Joseph Mitchell Criticism - Essay

Robert Van Gelder (review date 23 January 1938)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 581 words.)

Otis Ferguson (review date 2 March 1938)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 supplements, and what with the fierce restrictions of time and subject under which such writers work clearly in mind, we lift a cheer for the publication of a book like My Ears Are Bent. But the questions still present themselves: Will Mr. Mitchell by his yeoman work help to elevate the craft of feature writing with its vitally larger audience? Or will all this news-must, deadline business merely serve to keep a man from writing in the more enduring literary forms? Joseph Mitchell's sympathy, eye and writing talents reveal themselves as among the things we really have to pay attention to.

Malcolm Cowley (review date 26 July 1943)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Stanley Walker (review date 1 August 1943)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 944 words.)

Time (review date 2 August 1943)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 846 words.)

Jerome Mellquist (review date 14 August 1943)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Brooks Atkinson (review date 24 April 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

Bennett Epstein (review date 8 May 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Harry C. Kenney (review date 12 May 1960)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 691 words.)

Noel Perrin (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1148 words.)

Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 16 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3788 words.)

Joe Mysak (review date February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)