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Why Joseph Mitchell Stopped Writing

Mario Ruiz/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

I remember first hearing about Joseph Mitchell in the winter of 2013. I was working at a British periodical when one afternoon an irritable sub complained I had stylistically overwritten my column. He told me I’d benefit from reading some American longform: Gay Talese, John Updike, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Roger Angell, and Joseph Mitchell. I liked the sound of Mitchell and bought Up in the Old Hotel—his New Yorker collection. It is difficult to pin down what it was about this eclectic collection of profiles from a forgotten New York that attracted me. There was something about the simplicity of Mitchell’s style. His sentences were effortless and direct, and the pieces romantically encapsulated the trials of the human condition—whether Mazie, the good-naturedly tough Bowery ticket-taker; Commodore Dutch, who hosted an annual ball for the benefit of himself; or Lady Olga, the bearded circus performer who pined for normality. He showed there was a story in everyone, if only you took the time to listen; advice that eludes most humans, let alone young journalists.  This is exemplified in a few lines that became some of the best known of his career: “The people in a number of the stories are of the kind that many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to as ‘the little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”

After Up in the Old Hotel, I moved on to My Ears are Bent—his collection of newspaper articles for The Herald Tribune and The World Telegram. This work shows glimpses of the understated prose he would develop at The New Yorker. In “Execution,” for instance, he subtly reinforces the horror as he calmly watches three men being executed: “The relatives were waiting to claim the bodies of the three men who helped kill a barfly for $1,290. It took them a long time to kill Malloy. It took the State only 16 minutes to kill them.” One line in the collection has always particularly resonated: “I often go to Dick’s to observe life, a subject in which I have been deeply interested since childhood.”

“Unfortunately, I’m afraid all biographies and autobiographies are fiction,” Mitchell told the literary critic Norman Sims during an interview in 1989. Despite this, in Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, the academic and journalist Thomas Kunkel valiantly captures much of Mitchell’s biography: his often dark outlook, his upbringing, his transition from Fairmont, North Carolina, to New York, his journey to The New Yorker, the development of his style, his acute depression, and the writer’s block that would eventually cripple his creativity.

Joseph Quincy Mitchell was born on July 27, 1908, the eldest child of Betty Parker and A.N. Mitchell. He was followed over the next 14 years by five other siblings. “Like so many sons throughout history,” Kunkel writes, “Joseph Mitchell would spend his entire life endeavoring to win his father’s approval.” A.N. was a farmer and cotton trader, and the eldest son was expected to follow in his footsteps. After he took a ten-year-old Joseph to New York on a business trip, it was never going to happen. The first time he saw the skyscrapers and hurly-burly of Gotham, Joseph declared to his father: “This is for me.”

Mitchell first left home to study at the University of North Carolina, with the ambition of becoming a physician. However, he struggled with math and switched to the liberal arts. It was a course on Chaucer that left the most enduring mark. “I probably learned more about writing in that course than I did working on newspapers,” he commented. As a student, he edited The Carolina Magazine and published freelance pieces with the state’s newspapers. However, he knew he needed to leave Fairmont in order to become a writer.

With his wife Therese and their two children, Mitchell visited Fairmont once a year. But with each trip he felt increasingly like an “exile”—a man emotionally torn between two worlds. It was a theme he would explore throughout his life as he battled with the guilt of leaving, spurning his father’s wishes, and bouts of homesickness. In one journal note from the 1970s, he “discovered” that he was “not a New Yorker,” adding: “I am not going to be buried here. That is what cuts me off. I have always known it in the back of my mind. I don’t belong here, I have not really thrown in my lot with these people.”

By the 1940s, Mitchell was established at The New Yorker and began some of the work that would earn him his deserved reputation. Kunkel argues that it was his patience with subjects that allowed him to develop his distinctive style: “No matter how downtrodden his characters might be, no matter how laid low by misfortune, Mitchell lent them a fundamental decency and humanity.”

One character whose dignity has always stood out is Jane Barnell, the bearded lady known as Lady Olga, who Mitchell profiled in 1940 when she was 69. Most of her life was spent travelling with circuses, but she strived, always, for something like a normal domesticity. (She wanted to be a stenographer.) Mitchell portrays her in a straightforward, detailed, and unflinching manner, and ends his profile with a quote from Barnell: “If the truth was known, we’re all freaks together.”

These profiles weren’t exactly true. In an age of instant examination, where no accidental self-plagiarism goes unpunished, let alone an actual Jonah Lehrer-esque fabrication, it’s hard to say if Mitchell’s work would have gone unscathed. Mitchell admitted years later that Old Mr. Flood (1948), the protagonist of his essay, was fictional, but Kunkel reveals he wasn’t Mitchell’s only invented character. In a 1961 letter to The New Yorker in-house attorney, Mitchell explained that famous profile of Cockeye Johnny Nikanov in “King of the Gypsies” was a composite: “Insofar as the principal character is concerned, the gypsy king himself, it is a work of imagination. Cockeye Johnny Nikanov does not exist in real life, and never did.”

Further, Kunkel reveals many characters that contained a suspicious degree of Mitchell’s voice. Kunkel deconstructs “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” a profile of one of the oldest survivors of a nineteenth-century village of black oystermen on Staten Island—an allegory on mortality and the human condition more generally. Mr. Hunter’s wise speeches, Kunkel finds, were mostly re-imagined and streamlined. “One cannot compare the ‘Mr. Hunter’ notes to the finished story without concluding that there is a generous dollop of Mitchell himself in Hunter’s speeches,” Kunkel writes, “it seems clearly that much of the old man’s language was Mitchell’s own.”

Kunkel puts forward a strong defence of his subject and argues that in many regards Mitchell was simply anticipating the New Journalism of Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. As Mitchell’s friend and colleague Philip Hamburger said:  “I don’t think that it makes a bit of difference whether there was a Mr. Flood or there wasn’t a Mr. Flood. Just as it doesn’t make a difference whether there was a Nicholas Nickleby or a David Copperfield.” Mitchell’s inventions were part of his pursuit for a larger truth, Kunkel argues. And importantly, there’s no record of his characters objecting to how they were portrayed and quoted.

Mitchell’s output slowed after The New Yorker published the final installment of the Mr. Flood profile in August 1945. It was 16 months before his byline appeared again with “Dragger Captain.” (In 1939, his first full year at the magazine, he published 14 pieces, the same number he would produce from 1944 until his death half a century later.) While the articles were more sophisticated, longer, and harder to tackle, he was evidently burdened by a strain of compulsive perfectionism. Without the pressure of deadlines, he indulged his obsession, and this self-imposed pressure worsened with age, anxiety, and growing acclaim.

Perhaps the most enduring Mitchell profile is of Joe Gould, a Harvard graduate who was generally hungover and homeless. Known as Professor Sea Gull because he said he could communicate with the birds, Gould claimed to be writing the “Oral History of Our Time,” an exhaustive handwritten work chronicling life in New York. According to his journal, Mitchell was aware there was little to the Oral History when he wrote the first profile. “Only a few hundred of the people who know Gould have read any of the Oral History, and most of them take it for granted that it is gibberish,” he writes in one entry. However, he did not realize the extent to which he’d been duped by Gould. It was only after publication that he realized Gould’s History did not exist at all—a fact which he kept to himself. Decades later, still upset, he revealed Gould’s secret with a second profile. “I believe in revenge,” he tellingly writes in “Joe Gould’s Secret.”

Pressure and anxiety grew after the first Gould profile was published. The previous year, his mood had darkened after the death of his mother, and dear friend and colleague A.J. Liebling. With expectation looming over him, the master stopped producing masterpieces. Kunkel studiously highlights that many of Mitchell’s journal observations during this period sound much like the characters in his stories lamenting a bygone era. Plagued by depression, he sought refuge by electing to “live in the past” as he described it. “Somewhere along the way Mitchell realized that a circuit had tripped in his mind,” Kunkel writes, “and he was now spending more time focused on what had gone before in his life—a space where the people so dear to him were all still alive, and the most satisfying times could be replayed at will—than he was confronting the frustrating present or an even worse future.”

He wanted to write a “big book” about New York but he couldn’t bring himself to start it. Eventually he decided to write an autobiography. By the spring of 1970, he had pulled together a prospective opening. His editor William Shawn described it as “some of the best writing about New York City I have ever read.” But after three chapters he stopped producing drafts, and his jumbled papers suggest he did not know where he was taking it.

After Therese suffered a stroke in April 1979 and was subsequently diagnosed with cancer, Mitchell began caring for her full-time until she died aged 70 on October 22, 1980. For 49 years she had been an emotional counterbalance to her husband. Mitchell’s sense of loss was profound.

According to Kunkel, there is no “magic bullet” answer why Mitchell stopped finishing anything. “But in hindsight, one truth does emerge with an almost startling clarity. Even allowing for all the external factors that impeded his writing expectations, it was Mitchell himself who’d set things up so that there could be, in essence, only one outcome—failure.” Rather than writing a story after the Gould installment, he set out to write a full-blown book. This was complicated by the fact he didn’t really know what he wanted to write. In time, Mitchell’s inability to move forward preyed on his deep capacity for guilt and compounded his growing stress over the situation.

In 1995, Mitchell started experiencing back pain and was diagnosed with lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. “There was so much I still wanted to do,” he told his loved ones as his time neared. On May 24, 1996, Joseph Mitchell died aged 87.

Mitchell, who found such beauty and tranquillity in graveyards, was laid to rest in Fairmont’s Floyd Memorial Cemetery, next to Therese. As he once wrote in a journal: “An old man walking alone down a cemetery path, [you] can tell by the way he walks that he knows exactly where he is going: among all these graves, he has a certain one in mind.” The tombstone awaiting Mitchell bore an epitaph from Shakespeare’s elegiac seventy-third sonnet, a favorite line of his selected by his daughters: “Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”