I think of it as the Dutchness of New York. I like that aspect of it, even the old Dutch names of the streets. If you come down here at 5 a. m. and walk around, you can't help leaving exhilarated."
Now 84, Mitchell has been writing about the people and places around New York that exhilarated him for more than 60 years, first as a newspaper reporter and, since 1938, as a staff writer for The New Yorker. But, as he says, "the city changed on me," and a lot of what he loved has gone. "There's an old country saying—from the cradle to the hearse, things are never so bad that they can't get worse—well,...
(The entire section is 1329 words.)
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 face. Eventually, he fairly disappeared altogether: He kept an office at The New Yorker but didn't publish another signed article these past 27 years.
Thanks to this new collection of his work, Mr. Mitchell, now 84 years old, is likely to attract another generation of fans. The anthology Up in the Old Hotel includes four previously published books, long out of print—McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor and Joe Gould's Secret—and it should be immensely appealing to anyone interested in bearded ladies, child prodigies, oystermen and Indian steelworkers.
Rather than scrutinize the big names of the day, Mr. Mitchell wrote mostly about oddballs,...
(The entire section is 830 words.)
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 theater. For the homeless Harvard man who imitates sea gulls andthe Gypsies who live on a mixture of gin and Pepsi called "popskull," and the street preacher who says, "The gutter is my pulpit and the roaring traffic is my pipe organ." For all the raving eccentrics Joseph Mitchell knew and loved and wrote about in The New Yorker, which, when you think about it, seems no less amazing than having the late Bossy come crashing down on your noggin.
Considering what a bore the magazine can be on any given week, it would be easy to assume that Mitchell risked being sent packing for admitting that a cow laid him low when it was supposedly hung for butchering. Too weird, too wonderful. But he had the great good fortune to...
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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 time between New York and a home in North Carolina—simpler tastes in food. He inclines to the beefsteak, the oyster and the clam. To his dining he brings a melancholic tinge.
"One Sunday afternoon in August, 1937," he writes in a story called "A Mess of Clams," "I placed third in a clam-eating tournament at a Block Island clambake, eating 84 cherries…. I regard this as one of the few worthwhile achievements of my life." To readers of Up in the Old Hotel, a compendium of Mr. Mitchell's writing for The New Yorker between 1938 and 1965—stories, profiles and articles that have been out of print for years—this will seem like the most bilious kind of modesty. For among writers of nonfiction Mr. Mitchell has...
(The entire section is 1235 words.)
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 Mitchell's work. It opens with a sentence that is, again, ominous and deceptively reassuring: "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." Mitchell briefly evokes the sights, sounds, and smells of the place, then heads across the street for breakfast at Sloppy Louie's (still there, and still serving excellent fish, though rather gentrified nowadays). He spots the proprietor, Louis Morino, and listens to him talk.
Like all the people Mitchell listens to, Morino is voluble, plainspoken, sensuously articulate, so much so that you might suspect Mitchell's editorial hand, here as elsewhere, of turning raggedy ordinary speech into great prose—but...
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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 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. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie's and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or split sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.
(The entire section is 3788 words.)
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 collects four Mitchell books: McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943), Old Mr. Flood (1948), The Bottom of the Harbor (1960), and Joe Gould's Secret (1965). For anyone who is not familiar with Mitchell—and his work has been out of circulation for so long that it is tough to see how many people could be—this collection is a feast, a staggering repast, a three-day bender.
As Mitchell told the New York Times, "I'm a ghost; everything's changed now." It is almost as if a hurricane roared through in the 1970s and blew out the picturesque, unthreatening city of Joseph Mitchell, replacing it with one that is almost pornographic. Yet Mitchell's tales can be appreciated even if the days of such gentle...
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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. Instead, he pursued the generals of nuisance: flops, drunks, con artists, panhandlers, gin-mill owners and their bellicose bartenders, at least one flea circus operator, a man who sold racing cockroaches, a bearded lady and a fast talker who claimed to have written nine million words of "An Oral History of Our Times" when, in fact, he had written no words at all.
Mr. Mitchell was also the poet of the waterfront, of the limelight of New York's greatness as a seaport, of the Fulton Fish Market, of the clammers on Long Island and the oystermen on Staten Island: people who caught, sold and ate seafood and talked about it incessantly. One Sunday in August 1937, he placed third in a clam-eating tournament at Block Island after...
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Epstein, Joseph. "Joe Gould's Masterpiece." The New Republic 153, No. 17 (23 October 1965): 26-7, 30.
Provides a brief sketch of Joe Gould's life and describes the circumstances surrounding the composition of Joe Gould's Secret.
―――――――. "Talk of the Town." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4666 (4 September 1992): 6-8.
Discusses Mitchell's work in terms of the changing editors at the New Yorker, explains his failure to publish anything in the magazine for over twenty years, and compares his style to that of A. J. Liebling.
Ivry, Benjamin. "Joseph Mitchell's Secret." New York 20, No. 6 (9 February 1987): 20.
A brief account of Mitchell's life as the New Yorker's "elder statesman," focusing on his desire for privacy.
(The entire section is 126 words.)