By Richard Rayner
July 20, 2008
"They steal along as quietly as spooks in the shadows close to the building line, or in the gutters, peering this way and that, sniffing, quivering, conscious every moment of all that is going on around them," Mitchell wrote, making the rat sound like some kind of satanically sensitive genius. "Anyone who has been confronted by a rat in the bleakness of a Manhattan dawn and has seen it whirl and slink away, its claws rasping against the pavement, thereafter understands fully why this beast has been for centuries a symbol of the Judas and the stool pigeon, of soullessness in general. Veteran exterminators say that even they are unable to be calm around rats."
Mitchell, maybe the finest nonfiction writer ever to grace the pages of the New Yorker (that's a proposition that, even if not accepted, and lots of people do accept it, means that he was some writer), was born in 1908 and grew up in a small farming town in North Carolina. He went to New York in 1929, at the beginning of the Depression, and became a newspaperman, learning his trade with the New York World, the Herald-Tribune and the World-Telegram. He lived in rooming houses all over the city, sometimes working as many as four stories a day, interviewing drunks, strippers, pickpockets, cops, Jesus freaks, nuns and, occasionally, stars of stage and screen.
He was proud to call himself a reporter, and by the time Harold Ross invited him to join the New Yorker in 1938, he was already intimate with his best subject: not celebrities, who bored Mitchell, but the hidden corners of New York and the people who lived there, in the cracks and margins and on the byways and waterways.
"Joseph Mitchell trained at newspapers that are now extinct in a city that is forever lost," writes David Remnick in his introduction to a centennial edition of "Up in the Old Hotel" (Vintage: 736 pp., $16.95), the book that first collected, gloriously, all of Mitchell's New Yorker pieces, back in 1993 . Many of these pieces are also included in another collection to celebrate his birth: "The Bottom of the Harbor" (Pantheon: 320 pp., $23).
Remnick, of course, is the New Yorker's current editor, and he's right to observe that much of the physical world that Mitchell evoked -- the downtown saloons, the piers, the dredgers, the restaurants, the markets -- has simply vanished. But Mitchell captured, too, a perennial urban type, the scrambling survivor, the character who hangs on day-to-day, or even hour-by-hour, the person who is, in a way, like a human rat: fearful, ingenious, burrowing away, potentially dangerous when confronted. Such people are always around, and Mitchell gave them a voice and found wonder in them, especially in his masterpiece, the book-length articles entitled "Joe Gould's Secret."
"Joe Gould was an odd and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for over thirty-five years," Mitchell noted in 1964, though he had first written about Gould in "Professor Seagull," a 1942 piece in which the loquacious and crafty Gould expatiated endlessly about a huge and mysterious book he was writing entitled "An Oral History of Our Time," a work "already eleven times as long as the Bible" and recorded in hundreds of composition books that were lodged and stored in various safe spots around the city.
Once the first profile appeared, Gould was destined to be a part of Mitchell's life forever, and in time he divined all of Gould's secrets, including the biggest one of all, namely that the "Oral History" didn't exist. For years, though, Gould hoodwinked and conned scores of people, Mitchell and the editorial machinery of the New Yorker included. Mitchell wrestled with his anger over this discovery before concluding that it was OK that Gould didn't write the book; indeed, the nonwriting of it, Mitchell decided, was Gould's crowning achievement. Gould comes to represent, not so much the futility of human aspiration, but the glory of improbable human survival.
The two Gould pieces were duly issued together as an acclaimed book that ultimately became the basis for an excellent movie made by Stanley Tucci, starring Ian Holm as Gould and Tucci as Joe Mitchell, who for the rest of his working life (31 years and six months, as Remnick records), went into the New Yorker offices almost every day -- and never published another word. This extraordinary turn of events remains unexplained. The New York that Mitchell had written about was vanishing and, through the 1970s, becoming violent and drug-ridden, and there was the question of what stories to pick. Mitchell said that he couldn't seem to get things finished. His career until 1964 had been a steady progression, in which the increased reach of his ambition had been matched by ever more perfect and discriminating execution. He'd gone on writing longer, and getting better, until he produced a masterpiece that he maybe suspected he could not surpass. It's tempting, too, to consider the possibility that Mitchell felt guilty about Gould, and in some Borgesian, Auster-like way, a part of him became his subject, assuming Gould's inability to finish whatever had been started. Gould was, if you like, Mitchell's demon, his nagging double.
The mystery has only added to Mitchell's legend. In retrospect the 30-plus years of silence seem like the inevitable end to a career of writing that was filled with the exuberant, festive, crazy, ruminative voices of other people while always being shaded by Mitchell's inner restraint, his quietness, his sense of sadness and doom. Mitchell was never a look-at-me writer and, even while cranking out features daily, he'd never been a hack. Some of his early newspaper work appears in "My Ears Are Bent" (Vintage: 320 pp., $13.95), a book that Pantheon put out in a lovely revised edition in 2001 and has also reissued as part of the Mitchell centennial package. "It was a different kind of writing," Mitchell said later, though as a young reporter he was already armed with an acute eye, an uncanny ear and a shyness he used to good effect. The 1920s and 1930s were the belle époque of American newspapering, and Los Angeles had its share of wonderful reporter-writers -- Matt Weinstock and Gene Coughlin of the Daily News come to mind -- but there was no platform onto which they could move with their wider literary ambitions, if indeed they had such.
Mitchell did, and here, in an early New Yorker effort, he describes the cats in McSorley's Saloon, doted on by Bill, the "big and thick-shouldered" proprietor: "He fed them on bull livers put through a sausage grinder and they become enormous. When it came time to feed them, he would leave the bar, no matter how brisk business was, and bang on the bottom of a tin can; the fat cats would come loping up, like leopards from all corners of the saloon."
The image is indelible, and Mitchell's work features such miraculous moments on almost every page. Nothing ever seems strained or forced. The effects are invisible until they make you laugh or gasp. For most of us, this sort of writing is just about impossible to do. Pages of Mitchell's prose -- look, for instance, at the extended paean to the Hudson River that opens his 1959 piece "The Rivermen" -- are often compared to James Joyce, a writer Mitchell revered. But Mitchell went on looking outward, not inward like Joyce, and he had a more tender heart. The New Yorker gave him time and space, gifts that would ultimately prove dangerous -- but by then Mitchell had already transformed his sympathies and reportorial instincts into something precious:
"The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fish-mongers 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," he wrote about his early morning visits to the Fulton Fish Market. He was great, and he still elates us.
Richard Rayner is the author of many books, including "The Associates" and "The Devil's Wind: A Novel." His Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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