Monday, July 23, 2012

The Laureate Of Old New York

Yesterday's Sunday Guardian column.

From 1964 till his death in 1996, staff writer Joseph Mitchell came to his office at the New Yorker day after day without filing a single word for publication. His 32-year-long writer’s block is now the stuff of legend. However, his profiles and character sketches before that, from 1938 onwards, are no less legendary.

E.B. White, Mitchell’s colleague, once wrote that New York City was “a single compact arena [for] the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant”. Mitchell’s arena was the Lower East Side of the 1940s and 50s; his subjects were the area’s panhandlers, Bowery bums, saloon owners, anti-profanity crusaders, street preachers and other eccentrics. It was with uncommon candour and gracefulness that he rendered their words and lives on the page. Most of his pieces were collected in his Up in the Old Hotel, first published 20 years ago, and the recent Vintage re-issue is another reminder of his achievement in memorializing these unconventional lives.

The openings of many of his profiles are noteworthy, simultaneously introducing the subjects as well as piquing interest. Take this one: “Commodore Dutch is a brassy little man who has made a living for the last forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself.” Or: “A tough Scotch-Irishman I know, Mr Hugh G. Flood, a retired house-wrecking contractor, aged ninety-three, often tells people that he is dead set and determined to live until the afternoon of July 27, 1965, when he will be a hundred and fifteen years old”.

Mitchell’s prose is plain and declarative, yet has a hypnotic cadence. (One of his favourite books was, unusually, Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.) For him, details were divine; there’s not a counter, shelf, room or wall mentioned without also a precise and particular description: “Coins are dropped in soup bowls – one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves – and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox”. In a bar, he notices that “the three clocks on the wall have not been in agreement for many years”. He is also marvellous at conveying atmosphere by invoking all the senses -- here he is on one of his favourite spots, the Bronx’s Fulton Fish Market: “The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fish-mongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me.”

Throughout, Mitchell refers to himself sparely, if at all, a welcome change from today’s essayists who insert themselves into every other paragraph. He lets his characters speak without interjection or judgment – indeed, one of his strengths is the art of stitching together distinctive dialogue, which often continues for page after page. (It’s a technique that V.S. Naipaul also used, particularly in India: A Million Mutinies Now.) What comes through time and again is Mitchell’s courtliness towards and respect for his subjects, however down-at-heel they may be. As he once said, there were no “little people” in his work: "They are as big as you are, whoever you are”.

One of most notable characters Mitchell wrote about was Joe Gould, first in 1942 and then a longer piece entitled Joe Gould’s Secret in 1964.  This “blithe and emaciated little man”, known as Professor Sea Gull for his self-professed ability to translate English into the language of birds, spent years living in Greenwich Village flophouses, cadging money and meals from friends and strangers, and working on a mysterious, lengthy book that he called “an Oral History of our Time”.

Mitchell was clearly obsessed with Gould – perhaps finding common concerns between their lives – and spent much time in his company, as well as in trying to track down his family, friends and the hundreds of notebooks containing drafts of the oral history. In this latter task he was unsuccessful; it turned out that Gould was faking it, suffering from writer’s block himself. A sad and terrible irony, then, that Gould’s chronicler, who came to be known as the laureate of old New York, was to meet the same fate.

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