Joseph Mitchell’s walking blues
Joseph Mitchell had more than a little in common with his great subject Joe Gould. Like Gould -- a legendary between-the-wars bohemian about whom he wrote two profiles for the New Yorker, later collected in the book “Joe Gould’s Secret” -- Mitchell was an iconoclast, who liked to linger on the fringes, to seek out the unexplored territories of urban life. Even more, he was a writer who, in the end, was overmatched by his material, laboring for decades on a project that, in a very real sense, could be said not to exist.
For Gould, the work in question was his “Oral History of Our Time,” a 9-million-word manuscript, written “all in longhand,” that purported to recount “the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude -- what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows.”
In his first piece about Gould, 1942’s “Professor Sea Gull,” Mitchell refers at length to the “Oral History,” using it as a metaphor for Gould’s grandiosity. But it is only in the second, published in September 1964, that Mitchell reveals the not unexpected truth: For the most part, there is no “Oral History,” and what writings do exist feature the same few anecdotes, re-written obsessively, again and again.
The irony is that, even as he was chronicling Gould’s difficulties, Mitchell was undergoing troubles of his own. The second Gould profile was the last signed piece he ever published in the New Yorker, where he’d been a staff writer since 1938.
For the next three decades, until his death in 1996 at age 87, he came to his office at the magazine and worked on a long, autobiographical effort that never saw the light of day. Why? After he died, it was suggested in the New York Times that he was a perfectionist, that his failure to publish during the last 30 years of his life had to do with “raising his standards all the time.”
Because of this, perhaps, it’s only fitting that after 17 years, a small piece of Mitchell’s long unfinished work-in-progress should appear in the very magazine where he wrote about Gould. The Feb. 11 and 18 issue of the New Yorker features a personal exploration titled “Street Life,” which an editor’s note calls “the initial chapter of a planned memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies but, as with other writers after 1964, never completed.”
I’ll be honest: Coming upon this is for me like hearing a newly discovered Robert Johnson record, so essential has Mitchell been to the way I read and write. His intention, to write about “not the lofty, noble silvery vertical city but the vast, spread-out, sooty-gray and sooty-brown and sooty-red and sooty-pink horizontal city, the snarled-up and smoldering city, the old, polluted, betrayed, and sure-to-be-torn-down-any-time-now city,” was so groundbreaking as to be revolutionary, a way of thinking about place, about landscape, through the most common of filters while revealing that such filters were not common in the least.
Writing for a weekly magazine, Mitchell became a poet of the everyday, evoking bartenders and steel workers, reading the city through the vernacular of the streets. It’s a vernacular that I -- born in New York and a lifelong and devoted city dweller -- hear as a kind of interior music, in which anonymity and community are interwoven like a pair of contrapuntal strains.
“Street Life” is the saga of a walker, a bus rider, a subway geek. It begins with the admission that, “[i]n my time, I have visited and poked around in every one of the hundreds of neighborhoods of which this city is made-up, and by the city I mean the whole city -- Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, and Richmond.”
Mitchell goes on to tell us about Webster Avenue, “in the upper Bronx, for example, which has a history as a dumping-out place for underworld figures who have been taken for a ride,” or “North Moore Street, down on the lower West Side of Manhattan, which used to be lined with spice warehouses and spice-grinding mills.”
You’ll notice that these are the sorts of places only appreciated by a true connoisseur of the city, and that nowhere in his litany will you find names such as Madison and Fifth.
Like Mitchell, I am a walker in the city, in love with the odd corners we tend to overlook. I was that way when I lived in New York, and I am that way now, in this pedestrian-challenged landscape.
And yet, what I love about a piece like “Street Life” is that it is more than mere elegy. In the space of eight magazine pages, Mitchell frames a love letter to the city … and then he ends it by telling us that he fell out of love. Over the years, I’ve gone though something of a similar process in regard to my hometown, “a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn’t belong here anymore.”
For me, the solution was to leave New York, to interpose my memories, my sense of the city as not just physical but psychic landscape, on a new environment. For Mitchell, the answer was different: He hunkered down, “walking around in the ruins of Washington Market,” returning to the city he had come to love.
“And now I must get to the point,” he writes late in “Street Life,” as if any walker can ever stop meandering, as if the endless wandering were not itself the point. “A change took place in me. And that is what I want to tell about.”
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