Joseph Mitchell and the Free Life
Joseph Mitchell was born in Fairmont, North Carolina in 1908, the son of cotton and tobacco traders, Averette and Elizabeth Parker Mitchell. The family had a bit of money—enough to see Joe through the University of North Carolina in the late 1920s and, afterwards, to give him his start as a writer, reporter, and man about town when he moved to New York in 1929. Although he remained a New Yorker for the rest of his very long life, captivated by an energy that was far from the torpor of the south, Mitchell regarded North Carolina as a kind of spiritual home, the place against which other places were judged. The rhythms of its speech, the exoticism of its characters, the solid permanence of its way of life affected him powerfully so that, in noisy streets of Manhattan or the Bronx, he could recall with a kind of pang the slow heavy heat of a Carolina summer or the shouted certainties of a Sunday preacher or the country fairs that periodically quickened the pace.
It was a childhood steeped in wry recognition that few things are ever what they claim to be. Fairmont, for example, was a “remarkably inexact name.” The land in that part of Robeson County was flat and rich and black, with only pine trees and swamps breaking the monotony. Mountains were only to be seen in picture books. The original name of the town—Ashpole—seemed somehow more appropriate. He remembered, too, the heavy mark of history on the land—how everyone was related to everyone else, how English and Welsh and Scottish settlers would make their way to the back country, how they would carry their Methodism or Presbyterianism with them, how they would fight and quarrel and make up, and how they would eventually lie together, in some country churchyard, awaiting the resurrection day. “This man buried here,” his Aunt Annie used to say as they toured the graveyards of the south eastern part of the state, “was a cousin of ours, and he was so mean I don’t know how his family stood him.”
And this man here, she would continue, moving along a few steps, “was so good, I don’t know how his family stood him.” And then she would become more specific. Some of the things she told us were horrifying and some were horrifyingly funny.
It is easy to see, in this childhood of stories—honest, sentimental, painful, realistic, bizarre—the spiritual equipment of the man that Joseph Mitchell would become. In the textured, imbricated tales of country fields, layer upon layer building to a great patterned completion, he saw his past and every past, his future and every future. Mitchell’s subject matter was to be New York and the life it contained, but, more deeply, he was engaged by human life itself. In North Carolina he saw it plain and straight and crooked, all for the first time.
Graduating from Chapel Hill in 1929, he moved almost at once to New York, as if the sleepy, cottony south could not contain the speed of his imagination. He wanted to be a writer and a newspaper man, to tell the story of New York to New York. This is where the action was—the city of the Roaring Twenties, the city of buildings in the sky, the city where night and day merged into one. His timing was impeccable. Just as he arrived, the stock market crashed. This seems to have made no dent in his progress. If anything, it helped him. A city on its knees offers more compelling drama than one on its feet. He worked for a variety of papers for nine years, their names a chronicle of that vanished era: the New York Herald Tribune, The Morning World, The World-Telegram. He also met and, in 1931, married the photographer Therese Jacobsen. They had two daughters, Nora and Elizabeth. Therese Mitchell died in 1980. Nora lives in New Jersey, Elizabeth in Georgia.
These nine years of reporting were Joe Mitchell’s apprenticeship. 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.
First and most obviously he noticed things other people missed—in particular, other human beings. Look at the remarkable cast of characters assembled in his work. These people lodge immovably in the mind, taking up residence in our imagination, haunting our dreams: Old John McSorley, founder of the eponymous saloon, whose business philosophy was “Good Ale, Raw Onions, and No Ladies”; his son, Bill McSorley, so indifferent to commerce he would close up the bar when it was crowded, moaning that there was “too much confounded business here”; Mazie the ticket-collector of a Greenwich Village cinema chiefly patronized by street drinkers and derelicts, who complained that movies with shooting were bad for business because they woke up the customers; Lady Olga, bearded lady in a traveling circus, who, when younger, “often thought of joining the Catholic Church and going into a nunnery as she had heard of sideshow women who became nuns but had never actually known one”; the magnificent, unstoppable Reverend James Jefferson Davis Hall whose incantatory sermons, whether in person or over the telephone, had the hypnotic power of the Deep South: “Are You Ready for the Box and the Shroud? Are You Ready for the Judgment Day?”; Commodore Dutch, whose days and nights are spent selling tickets for “The Annual Party, Affair, Soiree, & Gala Naval Ball of the Original Commodore Dutch Association”—an event uproariously alcoholic in its first iteration, increasingly ill-attended and dull thereafter; finally, and perhaps best known, Joe Gould—“Professor Sea Gull”—flat-footed, Harvard-educated, permanently hungry and hung-over last of the Bohemians—“the rest are dead,” he used to say, “or in the loony bin, or in advertising”—author of the “Oral History of the World,” a project of Gibbonian ambition stymied by a case of writer’s block equally large.
These are Mitchell’s people—“the little people,” as he put it, “who are as big as you are, whoever you are.” His favorite writers were Mark Twain, Dostoyevsky, and James Joyce. To that list we should add, perhaps, Charles Dickens, similarly drawn to failure and desperate self-respect. Indeed, the two McSorleys and Lady Olga and Joe Gould have an almost invented quality, a strange literary perfection as if, living and breathing, existing in time and place, they existed first in the writer’s imagination as types and archetypes and personified parables of life lived at the extremities of sorrow and joy. Mitchell saw in them what they did not always see themselves, that their lives had grace and dignity and truth. They were characters from a book let loose on the streets of New York, and they have now returned to that book, to Mitchell’s book. In a sense, that is where they really began and belong.
One reason to remember Mitchell, then, is as a chronicler of a vanished New York that, in another way, has not vanished at all. Another reason is the power and elegance of his prose. He was, quite simply, a superb writer. Not a word is out of place, nor a sentence too many, nor an image over-wrought, nor a conclusion contrived. He was also, of course, extremely funny. Two impulses were at work. Mitchell had a reporter’s economy, telling a story sparely, without ornament, allowing the imagination to supply what is understood but understated. He captures a person or a place in a snatch of dialogue, in an aphorism, in a flash of street wisdom. “It ain’t the liquor that hurts,” says Johnny Nikanov, King of the Gypsies, his teeth shuddering and chattering as he downs the first of the day. “It’s the doing without that hurts.” “After you’ve been around the Bowery a few years,” says Movie-theater Mazie, now inured to the smell of the place, “your nose gets all wore out.” “Mazie, I’ve got a nephew training to be an undertaker and he needs someone to practice on.” “I haven’t got a whole lot of sense,” says Commodore Dutch, selling his forlorn tickets to the ball, “but I’ve got too much sense to work.” “[I used] to be an atheist but I’m getting so old I’m afraid,” says Charles Eugene Cassell, founder and proprietor of Captain Charley’s Private Museum for Intelligent People. “I’m a Just-in-Case Christian.” And so it goes: a character, a moment, a mood in one, confident stroke. Here is a slightly longer example of the technique. When Joe Gould, flat broke, spectacularly hung-over, and without his dentures (having lost them in a spree), decides to pay a visit to William Saroyan (who has written about him in Newsweek), Mitchell tells the story with brilliant succinctness:
He found out somehow that Saroyan was living at the Hampshire House on Central Park South. The doorman there followed Gould into the lobby and asked him what he wanted. Gould told him that he had come to see William Saroyan. “Do you know Mr Saroyan?” the doorman asked. “Why, no,” Gould replied, “but that’s all right. He’s a disciple of mine.” “What do you mean, disciple?” asked the doorman. “I mean,” said Gould, “that he’s a literary disciple of mine. I want to ask him to buy me some teeth.” “Teeth?” asked the doorman. “What do you mean teeth?” “I mean some store teeth,” Gould said, “some false teeth.” “Come this way,” said the doorman, gripping Gould’s arm and ushering him to the street. . . . [Later, recounting the meeting that never took place, Gould assured a listener that] “Saroyan kept saying he wanted to hear all about the Oral History but I never got a chance to tell him. He did all the talking. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”
This is a perfect vignette—absurd, poignant, funny, true—where, so to speak, the dialogue does all the talking. It is a short story, a novel, a life, in two hundred words. That is Mitchell at his tightest (and, I suppose, Joe Gould at his tightest, too).
At other times, though, Mitchell seems to luxuriate in words, enjoying their opulence and oddity and power, their music, their sheer aliveness. He never uses more words than necessary but sometimes many words are necessary because his characters are the authors of them. The Reverend Hall, for example, street preacher and wordsmith extraordinaire, was as intoxicated with verbs as Joe Gould was with vermouth. Mitchell admired the writings of James Joyce—Finnegans Wake, Ulysses, Dubliners—and the parallels between the two are suggestive. Joyce invented Dublin. We walk through his imagination when we walk along the Liffey today. Mitchell invented New York. We see his people all the time in its subways and avenues and, especially, in its great public library on Fifth and 42nd Street. There is, in another sense, though, a Joycean quality to the Reverend Hall. He relishes words, delighting in alliteration and allusion, pulling and stretching the language to new complexities of meaning:
He is profoundly discursive [writes Mitchell]. This particular evening, in the course of one block, he made the following remarks: “A lost city, hungry for destruction, aching for destruction, the entire population in a fuss and a fret, a twit and a twitter, a squit and a squat, a hip and a hop, a snig and a snaggle, a spism and a spasm, a sweat and a swivet. Can’t wait for night to fall, can’t wait for day to break. Even the church bells sound jangly in New York City; they ring them too fast. And the women! Into everything. They’ve gone hog-proud and hog-wild. Wearing britches, wearing uniforms, straining their joints for generations to come with high-heel shoes. They’re turning into Indians. Their mouths smeared and smiddled and smoodled with paint, and their cheeks, and their fingernails. And what color do they pick? Old Scratch’s favorite. The mark of the beast, that’s what it is. And they’ve taken to painting their toenails! Why don’t they take a bucket of paint and turn it over on themselves, top to bottom, like a whooping Red Indian, and be done with it?
Here is Mitchell in more expansive form, carried away by the strange, beautiful, funny, bizarre, elegiac poetry of the streets. It is the poetry of the vivid phrase, the unexpected metaphor, the striking sentence: “I believe in gassing off all the old people, except me,” says Captain Charley of the Private Museum. “It makes elbow room. I’m too smart to gas. I’m a taxidermist. I can mount a mosquito. I can mount a strawberry. I can mount any old fish you ever see.” “I sometimes believe that these rats are not rats at all,” says Joe Gould, “but the damned and aching souls of tenement landlords.” Even when the phrase seems to come from Mitchell and not his subject, even when it smacks of midnight oil, even when it too perfectly makes its point—as when Gould likens landlords to rats—it has a sharp, demotic authenticity, a genuineness, a just-rightness, a truth. This is the language of the streets. This is the talk of the town. Even when they seem to have lost everything else—possessions, family, prospects, health—Joe Mitchell’s people have not lost the capacity to control the world by speaking it into life. It is their last and most important freedom—the freedom to invent a universe in which they are the masters, not others. Words are their weapons—sometimes their only weapons—and they use them magnificently.
A third reason for celebrating Mitchell, I think, is his almost Burkean enthusiasm for neighborhoods, for communities, for the places where real life happens and where, most intimately, it is understood. Joseph Mitchell’s New York was not a metropolis, not a city, not even a town. It was a series of villages, and villages within villages, and—within those villages—an almost unnumbered kaleidoscope of blocks and corners and bars and stoops and diners. He chronicled public lives—lives not of the closed front door or the politely drawn curtain or the well-tended garden but lives lived in the open—in the streets, in the parks, in the tenements, in the docks—where there could be no concealment, no pretence, no dishonesty but only the rough and benign wisdom of the crowd. He wrote of shared spaces, of common life, of the “little platoons” where greatness dwells. He admired neighborhoods not because everyone liked each other but because everyone knew each other—and, knowing each other, made allowances. And when those neighborhoods were not physical but metaphysical—when they consisted of the camaraderie of gypsies or waiters or stevedores—he celebrated that, too. He knew that the deepest longing of lonely people—of all people—is to belong; to be part of a place or a space or a way of life; to have memories and to be themselves remembered; to be (in Chesterton’s phrase) at once at home in the world and utterly astonished by it. Without that participation in others, that they are nothing: they hardly exist at all.
This sense of community was very strong with Mitchell, seeming to shape everything he wrote. At the same time, he recognized a paradox at work in his own writing and in life itself. Maybe this paradox is the fourth and final reason for recalling him. It is that, celebrating community, he also celebrated nonconformity, subversion, eccentricity, cussedness, impoliteness, refusal, even a kind of urban anarchism where property and money and government get in the way of a ruder but more truthful form of human commerce. (This, by the way, is one difference between Chesterton and some of Mitchell’s people. Chesterton believed in property because it allowed ordinary people to tell the government where to go. It allowed them to be anarchists in their own back yard. Joe Gould was so much the anarchist he thought that possessions themselves would eventually possess him. If I owed the Chrysler Building, he said, I would give it away.)
But this tension in Mitchell’s writing between conformity and nonconformity, between being out and being in, is more apparent than real. It is only within community that we are free. It is only among our own that we can be ourselves. That is what Mitchell meant by the free life. Think of one of his most affecting pieces—the profile of the bearded Lady Olga and her odd, compelling companions. Here, in fifteen pages, is his work summed up. Even the name of the circus—the Congress of Strange People—seems descriptive of his entire project. To Olga, it is not the freak show that is freakish but those who come to see it—so wrapped up in conventional life that they hardly live life at all; so bland that they are blind. “Among freaks it is axiomatic that Coney Island audiences are the most inhuman,” Mitchell writes, brilliantly allowing the abnormal to comment on the normal, finding it wanting, finding us all wanting. What is lacking, of course, is respect for human dignity, even the dignity of those—especially the dignity of those—reduced to a parade of their own pitifulness. Olga craves acceptance and only with her own people does she find it. “I used to belong to the Presbyterians, but I never did feel at home in church,” she says. “Everybody eyed me, including the preacher. I rather get my sermons over the radio.” Yet even among circus people there were hierarchies, differences, codes of demarcation, signs of respect—in other words, community. To Lady Olga—real name, Jane Barnell—there were three kinds of freak: born freaks, made freaks, and two timers:
Born freaks are the aristocrats of the side-show world. She, of course, is a member of this class. So are Siamese twins, pinheads, fat girls, dwarfs, midgets, giants, living skeletons, and men with skulls on which rocks can be broken. Made freaks include tattooed people, sword-swallowers, snake charmers, and glass-eaters. Normal people who obtain side-show engagements because of past glory or notoriety are two-timers to her. Examples are reformed criminals, old movie stars, and retired athletes like Jack Johnson, the old prize-fighter, and Grover Cleveland Alexander, the old ballplayer . . . Because Johnson wears a beret and because he sips beer through a straw, she particularly dislikes him. “To the general public, old Jack Johnson may be a freak,” she says, “but to a freak, he ain’t a freak.”
And so it goes on. Joe Mitchell, in a way, was Joe Gould both in his pomp and in his decline. “What we used to think was history—kings and queens, treaties, inventions—is only formal history and largely false,” he has Gould remark. “What people say is history. I’ll put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude—what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows—or I’ll perish in the attempt.” Gould more or less perished in the attempt, but Mitchell succeeded. Then, like Gould, he too fell silent—the words not coming, the well dried up. But what he wrote will live because he spoke powerfully of two imperishable things: the desire for belonging and the desire to be apart. He saw and celebrated the infrangible humanity of the invisible people. He sang a hymn of praise to those unseen by the world. Today, and always, we should offer a hymn of praise to him.
Dermot Quinn teaches in the Department of History at Seton Hall University. This piece was originally written for a conference devoted to Mitchell at the Chesterton Institute.
Posted: August 5, 2012 in Essays.