Ezra Pound was a fair poet, a semi-nutso, neo-fascist social theorist and a man of great intelligence about writing. In his book "The ABC of Reading," he defined literature as "news that stays news." In that sense, the journalist Joseph Mitchell produced literature, although the notion surely would have embarrassed him. In 1992, after years of silence, he told a National Public Radio interviewer: "If I had sat down and said, 'I'm going to try to write literature,' do you know what a mess that would have been?"
But reading his elegantly simple chronicles today, six or seven decades after they were first published, one finds them wonderfully free of mess and perfect examples of news that stays news. The objects of his scrutiny, most of them long dead and gone, remain as vividly alive as anyone presented in this morning's newspaper. For most of his career, Mitchell was a reporter for The New Yorker. But in his lucid, sturdy prose, he achieved what is usually associated only with the finest literary writers: the creation of a personal world.
Mitchell's world, figuratively and literally, existed on the margins of New York City from the beginning of the Depression to some vague point in the 1950s--although he lived on, writing virtually nothing, until 1996. He arrived in that city from his native North Carolina in 1929, a son of Scotch-Irish and English farmers and tobacco men who could trace their roots to the years before the American Revolution. He wrote short stories at the University of North Carolina under the influence of Faulkner and Joyce but left after four years without a degree. Two events sent him on the road to New York: He sold a piece about the tobacco business to the Sunday magazine of the New York Herald-Tribune and he read James Bryce's classic 1888 historical essay, "The American Commonwealth." The second experience made him want to be a political journalist, and we must thank the newspaper deities that such a tawdry ambition was thwarted when he found his true subjects among the people on the streets of New York.
Mitchell's newspaper years are the subject of "My Ears Are Bent," and the book sparkles with laughter and exuberance. Mitchell worked briefly for Joseph Pulitzer's collapsing New York World, then got a job as a "district man" for the Herald-Tribune. In those days, when there were at least 11 daily newspapers in New York, competing reporters shared space in what were called "shacks," rowdy forms of journalistic condominiums, where each reporter kept a desk and typewriter. Mitchell remembers one of those shacks: "I sat in an easy chair which had fleas in it in an old tenement across the street from Police Headquarters in Brooklyn, hour after hour, waiting for something violent to happen."
Thirty years later, in the same building, and with the same hope for outbursts of mayhem, I served part of my own apprenticeship for the New York Post. The work in a police shack was often frantic, and sometimes grisly, but Mitchell was learning his marvelous trade: "I had a police card in my pocket and I was twenty-one years old and everything was new to me."
At one early point, exhausted with chasing violence and then merely clerking it in dull mechanical prose for the newspaper ("that year it seemed that all the people in the metropolitan area were trying to murder each other"), he dropped out and signed up as a deck boy on a freighter bound for Leningrad. When that interlude ended, his career began in earnest when he found his way to the New York World-Telegram. This was the perfect newspaper for young Joe Mitchell because the editors obviously didn't take the world too seriously and encouraged their young charges to enjoy themselves.
"You seldom know what you are going to ask about when you are sent to interview someone," Mitchell writes in "My Ears Are Bent." "The desk says, 'Go interview this dope,' and you locate the person and start talking."
More important, you start listening, and Mitchell was a great listener. He listened to strippers and flea trainers, Broadway agents and professional pickpockets, street evangelists and calypso singers, nudists and bartenders, "lady" prizefighters and professional wrestlers: the whole raffish cast that lived on the margins of the city's life. Most people glanced at such characters and kept walking; Mitchell stayed and got his people to talk, listened to the rhythms of their speech, or the tales that were obviously only entertaining lies, and he wrote down what was said.
"The only people I do not care to listen to," he wrote in his 1938 introduction to "My Ears Are Bent," "are society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors (except W.C. Fields and Stepin Fetchit), and any actress under the age of thirty five."
Clearly a young man with great common sense. He interviewed big names too, and "My Ears Are Bent," the first of these two books, contains Mitchell's encounters with George Bernard Shaw, the fan dancer Sally Rand, George M. Cohan and others. As a feature writer and reporter, he covered many other stories, of course, from the banal (heat waves and cold spells) to the lunacy of the Lindbergh trial. But his truest gift was for deadpan accounts of collisions with the absurd. He was finding the characters for his chronicle of New York.
At the same time, he was seeing a large and obvious truth about the city, one that many New Yorkers still forget: It's a seaport. For the rest of his career, Mitchell returned again and again to the waterfront. He roamed its markets, its saloons, and talked with the people who lived off the rivers and the harbor or who mined offshore mud for clams and oysters. Part of this pull derived from his job: The World-Telegram was on West Street, facing the North River (the name most New Yorkers called the Hudson). The river must have called to him each time he went to work.
In the same city room with Mitchell were the now unjustly forgotten H. Allen Smith, the columnists Westbrook Pegler and Heywood Broun, and the young A.J. Liebling. All must have fed one another in matters of craft. But Mitchell and Liebling forged a friendship that lasted until Liebling's death in 1963. Liebling was a native New Yorker (his first book, "Back Where I Came From," also drew on his newspaper work) and perhaps more sophisticated than Mitchell. They were passionate about food, the English language and the raffish charms of New York "low life" (after World War II, Liebling would take the visiting Albert Camus to Sammy's Bowery Follies). Each did his finest work after joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1938.
And in those days before television began to flatten American speech, both writers learned much about human character by listening. Many of Mitchell's subjects were born in the late 19th century, before the development of radio, sound movies and television; they grew up hearing people talking to one another in bars, at work or on street corners, and their own language was enriched in the process. They had no learned scripts. They did not sound like actors or announcers. "The best talk is artless," Mitchell says in this first book, "the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels."
In "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon" (first published in 1943), we read the mature Joe Mitchell. We listen to his people from the margin: a bearded lady named Jane Barnell; Mazie Gordon, the tough philanthropist who takes tickets in a Bowery movie house; Captain Charley, with his "bitter and disorderly mind" and his Private Museum for Intelligent People; a street preacher named the Rev. Hall who proclaims "the gutter is my pulpit"; Commodore Dutch, who lives by selling tickets to an annual ball for himself; and a dozen others. Mitchell takes us into the dense, layered worlds of gypsies and deaf mutes and the Mohawk Indians who work on high steel. He mourns the decline into respectability of a rude, noisy riverside saloon named Dick's Bar & Grill, celebrated in "My Ears Are Bent" as a place where men fought loneliness with whiskey and language and vulgar stunts. In this second piece, respectability has carved away its great vulgar heart.
McSorley's Saloon, opened in 1854 on East 7th Street (and still there), is an emblem of the defeat of time by an act of collective will. Owners and customers resist all change, and that's probably why Mitchell loved the joint; too much else was changing right in front of his eyes. Most of the pieces in this edition of "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon" are from the years before the war, but one of the most famous--about a bohemian named Joe Gould and his "Oral History of the World"--was written in 1942. That piece and its longer, darker sequel, written 23 years later (and the last that Mitchell would ever publish) can be read together in a handsome Modern Library edition. They all show Mitchell at his best, wandering the watery edges of his world, listening to its strange citizens, liberated as a writer from the limitations of daily journalism. Under the fierce pressure of a daily deadline, the newspaper reporter rarely has time to dig deeply into a subject and is never granted enough room in the newspaper to suggest ambiguity or complexity. At The New Yorker, Mitchell finally had time to go past the superficial and was given the space to report his findings. Such freedom could also be a cross.
During the war, Liebling went off to become one of the greatest of war correspondents. Mitchell stayed home. After the war, Liebling became more prolific, finding the old low-life subjects in the world of boxing, or with Col. John R. Stingo, the boxing writer of the National Enquirer, or with Earl Long in the raffish political world of Louisiana, while returning again and again to his beloved France and serving as an extraordinary critic of the press. Mitchell wrote less and less.
"One thing I can't understand about myself," Mitchell said in a 1992 interview, "is that on rewrite at the World-Telegram I was very fast. But when I got to The New Yorker, it took longer and longer."
The long silence of Joe Mitchell--a nonfiction version of the silence of J.D. Salinger--remains a subject of speculation among those who practice the craft. Some say that the success of the original 1943 edition of "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon" put too much pressure on Mitchell and he was continuously forced to top himself. Others murmur about some private tragedy, or Mitchell's grief about the enormous changes that had emptied New York of his cast of characters and turned the waterfront into a wilderness of ruined piers. One New Yorker editor once offered me a simpler version: "Joe stopped writing when he stopped smoking."
The work he did remains for all of us to cherish, available to many new readers since the successful publication of "Up in the Old Hotel" in 1992. That was a compilation of work from older collections, a kind of "greatest hits" edition. But so, in certain irritating ways, are these new editions of "My Ears Are Bent" and "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon." In their foreword to this new edition of "My Ears Are Bent," Sheila McGrath and Dan Frank describe it as "a selection of Mitchell's feature stories and articles" from the newspapers where he worked. "More important," they write, "is the inclusion here of a number of stories from the same period that have not been available since he first wrote them." Unfortunately, none of the stories is dated or sourced. The editors don't tell us which stories are new, and whether any have been cut from the original edition (I've never been able to find a copy of that 1938 version).
Many stories could not have been written in this form for daily newspapers: As published in the book version, we find Mitchell recalling the process of interviewing and writing each story, indicating it was rewritten for hard covers. And the original 1943 edition of "McSorley's" could not have carried the superb piece here called "The Gypsy Women," which is dated 1955. For readers who want to examine the growth of a writer, such bibliographic details are of more than academic interest; alas, they are simply ignored in these new editions.
But now we do have more of Mitchell's work than we have had in decades. His pieces, his vision, his gift for listening have much to teach young writers and editors. But they will be a revelation for younger readers too. They are reports from a lost world, and they are literature, too: news that stays news.