Over the years the name Joseph Mitchell turned up infrequently but tantalizingly. John McPhee, another great NEW YORKER writer, acknowledged Mitchell as a master. A friend described Mitchell’s piece on Mohawk high-steel walkers with evangelistic zeal. So it went, and yet no one seemed to be able to produce a copy of one of his books, or provide basic information about him. Was he still alive, even?
Thankfully the answer is yes, as attested by Mitchell’s introduction to UP IN THE OLD HOTEL. This splendid volume comprises four books by Mitchell originally published between 1943 and 1965, in addition to several pieces not previously issued in book form. All of the pieces included here first appeared in THE NEW YORKER. At last, those of us who didn’t have the good fortune to become acquainted with Mitchell in the golden age of the magazine can see just how good a writer he is.
In the more than seven hundred pages of this collection, Mitchell covers a range of topics as diverse and unpredictable as New York City itself. Many of the pieces begin with a disarmingly simple but marvelously effective hook, as is the case with “The Rats on the Waterfront”: “In New York City, as in all great seaports, rats abound. One is occasionally in their presence without being aware of it.” One of the longest and best pieces, a little masterpiece called “The Gypsy Women,” not only offers a fascinating account of gypsy culture but also suggests the ambivalence of a just-retired police captain who, in the course of investigating gypsy con-games, became a near-obsessive student of their way of life.
Unflagging curiosity, a highly unusual combination of disenchanted objectivity and gentleness, a special fondness for quirky characters, a pervasive humor, and the right words in the right order: These are the hallmarks of Joseph Mitchell’s style. Added to these intrinsic qualities is the patina that his pieces have taken on since they were first published, reports from a New York that no longer exists.