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."