June 6, 2010


The Wages of Sin is Laughter (Alexander Nemser, Agni)

[Joseph Mitchell] is concerned not only with his subjects’ relation to their physical surroundings but with the ways in which they conceive of their places in their own histories. Mitchell’s pieces are accordingly not only portraits but recordings as well. They are Olympic feats of listening and transcription, and the speeches they capture are littered with digressions, syntactical twists, and repetitions. “The Rivermen” contains a monologue of about a dozen pages on the techniques of shadfishing and “The Gypsy Women,” another late piece, is a nearly forty-page quoted disquisition on gypsy life in New York, including a play-by-play account of the bajour or wallet-switching con. Mitchell did not just shoot the breeze; he stuffed it and mounted it on the wall. In a sense, he was assembling a minor archive of oral histories. His work brings to mind the interviewing expeditions sanctioned by the Works Projects Administration in the 1930s, which collected the eyewitness accounts of men and women who had escaped slavery on the Underground Railroad, watched the Battle of Bull Run, or skinned buffalo with Buffalo Bill.


Mitchell’s first meeting with Joseph Gould took place at the Jefferson, “one of those big, roomy, jukeboxy diners,” which was already defunct by the time Mitchell’s profile of Gould was published. Gould was a homeless, toothless Harvard graduate who claimed to be writing a monumental prose work titled “The Oral History of Our Time,” which was to include, among other accounts, “summaries of innumerable Union Square and Columbus Circle harangues, testimonies given by converts at Salvation Army meetings, and the addled opinions of scores of park-bench oracles and gin-mill savants.” By his own account, dressing in the light of the red exit sign of the Bowery flophouse where he was staying, he would tiptoe out to the lobby to write down his memories of the previous evening’s conversations, proceeding to the genealogy room at the Public Library, a cafeteria in Times Square, and three round trips on the West Side subway, writing all the while. Every time Mitchell met Gould, the Oral History had grown. On one occasion, Gould claimed it was “‘approximately nine million two hundred and fifty-five thousand words long, or,’ he added, throwing his head back proudly, ‘about a dozen times as long as the Bible.’” Mitchell’s first profile of Gould appeared in The New Yorker in 1942.

Gould epitomizes the marginal figure of the Mitchell profile, the oddball, Socrates of the sidewalk, or weird world expert. Mitchell writes that he never saw him without thinking “of one of those men I used to puzzle over when I read the Bible as a child, who, for transgressions that seemed mysterious to me, had been ‘cast out.’” After writing his first profile of Gould, Mitchell kept up the acquaintance and later realized that the Oral History was a fabrication, that no such book existed except in Gould’s mind. The hundreds of dime-store notebooks Gould stashed with friends all over the city who believed in the existence of his work were, in fact, filled only with endless variations on a handful of subjects, including the death of his father from blood poisoning and an expedition of phrenological fieldwork on two Indian reservations that he made in his youth. In ceaselessly rewriting these few essays, Gould was in fact only recording his own history, not a chronicle of the streets as he proclaimed.

The experience inspired Mitchell to write a second, much longer, melancholy, even regretful profile of Gould, in which he told the complete story of his realization. “Joe Gould’s Secret,” published in 1965, is as much an auto-portrait as a portrait of Gould, and one of its most disturbing features is the gathering of details identifying one man with the other, down to Gould’s love of graveyards and his threadbare Brooks Brothers suits, Mitchell’s own trademark costume. Drawn into the coiling reiterations of Gould’s conversation, Mitchell finds himself featured in Gould’s conception of the past: “By knowing so much about his past, I had, in effect, I realized, become a part of his past. By talking to me, he could bring back his past, he could keep it alive.” The piece culminates in a reflection on Gould’s act in which Mitchell mourns Gould, appreciates him, rages at him, forgives him, and puzzles over him. He describes his plan for his own novel about the young reporter from North Carolina of which he never wrote a word, and the description rises into a vision of a street preacher preaching a scene of resurrection: “All seeds stand for resurrection and all eggs stand for resurrection. The Easter egg stands for resurrection. So do the eggs in the English sparrow’s nest up under the eaves in the ‘L’ station. So does the egg you have for breakfast. So does the caviar rich people eat. So does shad roe.” Although Mitchell remained as a staff writer for another thirty years, “Joe Gould’s Secret” was the last piece he published in The New Yorker.


Reflecting on the figure of Joe Gould, Mitchell later wrote, “Nowadays . . . when his name comes into my mind, it is followed instantly by another name—the name of Bartleby the Scrivener—and then I invariably recall Bartleby’s haunting, horrifyingly self-sufficient remark ‘I would prefer not to.’” In his comment Mitchell revealed the key not only to his depiction of Gould, or even to his pieces on the fixtures of the waterfront, but to a facet of the profile genre as a whole. In Melville’s short story, the narrator refers to Bartleby, an otherworldly scrivener or copyist on Wall Street, as “a bit of wreck in the mid Atlantic,” and later as “the last column of some ruined temple.” Figures from later New Yroker profiles like Henry Blanton, the “Last Cowboy” of Jane Kramer’s 1977 piece, like Henri Vaillancourt who makes bark canoes according to the age-old Indian method in John McPhee’s 1974 “Survival of the Bark Canoe,” like Mitchell’s George H. Hunter, are themselves like last columns, messages in bottles from past vessels on the sea.

Although the bulk of the pieces can rightfully be called profiles, The Bottom of the Harbor is really a meditation on transience and the rise and fall of fortune, not just in individual human lives, but in architecture, industries, and species. The structures in the book seem to bear the highwater mark left by the Flood. The lot where Sloppy Louie’s stands used to be underwater, and the implication throughout is that it will be again. One of the central images of the book comes from a boat captain who has “got the bottom of the harbor on the brain.” Over double bowls of oyster stew, the captain reports a dream in which New York Harbor has been “drained as dry as a bathtub when the plug is pulled.” The entire bottom is revealed, with “hundreds of ships of all kinds lying on their sides,” old wrecks full of worms, rusty anchors, old hawsers, stranded eels and a “skeleton standing waist-deep in a barrel of cement that the barrel had rotted off of.” In Mitchell’s pieces, history reveals itself in visions like this one, moments when sight into the depths is clear and the weight and variety of what is down there comes into view, or when the depths themselves come to the surface, as in Mitchell’s sight of a sea sturgeon rising out of the Hudson:

It was six or seven feet long, a big, full-grown sturgeon. It rose twice, and cleared the water both times, and I plainly saw its bristly snout and its shiny little eyes and its white belly and its glistening, greenish-yellow, bony-plated, crocodilian back and sides . . .

Why does no one write profiles like Mitchell anymore? Some claim that it is because people have lost the ability to really listen, that all the old buildings have been torn down, that no one writes about eccentrics anymore, that there are no genuine eccentrics left, only maniacs, liars, and showmen. Or that Mitchell wrote in a heroic age of writers. That the profile has become too psychological, too analytical, too aloof. That the relation between Americans and their work has soured and no one knows the history of his or her craft, and the world has become so ugly or complex or dispersed that things no longer mean what they used to. But the fact is, Mitchell was an unrepeatable phenomenon, a one-off uniquely attuned to the environments he sought out and recorded, and to the water he watched. It is not only that something particular has been lost, it is, as Mitchell himself showed, that something is always being lost, swallowed up by the ground, rolling away in a wave.

For Mitchell, the bottom of the harbor ultimately becomes an image of the past, of what is lost, of what remains mysterious.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 6, 2010 7:03 AM
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