As much as I read, I don’t find myself rereading too many books. I’m no Larry McMurtry, revisiting the same book year after year. Mostly, I reread essays, and the pieces that I find myself returning to with most frequency were written by Luc Sante, Calvin Trillin and Joseph Mitchell.
In his documentary stories for the New Yorker, pioneering nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell celebrated both eccentrics and the average Joe, and in turn, he immortalized a scruffier, working class era of New York City. He also wrote what might be the longest quotes in our genre.
When first published in 1956, Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” contained 12,056 words; over nine thousand of them were directly attributed to Hunter as quotations. Many of the stories in Mitchell’s book The Bottom of the Harbor are like that. “Up in the Old Hotel” contains a quote that runs for over four pages. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” has one that goes for eight pages. “The Rivermen” boasts the longest of all: ten and a half pages – or six pages followed by four more, if you count the three-lines of intervening dialogue as an interruption. I don’t. But it’s not simply the length that interests me; it’s what length requires of a writer’s memory.
Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?
In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.
Certain critics might say that such composites are fictions, because the information portrayed didn’t exist in the real world in the precise way it was rendered. The composite only exists because the artist created it. I used to agree with this line of thinking.
When I first discovered Mitchell at age twenty-five, I believed that George Hunter said those words in that way verbatim, because I assumed all dialogue in nonfiction was verbatim. Not a spliced rendition, not a near-accurate depiction, not a highly educated guess, but a replica, a photograph in text. I was naïve about the mechanics of nonfiction writing, and the complex nature of truth. Now, after a decade reading and writing narrative nonfiction, I still expect accuracy whether I’m reading a magazine or a memoir, but I also know that truth is more complicated than the usual “accurate/inaccurate” dichotomy suggests. If the parts that Mitchell used to fashioned his hybrid stories and hybrid quotes were facts themselves, then is not the collage of facts also true if it captures the larger truth of his subjects? By larger truth, I mean the essence of Mister Hunter’s personality, and the particular texture of his speech. And on a thematic level, I mean the emotional truth of Hunter’s situation: aging and looming specter of his, and everyone’s, impending death. This is part of what Zinsser means when he says that “all the phrases and turns of phrase are his.” He means that despite the splicing, Mitchell captured Hunter’s essence by accurately portraying his diction (like the way Hunter said “spring beauty” rather than “beauties”). Mitchell didn’t make quoted phrases up, didn’t invent information; rather, he simmered the facts so they accreted into a more potent truth, which is why the quotes sound like his speakers, rather than like Mitchell. This is also why I consider Mitchell’s stories nonfiction.
Mitchell’s literary standard was that of both the artist and the reputable journalist. He organized his facts in a creative arrangement in order to best serve the story. As Zinsser says: “Although Mitchell altered the truth about elapsed time, he used a dramatist’s prerogative to compress and focus his story, thereby giving the reader a manageable framework. If he had told the story in real time, strung across all the days and months he did spend on Staten Island, he would have achieved the numbing truth of Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of a man having an eight-hour sleep. By careful manipulation he raised the craft of nonfiction to art. But he never manipulated Mr. Hunter’s truth; there was no ‘inferring,’ no ‘fabricating.’ He has played fair.” By employing these techniques, Mitchell spared readers the superfluous details, framed the relevant information, and distilled the piece to its essence, for the sake of the audience’s reading experience. In this way, Mitchell’s stories predated the “nonfiction novel” of Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe, as well as the 1960s “new journalism” that followed after: using dialogue, character development, narrative arc, foreshortening, well-sequenced scenes, emergent themes, dramatic tension in nonfiction, rather than the who, what, where, when, why of standard expository reportage. Mitchell’s Olympian quotations are sure to remain one of nonfiction’s most peculiar attractions – an extraordinary monument to truth’s complex incarnations – but it’s his stories’ artfulness and readability that have made them endure.
On a side note, I found this short documentary, about the old Fulton Ferry Hotel, from which Mitchell’s classic essay, and his collection, take their name:
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