The publication of his book Up in the Old Hotel in 1992 ended Joseph Mitchell’s 28-year silence. Strictly speaking, though, Mitchell didn’t break his silence as much as he reopened a long-closed door and then shut it again. Up in the Old Hotel contains no new writing; it is a collection of four of Mitchell’s five previously published books—McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943); Old Mr. Flood (1948); The Bottom of the Harbor (1960); and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965). All of the pieces originally appeared in The New Yorker, where Mitchell has worked for more than 50 years.
After the book’s appearance there was a brief spate of encomiums, and, for a few weeks, the book was a “bestseller.” One was reminded of earlier comment—Malcolm Cowley had written that “Mitchell is the best reporter in the country”; Brendan Gill that “in the opinion of many . . . Joseph Mitchell is the finest writer” on The New Yorker staff; and Noel Perrin that the essays in The Bottom of the Harbor“are . . .the most brilliant and moving essays or essay-stories I know.” At last, it seemed, Mitchell’s place as the best living American essayist was being reestablished.
Now that all is said and done, however, there remains something a bit doleful about the whole event, as though what has taken place is not a celebratory renaissance but a premature obituary. Most of the reviews read like postmortems. One current reviewer had even assumed Mitchell was dead, not having read anything of his since 1965. Mitchell’s propensity for morbidity and the lack of new writing did not help the situation. But, if I read the reviews correctly, the reviewers were lamenting two things, both of which, they claim, make any hope of Mitchell’s writing flourishing again doubtful. The first is the belief that there is no longer much of an audience for the kind of sentences Mitchell writes: the short, declarative prose best practiced by Harold Ross and his stable of non-fiction writers at The New Yorker during its early years. Secondly, and more complex, is the claim that because New York has changed in the last five decades from the envy of the world into a symbol of national urban decay, Mitchell’s characters have turned from a parade of raffish and charming drunks and scalawags into pathetic, shameful statistics. Epidemic proportions of such figures, along with what passes for medical and social advances, have made it nearly impossible to view them as individuals; what they need is help, not a writer who romanticizes their behavior.
I’d be a fool to argue very hard against these as “facts,” but to parrot Mitchell, there are truths which mere fact cannot uncover. What I find disturbing is that understood a certain way—the way, I fear, that many readers will now be apt to judge him—these facts attribute to his work a certain pernicious nostalgia. Certainly reading his work fosters a yearning for the way things used to be. Our cities are not as they were. Especially New York. Affable drunks and eccentric street people are a contradiction in terms, especially when we have to step over them. But Mitchell’s nostalgia is no narcotic. His nostalgia forces us to confront rather than to ignore. His spare, economic style of writing and politically incorrect characters may indeed summon some earlier time, but they are not unfashionable because they no longer exist. The truth is that they are unfashionable because they attribute qualities to a certain type of people whom we find easier to deal with as abstracts rather than as individuals. Intractable problems are hard to assimilate into our preference for narrative resolution. Mitchell is rarely thought of as a social critic, but the social concerns that lie at the core of his work are, in today’s climate, not only one of its best qualities, they also make it more vital than ever. So if the four books collected in Up in the Old Hotel have an “empty look,” like the Staten Island cemetery Mitchell once chronicled, “as if somebody had locked up and gone off somewhere,” a stroll through their pages is testament to the fact that though “Stones rot the same as bones rot . . .nothing endures but the spirit.”
For those unfamiliar with Mitchell’s work, an introduction to the man serves well as an introduction to several important aspects of it. Mitchell’s unprepossessing personal appearance resembles his prose style. In Brendan Gill’s book Here at The New Yorker, there is an old photograph of Mitchell and SJ. Perelman in which Mitchell appears neatly dressed in a gray felt fedora and sedate sportcoat and tie. With the exception of a pair of glasses and an even more sedate tie, he’s dressed the same in his new book’s photograph. Likewise his prose lacks any hint of self-consciousness and is as non-judgmental as it is deceptively simple. His sentences follow the path of least resistance. They are often short and sometimes eschew proper grammar. Mitchell ends them with an occasional preposition. It might have been he rather than his officemate E.B. White who claimed that writing is an act of faith and not a trick of grammar. This style doesn’t lend itself to lyrical passages, but his best pieces are lyrical masterpieces. They build up, one after another, until they form an essay that is far more than the sum of its parts. To quote Cowley, Mitchell’s work “has the air of having sprung by the happiest chance, with no effort, from a playful superfluity of energy and talent. . .not a groan in it anywhere.”
Mitchell’s eclectic resumé is also a guided map to his favorite subjects. It explains how a native of the small farming town of Fairmont, in southeastern North Carolina, became the unofficial poet laureate of the nation’s Sodom. Arriving in New York in 1929, the day after the stock market crash, Mitchell worked for a decade on city dailies, honing his skills by covering the cops in Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and Harlem. During his stint at the dailies, Mitchell came to realize that what interested him as much as anything was New York’s eccentric environs. He has since become an aficionado of many of them. He is a devotee of gypsies, commercial fishing, wildflowers, and the architecture of New York. He has served on the board of directors of the Gypsy Lore Society as well as the Commission of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Friends of Cast Iron Architecture. Depending on his frame of mind, which he admits as generally taciturn, he likes to haunt old cemeteries, McSorley’s bar, the Gotham Book Mart, and the marshes of Staten Island. He has ingested nearly every imaginable type of viscous sea creature. His favorites are oysters, but he has a pronounced weakness for clams and tortoise meat.
Among his greatest influences he lists an obscure Mexican artist named Posada and his Aunt Annie. Each has figured in what he calls his sense of graveyard humor. Posada’s paintings depict figures involved in everyday pursuits—singing love songs, making speeches—with one noticeable exception: all the figures are skeletons. Aunt Annie introduced him to cemetery touring and to the benefits of a wide-ranging appreciation of humanity, probably at the same time. Once, while she led him and his family through an old cemetery, she pointed out two graves. “This man buried here,” she said, “was so mean I don’t know how his family stood him. And this man here,” she said, pointing to another grave, “was so good I don’t know how his family stood him.” Among the results of these influences is an eye trained to pause over bizarre people and objects which escape the notice of most conventional aesthetes. However, of all the events Mitchell witnessed in his decades as a reporter, he felt the most spectacular was an afternoon he spent back home in North Carolina, watching a pileated woodpecker tear the bark off a dead tree.
Mitchell’s bailiwick, the chronicling of the freakish but deeply human denizens of New York’s seedier sides, began with his second book—the first in this collection—McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. Among its subjects are a Bowery matron; a street preacher; a man who makes a living by holding benefit parties for himself; sundry gypsies; a man who has devoted his life to the eradication of profanity; and the famed Mohawk Indians who work without fear on New York’s steel high-rises. Placed alongside the much longer essays of his later books’, these pieces appear as small sketches and studies for his masterworks. In them we can see some of the qualities upon which Mitchell was to build.
The first is Mitchell’s unmistakable reportorial effect. Their ingredients consist of dizzying amounts of factual material, skeins of random authorial observations, and whole pages of direct quotation. Mitchell’s immediate triumph is that he manages to compile and order all this information gracefully. Not only is it easy to read, but the humor and pathos we feel for his subjects, many of whom are somewhat pitiful, are never condescending or patronizing. In “Mazie” we meet a woman who comes closest to being most like Mitchell himself. To begin with, her vocation and her avocation are nearly one and the same; Mazie has minded the ticket cage of The Venice Theater, just west of the Bowery, for 21 years. From her perch at the Venice, she dispenses care to the numerous bums that traipse through the neighborhood and in and out of the theater during the day. She doles out advice as well as small change. “In my time I been as free with my dimes as old John D. himself,” she says. “She is the most compassionate person I’ve ever known,” an acquaintance says about Mazie. “No matter how filthy or drunk or evil-smelling a bum may be, she treats him as an equal.” Like Mitchell, she finds something curiously life-affirming in the garrulous bonhomie of bums like Pop, who says, “I come from a devout family of teetotalers. They was thirteen in the family, and they called me a weakling because I got drunk on Saturday nights. Well, they’re all under the sod. Woodrow Wilson was president when the last one died, and I’m still here drinking good liquor and winking at the pretty girls.” And, like Mitchell, she also has the ear and sense of humor to recognize the bemused genius of local eccentrics like Eddie Guest, a defeated, sodden poet.
At the Venice one night [Eddie] saw “The River,” the moving picture in which the names of the tributaries of the Mississippi were made into a poem. When he came out, he stopped at Mazie’s cage, spread his arms, and recited the names of many of the walk-up hotels on the Bowery. “The Alabama Hotel, the Comet, and the Uncle Sam House,” he said, in a declamatory voice, “the Dandy, the Defender, the Niagara, the Owl, the Victoria House and the Grand Windsor Hotel, the Houston, the Mascot, the Palace, the Progress, the Palma House and the White House Hotel, the Newport, the Crystal, the Lion and the Marathon. . . . For some reason, Mazie thought this was extraordinarily funny. Now, each morning, in order to get a dime, Eddie Guest is obliged to recite this chant for her. . . . Mazie has considerable respect for Eddie Guest but thinks he is kidding when he calls himself a poet. Once he read to her part of a completely unintelligible poem about civilization in the United States, on which he says he has been working for twenty years and which he calls “No Rags, No Bones, No Bottles Today.” “If that’s a poem,” Mazie said when he had finished, “I’m the Queen of Sweden.”
Mazie shares one other similarity with Mitchell: an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane facts, in this case about a catalogue of tidbits useful to no one but her and the congregation of degenerates she ministers to. On her charges’ behalf she has notes that “pitchers with shooting in them are bad for business. They wake up the customers.” Though she throws one bum out of the theater per day in order to assert her control, she has a generous definition of what constitutes an intoxicated customer. Someone is drunk, she says, “When he has to get down on all fours and crawl.” On nightly tours of the neighborhood she watches out for the welfare of those asleep on the streets. “A sidewalk is about as nice as a flophouse in the summer-time,” she says. But in the winter she makes every effort to find them shelter. She mixes pity with sober idealism: “To hear them tell it, all the bums on the Bowery were knocking off millions down on Wall Street when they were young, else they were senators, else they were the general manager of something real big, but, poor fellows, the most of them wasn’t ever nothing but drunks.”
In “King of the Gypsies” Mitchell demonstrates two other characteristics present in nearly all of his work. The first is the ability to profile an individual and thereby capture the spirit of a whole culture. The effect is miraculous, something akin, I would think, to listening to cassette tapes of foreign languages while sleeping and waking up not only able to speak the language but familiar with even the oddest customs of the country. The second is his lifelong fascination with people who exhibit an antithetical lust for life: with one arm they’ll embrace life, and, with the other, embrace some form of immoderate, destructive behavior. It’s easy to see why gypsies strike Mitchell’s fancy. In them is embodied a distillation of the best and worst of modern urban life. They are petty criminals and a drain on the energies and coffers of the police and city. Yet they abhor normality and display a carefree gusto for life. They are the enemies, literally and figuratively, of numbing, morbid convention. In fact, the target of most of their swindles are overly-worried, ignorant middle-aged women. “In the country of the blind,” an old gypsy saying has it, “the man that can see out of one eye is king.” MitchelPs admiration is evident in his description of gypsy families.
In the city, gypsies prefer to scatter out, but there are colonies of them on the lower East Side, on the Bowery, on the eastern fringe of Spanish Harlem, and on Varet Street in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. They rent the cheapest flats in the shabbiest tenements on the worst blocks. Three or four families often share one flat. They move on the spur of the moment; in the last two years one family has given seventeen addresses to the Department of Welfare . . . They nurse their babies in public . . . The children are dirty, flea-ridden, intelligent, and beautiful . . . They are not particularly healthy, but they have the splendid gutter hardihood of English sparrows.
But it is not simply Mitchell who tells us these things. It is also the voice of Johnny Nikanov, or King Cockeye Johnny as he is known, and his endearingly tendentious defense of his way of life that come alive through Mitchell. In response to the gypsy reputation for thievery, Johnny says, “To a gypsy feller there ain’t but two kinds of merchandise. Lost and unlost. Anything that ain’t nailed down is lost.” For him, graft, like beauty, rests in the eye of the beholder. In his opinion, the Teapot Dome scandal was reprehensible: “You take a poor starving gypsy feller, he’ll steal a tankful of gas—there’s no denying it. But you take a high-class American feller, he’ll steal a whole damned oil well.” Johnny’s wife, Looba, smokes a pipe and has an uncanny resemblance to the old Indian on Indian-head nickels. When she is ornery, which is often, she calls her husband a “ratbite, a sick toad, a blue-bellied eel, a black-yolked egg, a goat, a bat, a policeman . . .and various other loathsome things.” Johnny says he doesn’t mind. “A gypsy woman that don’t scream half the time, something is wrong with her,” he says. “Screaming is their hobby.”
Malcolm Cowley was the first to notice that Mitchell’s writing transcends the Who? What? When? and Where? of reportorial fact-finding. He also noted that Mitchell’s characters resemble those of another chronicler of the forgotten masses: Charles Dickens. I take my title, in fact, from Cowley’s claim that Mitchell achieves effects of character and mood “with the grammar of hard facts that Dickens achieved with the rhetoric of imagination.” Cowley points to both Mitchell’s and Dickens’ ability to derive character from a rhetorical development of one idea. He offers as example the aptly named Veneerings of Our Mutual Friend, whose constricting, nouveau-riche mentality Dickens develops from the opening description of them as “bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London.”
Mitchell uses trenchant reportorial observations similarly. In “A Sporting Man,” he begins a piece on a once notorious pan-handling blithe spirit this way: “Commodore Dutch is a brassy little man who has made a living for the past forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself. “I haven’t got a whole lot of sense,” he likes to say, “but I got too much sense to work.” “The theme of Dutch’s persona as a shameless huckster for his one-man charity has been struck. The rest of the piece is comprised of variations upon it. That Dutch seems most pleased with himself when either he or other people are making him the butt of jokes doesn’t seem to faze him; he purports that mirth of any sort is good for business. “When a fella is laughing at me, I’m sizing him up. . . . I’m giving him the old psychology. To put the bite on a man, what I call collecting dues, you got to study him. You got to figure out the right moment to nail him.” Of course one also notes more than a touch of pathetic sadness in Dutch’s peculiar position as town clown. “The fellas on Broadway are so low themselves,” he says, “it makes them feel good to have somebody around they can look down on, and I guess I fit the bill.”
Cowley mentions another Dickensian emotion present in the McSorley’s pieces: “a continual wonder at the sights and sounds of a big city, a continual interest in all the strange people who live there, a continual impulse to burst into praise of kind hearts and good food and down with hypocrisy.” I agree with Cowley about this emotion, and I think it arises from something of which both Mitchell and Dickens are aware: the dramatic tension found in the opposition of the “reality” of social convention—the civic boosterism of the glories of the industrial age, the economic Eden of New York in the first half of this century—and the grim reality of their characters’ lives. Just as Hard Times, for example, effectively contrasts the poor workers of Coketown with the Gradgrinds and their dehumanizing philosophy of Utilitarianism, Mazie and Cockeye Johnny and the squalid grottos they call home are hard to square with the fabled New York City, like the version portrayed in Jan Morris’ Manhattan ‘45: “all panache, all rhythm, all good-natured dazzle, all Frank Sinatra and Betty Grable. . . . It was the future about to occur.” The protracted lives of MitcheU’s characters are overmatched, of course, by the tides of contentment, but for at least as long as one reads about them they become an insistent force, the hammering of which, like the person behind the door of every contented, happy man in Chekhov’s stories, cracks through our carapace of social constructs to remind us that there are lots of unhappy people out there who bear their burdens in silence so that our happiness becomes possible.
Mitchell, though, is no dreary moralist or social critic. It’s true that his work does have relevance as some sort of social document, but Mitchell never sacrifices the integrity of his characters for a self-aggrandizing agenda. Unfortunately, this quality of his has often been misunderstood. Mitchell has been chided for the romanticizing and heroizing of his subjects to the point of caricature, so that yesterday’s raffish alcoholics and their oracular ramblings become today’s national shame, the numberless and paranoiac homeless. But such criticism misses the point. Mitchell’s series of portraits championing of the downtrodden is a kind of proof by induction of the individual personalities we stand to lose by occluding them with anesthetizing terminology. He makes us ask ourselves whether we have become better attuned to recognizing our societal ills or better able to camouflage them. What’s more, as the Dickens critic John Holloway claims, caricature is character, as these sorts of people strive to remain a law unto themselves in the face of mean-spirited social conventions which threaten to asphyxiate what little individual freedom they do have. Self-righteous philanthropists beware. Mitchell’s characters, like Dickens’, are hardly the sullen, belly-aching lot we might expect. On the contrary. They are resilient and indefatigable.
The term “New Journalism” hadn’t appeared by 1948 (Truman Capote was 24 in 1948; Tom Wolfe’s first book and In Cold Blood wouldn’t appear until 1965 and ‘66, respectively), but Mitchell was already conjuring with the genre in the second book in this collection—Old Mr. Flood. To begin with, it has become impossible to tell where fact ends and fiction begins. In his note to the book Mitchell says, “Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work for or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past.” Mitchell doesn’t abandon what he does best—the spiraling off of a rhetorical idea to develop character; exhaustive reporting; the exact rendering of dialogue—he simply gives himself free rein to expand upon them. In short, as Noel Perrin has observed, Mitchell not only allows himself more room and latitude to write about what he knows, but he demonstrates that “whatever he writes about he tends to know better than anybody else in the world.”
Pulses of feeling that were present in McSorley’s become themes in Old Mr. Flood, all of which center on the main character, Mr. Hugh G. Flood, who is a frank, unpretentious amalgam of vim and vigor. He is also 93 years old and unreconciled to dying until July 27, 1965, which will be his 115th birthday. According to him, dying before that is unacceptable for three reasons: first, he deeply enjoys living; second, he is a Baptist with a nagging fear of the hereafter; and third, he is a “seafoodtarian” and believes that another 22 years of life will prove his theory that the only sensible food for those desirous of longevity is fish. By all rights Flood is a phenomenon. He worked among the open elements until he was 80 as the head of his own demolition and salvage business. He seems immune to the vagaries of old age; he retains all of his faculties, including hearing, appetite, vision. According to him he hasn’t had a cold since 1912:
Only reason I caught that one, I went on a toot and it was a pouring-down rainy night in the dead of winter and my shoes were cracked and they let the damp in and I lost my balance a time or two and sloshed around in the gutter and somewhere along the line I mislaid my hat and I’d just had a haircut and I stood in a draft in one saloon an hour or more and there was a poor fellow next to me sneezing his head off and when I got home I crawled into bed that was beside an open window like a fool and passed out with my wet clothes on, shoes and all. Also, I’d spent the night before sitting up on a train and hadn’t slept a wink and my resistance was low.
Aside from prowling the confines of the Fulton Fish market for fresh delicacies or good conversation, Flood hosts his own raucous birthday parties to which he invites a few close friends. Among them is Mrs. Birdy Treppel and Ben Fass, both fishmongers; Tom Bethea, an embalmer; and Matthew T. Cusack, a retired policeman. None suffer fools gladly; they agree that at their advanced age they don’t have time. They all share a like for eating and drinking, except for Cusack who gave up drinking. The conversation at the parties is mostly centered around affirming one another’s prejudices. In general, these consist of maintaining that the past was generally better than the present. In the past, for example, oysters were not only plentiful, there was a variety. Now most have disappeared, along with most of the old oyster bars. Improvement of any kind is suspect, especially when it comes to stainless steel knives or radios, which, because he habitually listens to shows which are sponsored by patent medicine companies, have transformed the once vigorous Cusack into a shuffling bundle of hypochondriacal neuroses. The resulting tone, as Perrin has touched upon, is elegiac, and it treats the two dominant themes of the certainty of death and the irretrievability of the past with “a kind of sad gallantry.”
V. S. Pritchett has written that “the distinguishing quality of Dickens’ people is that they are solitaries. They are people caught living in a world of their own. They do not talk to one another; they talk to themselves . . .each conducting its own inner monologue, grandiloquent or dismaying.” For a while Flood’s parties offer solace, a collective struggle for autonomy against dehumanizing influences. Flood is a good host, mindful of his guests and sympathetic to their eccentricities and harmless prejudices. “I come from the womb and I’m bound for the tomb, the same as you,” he once said in answer to a bigot that angered him, and he plans on speaking to the mayor about reuniting factional ethnic and religious groups with a citywide Human Race Parade. But in the end the struggle is an individual one against isolation and death.
The stories, like their lives, are really soliloquies to themselves, evidence that they are in the land of the living. Even the unlikely events in the story Flood tells about a spent drayhorse named Sam who is secretly fed oysters and regains his vitality stand as a kind of wishful fantasy for their own physical revival. Flood’s favorite reading materials are a ten-volume set of Mark Twain and a United States Bureau of Fisheries reference book, which he reads over and over.
He knows the habits and ranges of hundreds of fishes, mollusks, and crustaceans; he has even memorized the Latin names of many of them. . . . “If I get to heaven,” he once said, “the first night up there, if it’s O.K. with the management, I’m going to get hold of a bottle of good whiskey and look up Mr. Twain . . . And if [he’s] not up there, I’ll ask to be sent down to the other place.” A moment later he added uneasily, “Of course, I don’t really mean that. I’m just talking to hear myself talk.”
The Bottom of the Harbor is Mitchell’s best book. I’m hardly the first to consider these pieces the best familiar essays I have ever read. Their subjects include an old waterfront restaurant called Sloppy Louie’s; the debris at the bottom of New York harbor; an old Stonington, Connecticut, fish captain; and a forgotten black community on Staten Island. The most complex and accomplished is “The Rivermen,” about the shad fishermen of Edgewater, New Jersey. The essay is too long to do justice here, but in its characters and conversation and description, all of Mitchell’s concerns are married into beautiful clarity.
The purest distillation of Edgewater and its people is its rivermen. “This word has a special shade of meaning,” Mitchell says, because “a riverman not only works on the river or kills a lot of time on it or near it, he is also emotionally attached to it—he can’t stay away from it.” We are introduced to the riverman he knows best, the 74-year-old Harry “Hotch” Lyons. Strictly speaking, Lyons is retired, but he still fishes commercially from time to time, especially during shad season. Otherwise he spends most of his time “wandering up and down the riverfront looking at the river, or sitting on his barge looking at the river, but he isn’t lazy.” It’s hard to discern the divigations among Harry, the town’s history, and the river. He is a direct descendant of Philiipe de Trieux, one of the original settlers of New Amsterdam. He has been a part of the river since he was a tiny boy. In fact, Harry used to get so muddy playing in the river flats that he has become part of a local euphemism: when someone or something is unusually muddy, people say he or she or it is as muddy as Hotch Lyons. When he fishes, he often uses river shrimp as bait, sometimes popping them raw into his mouth and spitting out the shells. People in Edgewater generally agree that Harry knows more about the river than anyone else.
Much of the essay recounts a conversation between Harry, Mitchell, and two of Harry’s friends on his old Delaware, Lackawana, and Western barge. The conversation, ostensibly about the declining art of old-time shad fishing, is really nothing less than an attempt by these old men to seek an answer for the meanings of their lives. Harry’s narrative on shad fishing—the clear joy found in technique, tides, and estuarine life—is all punctuated by the somber realization that what he’s describing is a dying way of life. In a kind of mournful counterpoint are the jubilant sounds of schoolgirls singing a morbid rope-jumping song: Mama, mama, /I am ill./ Send for the doctor/ To give me a pill./ Doctor, Doctor, / Will I die?/ ‘Yes, my child, / And so will I —.
If The Bottom of the Harbor is Mitchell’s finest book, its successor, Joe Gould’s Secret, is his most disappointing. In the original profile of Joe Gould in McSorley’s (“Professor Seagull”), Gould is a quintessential Mitchell character. A 1911 Harvard graduate turned Greenwich Village freeloader, Gould devotes his whole life to cadging enough charity so that he’ll have maximum free time for the writing of his magnum opus, the rambling, 11-million-word An Oral History of Our Time. Gould’s muses are William Butler Yeats, who believed that the history of a nation is better found in the mundane affairs of the common folk than in parliaments and battlefields, and William Blake, who once wrote that “The harlot’s cry from street to street/ Shall weave Old England’s winding-sheet.” What Mitchell discovers about Gould in the intervening years between the original profile and this book might be construed as a kind of template for the transformation that has affected many of his characters. Gould turns from a charming if somewhat bumptious eccentric into a pathetic, scurrilous reprobate. In fact, the impetus for Mitchell’s original profile, the oral history, is nonexistent; its “creation” is only a shield behind which crouches the failed figure of Gould. The end result, according to some, was that Mitchell “saw his professional life pass before his eyes” and succumbed, naturally enough, to what appears to be terminal writer’s block.
Joe Gould’s Secret is disappointing, but not because Gould is a kind of case study applicable to one degree or another to many of Mitchell’s similar characters, the inference being that Mitchell practices sleight of hand in order to dissemble the true essence of his characters. Any skeptical reader would have doubted the greatness of Gould’s magum opus in direct proportion to his touting of it. Besides that, it’s the idea of it that’s important, much like the benighted efforts of the street preacher to eradicate profanity or Flood’s wish to validate seafoodtarianism. Most significant, however, is the fact that some critics seem to forget that there is an essence of truth that mere facts cannot uncover by themselves. As I mentioned before, this is Mitchell’s ontological distinction. In another sentence from his prefatory note to Old Mr. Flood, Mitchell says, “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts.” Unfortunately for Joe Gould’s Secret, Mitchell himself seemed to forget his dictum, The book is unexpurgated information, much of it unsatisfying. Instead of a judiciously chosen and arranged fugue of facts, we’re hauled off to every conversation Mitchell had with Gould, whose boring digressions within digressions are matched only by his capacity to talk for hours, night after night, about the same subject: himself. The book is an exhausting read; we feel only slightly less flayed alive by Gould’s verbosity than Mitchell must have. The fascinating thing is that even though we’re given the facts, and nothing but the facts, and they add up to a wholly different and in some ways more exact and accurate Gould than that profiled in “Professor Seagull,” the end result is much less satisfying because it lacks a certain verity.
That verity, some will argue, is really a willful distortion as long as it tempers the fact that Gould is essentially an ill man who dies from senility brought on by arteriosclerosis while a patient in a state mental ward. The same thing would apply to any number of Mitchell’s other characters: they can’t be anything until they are properly diagnosed. There’s a difference, though, between social diagnoses and social vision. Mitchell has always been loyal to the truth as he understands it, even when uncovering that truth means disporting with facts. In Joe Gould’s case, the fact that he’s a fraud or an alcoholic or schizophrenic doesn’t mitigate his character in the final analysis. His humanity is what Mitchell’s after, and the humanity of so many of his characters is a very fragile thing. Too often it falls victim to what we call “philanthropy”—our efforts for those who cannot help themselves—and philanthropy, as Pritchett writes and Dickens understood too well, “works like a humor or observable germ.” A number of people offer comment upon Gould—one says Gould’s book is “a sort of X-ray of the soul of the bourgeoisie,” another that his voice is the voice of the city’s unconscious, Mitchell himself says that his “enigmatic, spectral figure” reminds him of the “Ancient Mariner or of the Wandering Jew . . .who, for transgressions that seemed mysterious to me, had been “cast out.” “The most important thing we stand to lose if we insist on viewing Gould as simply a disease is the profound understanding, a mix of utter humility and hubris, he displays for the human condition. “I would judge the sanest man to be him who most firmly realizes the tragic isolation of humanity and pursues his essential purposes calmly,” he once wrote. “I suppose I feel about it in this way because I have a delusion of grandeur. I believe myself to be Joe Gould.”
It’s ironic that someone who made his living off of collecting and ordering facts should now appear to be at their mercy. Because the facts seem solidly arrayed against Mitchell. New York is no longer the city he once knew. Fulton Street Fish Market is a tourist site; the Bowery and lower East Side have turned from eccentric neighborhoods into malevolent, civic scabs. The New Yorker, at least The New Yorker as the suzerainty of Mitchell’s old colleagues, non-fiction writers like Thurber and White and Liebling, is no more either. Mitchell himself says he feels like a ghost. His characters, he says, have gone the way of television talk shows, and “half the things they say they heard on television.” What’s worse, as others have claimed, is that in today’s world Mitchell’s characters have lost their picaresque appeal; they are now a sad lot of pathologies and isms better off at Bellevue.
But what is most remarkable about the “changes” that have befallen Mitchell and his characters and their metropolis is just what hasn’t changed. New York, as Joan Didion has written, has always been concerned with the business at hand, which, to borrow her terms, is about getting and spending rather than about having and not having. New York is no different from other parts of the country in that it has brought many of its problems upon itself, and it is no different either in its attempts to articulate the complexity of its ailments through spurious narrative that distorts character and molds events to achieve a desired outcome. In Didion’s opinion, just such a scenario played itself out in the aftermath of the brutal Central Park rape case in 1989. The rape victim, a young investment broker at Salomon Brothers, was disingenuously transposed, in the words of one Manhattanite, into “what makes this city so vibrant and so great.” The perpetrators, of course, became everything that was allied against that. All right-thinking people everywhere were led to believe that somewhere in their willful conflation of victim and city against the perpetrators would be found the promise of narrative resolution. The fact that other rapes, equally brutal, never make the news and that the “insistent sentimentalization” of both the victim and the perpetrators might serve to obscure endemic problems never occurred to anyone. As a society we’ve become more adept at this practice over the years; it helps excuse our own lazy criminality. It makes it easier to explain away the protracted souls who line warm-air grates and park benches and sidewalks in our towns, or who spew holy invective from sidewalk soapboxes, or who fashion themselves as poets and writers of magnificent oral histories.
Mitchell is adamantly opposed to such meretricious excuses and sentimentalization. That is why his flawless blend of humor and pathos never veers into the current craze for the fatuous. His hewing and organizing of the facts is a recipe for his characters’ humanity. Their lugubrious natures and the behaviors they manifest are first and foremost the product of their own spirited efforts to survive in the world. Neither their rantings and ravings nor their quiet reflections make for gentle lives. We forget this at our peril. Mitchell always gave them at least that much credit. We owe them, and him, the same.