APRIL 21, 2015
MOST ACCOUNTS of Joseph Mitchell’s storied career at The New Yorker end in September 1964, when, at age 56, the reporter published his last piece for the magazine: the two-part exposé of “Joe Gould’s Secret.” Thomas Kunkel’s long-awaited biography of this demon-driven journalist devotes five chapters, almost 100 pages, to the three “secret” decades of Mitchell’s writing-life that followed. With the exception of a 1,200-word letter in his hometown newspaper in 1976, a four-and-a-half-page “Author’s Note” to a collected edition of his New Yorker articles in 1992, and the coy flap copy for that volume, Mitchell withheld his work from print to the end of his life, in May 1996, when he was 87 years old. Since then, starting in February 2013, The New Yorker has published three excerpts from a sort of memoir that Mitchell spent at least some of his silent years composing. Kunkel gives the backstory in detail. These edited selections are fragments of a fragment. Three opening chapters of Mitchell’s “personal narrative” survive, according to Kunkel, “essentially” or “largely” or seemingly complete. All 12,000 words, 1,200 of which comprise a catalog set down as a single sentence, are wondrous, glinting here and there with what Mitchell once called “a kind of wild exactitude.”
Mitchell’s perfectionism, not to say procrastination, came at a cost. Four successive editors of The New Yorker kept this press-shy staff writer on continuous payroll, from September 26, 1938, to his death. Kunkel’s pages on Mitchell’s salary negotiations with William Shawn make for tense reading. Few employees would dare demand a raise for invisible work; perhaps only The New Yorker was in a position to ponder the matter seriously. But Mitchell was not just lucky. He had been prolific once, filing a story in the morning and another or two after lunch through his newspaper days. In the eyes of his editors as well as his readers, Mitchell’s published words rose in value in inverse proportion to their availability. Shawn, according to Kunkel, noted in an internal memo, “Mitchell’s pieces, as we are probably agreed, cannot be evaluated in any ordinary way.”
Joseph Mitchell left his family’s southern North Carolina homestead at age 21. He arrived in New York without a job in October 1929, the day after the Crash. His father, known as A. N., was a planter from a long line of planters. He attributed his considerable professional success to a policy of tight-lipped reserve; he taught Mitchell to keep his cards, whatever they held, close to his chest. Mitchell, as great a talker as he became a listener, took this advice hard to heart.
Kunkel records A. N.’s disappointment on learning that his eldest was off to try to make it as a Gotham newshound: “Son, is that the best you can do, sticking your nose into other people’s business?” Almost half a century later Mitchell reflected in his journal on the series of profile-subjects that peopled his past: “I am only now beginning to realize what I was writing about in those stories: my father as a Hudson River shad fisherman; my father as an Italian-American restaurant keeper; my father as an old Negro man.”
Mitchell had a prodigious memory, Kunkel reports. He used an idiosyncratic shorthand, never a tape recorder. He also had a mastery of microhistory avant la lettre that carried other costs — namely, adherence to the truth. “Sometimes facts don’t tell the truth,” Mitchell once said. According to Kunkel this conviction was appreciated, shared, and often encouraged by The New Yorker editors responsible for guiding Mitchell’s early articles into print. Methods like Mitchell’s no longer fly, least of all by the fact-checking flak at today’s New Yorker. But, as Mitchell himself readily acknowledged, “truth” is a bird rare, elusive, and, above all, motley. He may not have been in the habit of “making up” quotations in any simple sense, but he routinely applied heavy makeup to those he did record.
Mitchell’s cast of “characters” (his own word for them) often have attitudes and opinions in common, many of them morbid and sentimental by turns. Kunkel sets aside a whole chapter for discussing one of them in particular, George H. Hunter, the octogenarian son of a runaway slave and a longtime resident of a former oyster-fishing community on the South Shore of Staten Island. On Kunkel’s account, richly informed by Mitchell’s reporting notes, Mitchell began researching this story in the spring of 1947. The New Yorker published it in September 1956. The intervening decade of repeated visits, interviews, and archaeological immersion in the world of his subject yielded probably the profoundest installment of Mitchell’s ongoing investigation into the personal history of the city.
What the “character” Mr. Hunter says in the story “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is not verbatim what George H. Hunter told Mitchell in propria persona, but it is revelatory of his character, or at least of “character” period. Sometimes Mitchell sought, and received, permission from his subjects to rearrange or even reassign the dialogue that took place. Sometimes not. In any case, monologues unspool for pages at a time. Soliloquies as charming and harrowing as these are few to find outside the works of Joyce, Beckett, or Bernhard. They are all as unmistakably Mitchellian as Sebald’s are Sebaldian. Mitchell, Kunkel writes, “was in fact a first-rate writer of literature whose chosen medium happened to be nonfiction.”
By far the slipperiest trick of literary biography is catching the writer in the act of actually writing. For Mitchell-twitchers, the holy grail is a glimpse of Mitchell, that least flagrant of writers, hunting exactitude in the wild. One paragraph of Kunkel’s that pulls off this feat comes exactly halfway through his book:
With his stacks of notes at the ready, then, Mitchell would get down to his real labor — the writing. And labor it truly was, as can be readily seen from the few draft examples Mitchell left behind. Seated at the sturdy Underwood typewriter that he would use his entire New Yorker career, Mitchell would patiently cast and recast sentences, sometimes dozens of times, changing just a word or two with each iteration until an entire paragraph came together and seemed right. He would move through his drafting of the story in this slow, painstaking fashion, at certain points (in that pre-computer era) using scissors to cut these passages apart, sometimes sentence by sentence, and physically rearranging them to get a better feel for the narrative rhythm. In doing so he often used paper clips to hold the sentence strips together, and these constructions would come to resemble a long, flexible washboard or a kind of primitive girdle.
This is exactly the sort of dope for which readers lustily gut the biography of a writer they love, the only kind of gossip that even begins to rival reading the writer’s writing itself. Kunkel’s mention of the paper clips is a painterly detail akin in expressive power to what Mitchell called “the revealing remark” that he was ever after in his own reporting. “I couldn’t really write about anybody until they spoke what I consider ‘the revealing remark’ or the revealing anecdote or the thing that touched them,” Kunkel quotes Mitchell at second hand. “It’s not in the way a psychoanalyst does, I’m sure. But you’re trying to report, at the beginning without knowing it, the unconscious as well as the consciousness of a man or woman.” Excavating another person’s “unconscious” entails what Freud called “transference” as an inevitable side effect of the therapeutic process.
One of Mitchell’s New Yorker stories that Kunkel does not discuss involves the profile-subject as vengeful ghost, a figure that would haunt the writer’s later career: In “The Cave Dwellers,” published under a different title in the Christmas issue of 1938, Mitchell recounts a tale that dates to Christmas 1933, when he was still covering the city for the New York World-Telegram. His editors, under the impression that in the fifth winter of the Depression “nothing brightened up a front page so much as a story about human suffering,” had sent Mitchell around town to drum up something of “human interest” among the urban down-and-outs. At the Hoover Village on the Hudson at 74th Street Mitchell asked the people there about their holiday plans. “The gaunt squatters stood and looked at me with a look I probably never will get over; if they had turned on me and pitched me into the river I wouldn’t have blamed them,” Mitchell reports. After some days on this beat he soon came to believe that he had “no right to knock on tenement doors and catechize men and women who were interesting only because they were miserable in some unusual way.” Mitchell began to feel that he was “preying on the unfortunate.” Between the lines of this seasonal “casual,” Mitchell confesses to nothing less than an incipient crisis of vocation.
Mitchell’s “faith in human dignity was almost gone” when, a few days before Christmas, he stumbled on a couple who, turned out of their apartment a year before, had taken up residence in a cave in Central Park. When he interviewed them, they had, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous benefactor, temporarily relocated to a rooming house off Columbus Circle. “They were on the fourth floor,” Mitchell writes. “An inch and a half of snow had fallen during the night and there was a ridge of it on the window sill of their furnished room.” A virtuoso touch.
Mitchell’s front-page feature in the next afternoon’s newspaper relayed the detail, gathered from their conversation, that the couple had seven cents left to their name. By the next day, sympathetic readers had poured $85 and two job offers for the profile-subjects into the newspaper’s mailroom. When Mitchell promptly returned to the rooming house to deliver the alms, the couple rebuffed him. “I told you we had seventy cents left,” the woman told him. “What do you mean, putting lies about us in the paper?” the man asked, and then hurled a gin bottle at him. Mitchell made one more attempt to hand over the money, but the couple had disappeared, so he went back to his office to send letters returning all of the donations.
This story sums up succinctly the crux on which Mitchell nailed his art: the act of empathy. Although “The Cave Dwellers” stands almost unique among his published work in its steady focus on the first-person narrator, no plot of Mitchell’s fails to dramatize its ethical dilemma. All of his writing is suffused with the exquisite pathos of letting go.
Mitchell seems to have had a genius for identifying revealing remarks; his will to reveal them may well have fallen victim to this very ingenuity. A reporter as sensitive to speech as he was — who identifies with his subjects as strongly — will sooner or later discover that he has become, without meaning to, the stenographer of his own soul. “In some sense he became his subjects, and whatever that act of impersonation was required the person he was writing about to be available to him,” Kunkel quotes Dan Frank, the editor of Mitchell’s 1992 omnibus volume.
“I would judge the sanest man to be him who most firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly.” This is one of a multitude of remarks that Mitchell selected as “revealing” from the ultimately unremarkable mind of the Bowery bum Joe Gould, subject of his last, and longest, profile. Gould finally revealed to Mitchell that the “Oral History of Our Time” he had claimed for years to be compiling — the alluring idea of which piqued Mitchell’s interest in Gould in the first place — does not exist. Gould’s confession takes the form of the following remark, which Mitchell also finds revealing: “It’s not a question of laziness.” Kunkel’s research makes clear that the answer to the abiding question of Mitchell’s post-Gould silence has nothing to do with laziness. From 1964 to 1996 Mitchell was not so much shirking as pursuing his essential purposes calmly, and although it pained him to disappear — from himself, his editors, and the increasingly cultish readers and re-readers of his increasingly hard-to-find back-catalog — he was anything but idle.
In these years he began a journal on the advice of a doctor he was seeing for chronic depression; he made notes and amassed files for his projected personal history, which was to double as a profile of one or another of a handful of potential authorial stand-ins; he reread his beloved Finnegans Wake; he tended his dying father, his dying wife, his family’s farms in his native North Carolina, all the while tending to the village-level legacies of his adopted megalopolis, New York City, in capacities both official and unofficial, and sometimes illegal.
Always a bricoleur, Mitchell became a full-time collector. He filled boxes in his tiny 10th Street apartment with carefully labeled artifacts (nails, bricks, rocks, keys, bottles, doorknobs, cutlery …) picked up — or pried off — during his daily tramps:
In one journal note, Mitchell describes his fixation with trying to remove the number off the doorway of a building that was to be razed the next morning. It was night, and he was working furiously, trying to keep one eye out for the authorities. Prying at the numbers wasn’t working; eventually he realized they were bolted into place and that he would need to get inside the building to free them. The building, of course, was locked up tight. So in a spontaneous and adrenaline-fueled moment, he took his hammer and hurled it through one of the painted-over windows adjacent to the door. Having thus gained entry, Mitchell sawed at the bolts for fifteen minutes until he tapped the numbers free.
Joseph Mitchell believed that he could write his way into the truth by virtue of the facts — not through the facts but in them. Facts — rendered over to the reader in their fullest opacity, in a spirit of “wild exactitude” — might be induced, by careful curation, to attain a critical mass at which they take on a kind of paradoxical transparency. Windows sometimes require breaking if they are to serve their purpose. “Mitchell’s papers,” Kunkel has discovered, “include a 1978 letter complimenting the author of The Story of Brick, ‘a fascinating book to anyone interested in the history of brickmaking […]’.” Treating words like bricks, Mitchell laid walls of words that opened sunlit windows into the souls of his subjects. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he found that he had walled himself into the full glare of publicity usually reserved for those writers who plunge headfirst into the confessional mode. This is the truth that Kunkel is getting at when he writes in a paragraph full of facts about Mitchell’s style: “His authoritative and liberal use of facts framed his tale, even as his careful sentences relentlessly propelled it along.” Mitchell’s second career in creative destruction that Kunkel has so lovingly unearthed represents the attempt of this most reticent of writers to build a window out of brick.