Joseph Mitchell wrote several long form reportage pieces for the New Yorker between 1938 and 1965. In 1965 he turned in his final piece and continued coming to work for 30 years without filing a single solitary thing in one of the world’s most infamous cases of writer’s block. It came as a shock when The New Yorker recently published a segment of memoir he had been working on during that time, which felt wrong – it’s not up to his usual standard, and we don’t know what he would have wanted. It did make me go back and re-read his collection, Up at The Old Hotel, and I have been struck again by the humility and simplicity in his writing.
Mitchell was a man of particular habits who liked to wander around the city looking for wildflowers and making lists, poking his nose into its older corners, befriending strangers and digging out stories. There is a certain kind of piece that he went a fair way towards inventing, and it always involves a man out for a walk, amiable and endlessly interested. He had a fascination with the odd subcultures that inhabited New York: a community of freed slaves turned oystermen on Staten Island, an enclave of high-steel working Mohawk Indians in Brooklyn, a dying Shad fishing town across the Hudson in New Jersey. He let us see the ghosts of communities and industries fading into history as new ones spring up around them, the many cities that overlap and co-exist on the same ground.
I love him for personal reasons. He was intent on capturing a rollicking old town disappearing in the rearview mirror even as he wrote about it, a place full of Tammany beefsteaks, steamboat hotels, eccentric characters and gas-lit bars full of rummies. He had the same nostalgia for that time I have for his New York of the forties and fifties, a time distant but dear, strange and familiar at once. In his work I can see glimpses of the tenement city awaiting my six year old grandmother, fresh off the boat from Poland, who would who would grow up to change her name from Chana to Alice, or hear the rhythms of the workaday Manhattan of the grandfather I never met, a garment industry union lawyer who liked to read science fiction.
Though not as well known in the UK, in the USA Mitchell is regarded with all the reverence due a 20th Century Journalism God. No one ever really talks about something so pedestrian as his reporting technique, and the challenges posed by all the long quotes, sometimes going on for a page or more, that are a hallmark of his work. I can’t really see him there with a pen and notebook. With the oystermen and volunteer graveyard keepers he befriended, that would queer his pitch. This piece from William Zinsser is interesting.
In one series of pieces, Old Mr. Flood, Mitchell admits to “rounding the corners” – creating composite characters and condensing quotes – putting this work alone firmly in the camp of what we now call creative nonfiction. ” I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts,” he wrote. But held up against some of the sloppy exhibitionism currently being peddled under the name creative nonfiction, it doesn’t seem right for Mitchell. I don’t know if it’s possible to write his way anymore. In fact, I kind of hope it isn’t.
– Kate Feld
Ninjas of Nonfiction is a new series of posts about great nonfiction writers. Want to write one? Email The Real Story at firstname.lastname@example.org.