July 14, 2012


Rereading: Up in the Old Hotel, by Joseph Mitchell: Joseph Mitchell is celebrated for his meticulous New Yorker profiles of Manhattan outcasts and eccentrics. His attentiveness to his subjects was not so much a technique as a moral principle (William Fiennes, 6/22/12, guardian.co.uk)

Joseph Mitchell was born in 1908, in Fairmont, North Carolina, where his father was a farmer who traded in cotton and tobacco. He began submitting newspaper stories as a student at the University of North Carolina, and moved to New York in 1929 with the idea of writing about politics. He got a job as a "district man" on the Herald Tribune, "hoofing after dime-a-dozen murders" in Brooklyn and Harlem. The latter, especially, left a deep impression. "Until I came to New York City," Mitchell would write in an introduction to My Ears Are Bent (1938), a collection of his early newspaper stories, "I had never lived in a town with a population of more than 2,699, and I was alternately delighted and frightened out of my wits by what I saw at night in Harlem." By the time his stint there was over, Mitchell was "so fascinated by the melodrama of the metropolis at night" that he forgot his ambition to be a political reporter.

Instead, he went to sea, working on a freighter shipping heavy machinery to Leningrad. Returning to New York, Mitchell found a job at the World-Telegram, writing features and interviews. He wrote about strippers, Eleanor Roosevelt, lady prize-fighters, Noël Coward, pickpockets, Tallulah Bankhead and George Bernard Shaw, and he began contributing short pieces to the New Yorker, which had been founded by Harold Ross in 1925. Mitchell joined the staff in 1938, and the magazine immediately gave him two great gifts.

The first was a form. The profile - a portrait of an individual drawn from interviews, observations and background research - is now a journalistic commonplace, but in the 1930s it was an innovation, conceived and developed at the New Yorker by Ross and writers such as Alva Johnston, Meyer Berger and St Clair McKelway. The profile, according to Ross, showed that it was possible "to write history about living people". Mitchell would become its greatest exponent.

The second gift was time. Released from the ticking-clock schedules of newspaper reporting, Mitchell now had the freedom to immerse himself in his stories, spending weeks or even months with his subjects, watching and listening. "There was this anomaly," he would say, much later. "You can write something and every sentence in it will be a fact, you can pile up facts, but it won't be true. Inside a fact is another fact, and inside that is another fact. You've got to get to the true facts. When I got [to the New Yorker], I said to myself I don't give a damn what happens, I am going to take my time."

Mitchell on Gould is just awesome psychodrama. Was he writing about himself to begin with, or did he too stop writing out of guilt at exposing his subject?

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Posted by at July 14, 2012 8:16 AM

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