August 11, 2012


Joseph Mitchell and the Free Life (DERMOT QUINN, Summer 2012, University Bookman)

He cut his teeth in the hard winter of the Depression when, as he said, "nothing brightened up a front page so much as a story about human suffering." "The man on the street is so gloomy now," one of his editors used to say, "that a story about somebody else's bad luck cheers him up." There was, of course, no shortage of such stories. In this decade, the sights and sounds and smells of New York entered his blood and his ink, never leaving. Writing to a deadline and a word limit taught him his craft--never bury the lede, answer the obvious questions, get to the point, try to see what others miss, make the piece edgy and quirky and slightly offbeat. The stranger the story, the more likely it was to make print.

His apprenticeship complete, Mitchell joined the staff of The New Yorker in 1938, remaining there until his death in 1996. His greatest work was written for that magazine. He saw, in New York, an array of eccentrics, oddballs, misfits, lonely, gifted, strange, surly, lovable people that could not be found so concentratedly in any other city in the world. His profiles of them appeared from time to time, and their titles say all that need be said of his affection and admiration for them: "King of the Gypsies," "Lady Olga," "The Deaf-Mutes Club," "Santa Claus Smith," "The Don't Swear Man," "Hit on the Head with a Cow," "Professor Sea Gull," "I Blame it all on Mamma." The pieces were collected in four books--McSorley's Wonderful Saloon in 1943; Old Mr. Flood in 1948; The Bottom of the Harbor in 1960; and Joe Gould's Secret in 1965. All four books were themselves collected together in one compendium volume, Up at the Old Hotel published by Pantheon Books in 1992. If you do not own or have not read this book, buy it and read it today. Don't start reading it at night unless you have nothing to do the next day. If you have nothing to do the next day, you may be more like one of its characters than you realize.

How, then, to explain Mitchell's extraordinary power, his continuing appeal to our time? Let me suggest four ways. There are, of course, others.

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Posted by at August 11, 2012 8:29 AM

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