Revered nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell worked for The New Yorker from 1938 to 1996 but never published a word after 1965. The first new work of his to appear in forty-eight years did exactly that: appeared. With little fanfare or announcement of its arrival, not even a perfunctory tweet, the piece was slipped inside The New Yorker’s February 11, 2013 issue with all the ceremony of a subscription card.
Entitled “Street Life,” the piece is one of three excerpts from a memoir that he started in the late 1960s and early ’70s and never finished. After filing his classic profile “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, Mitchell never submitted anything else for publication. For the next thirty-two years, the magazine kept him in their employ. He regularly came to his office, dressed in suit and tie. His colleagues heard typewriter keys tapping behind his closed door. They passed him in the hallway and rode the elevator with him. This is how it went until he died in 1996 at age eighty-seven. No one knew what he was working on, and no one seems to have asked. As fellow staff writer Roger Angell later wrote: “No one made jokes about him, or expressed ill temper about him; there was pride, in fact, about working for a place that would indulge such an epochal oddity. The piece, when it came, would be worth the wait.” The piece people expected never arrived. Unless Mitchell biographer Thomas Kunkel finds unpublished profiles in the author’s papers, these three first-person narratives might be the only new work readers get. The question is whether they were worth the wait.
This new excerpt comes to us from Thomas Kunkel, author of Genius in Disguise, the biography of New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross. Kunkel discovered it and the others while researching a forthcoming Mitchell biography. The New Yorker plans to publish the other excerpts at some point in the future.
I’ve written about Mitchell before, specifically about his enormous direct quotations and what they reveal about the nature of truth versus fact in narrative nonfiction. Like many Joseph Mitchell devotees, I’d been waiting years to read something new from him—ten, to be exact. Other fans, some who have been reading Mitchell since the ’60s, had been waiting forty years. And then there it was, a gem hewed from Mitchell’s estate, nestled between pieces from Susan Orlean, Adam Gopnik and Ian Frazier, regular contributors whose company might have made Mitchell’s presence and this February issue seem like any other, were his work and legend not partially defined by his preoccupations with death, the past and gallows humor. In this darker light, his story carries the eerie sheen of a message from the grave.
I discovered the piece accidentally early Sunday morning. My girlfriend and I were lying in bed, flipping through the magazine, when I saw the words “By Joseph Mitchell” and sat straight up. “Mitchell?” I said. I stared in disbelief at the author’s photo on the title page: the unmistakable figure in a dark suit, hands sunk in his pockets, one foot folded over the other, standing confidently in front of Sloppy Louie’s, a seafood restaurant whose owner Mitchell profiled in his well-known piece “Up in the Old Hotel” in 1952. This memoir, and his visage, came out of nowhere. The suddenness of it, like his sly expression and distant stare, gave me chills. Here was a man reporting on his own life seventeen years after it ended, in words he put down four decades ago. I read “Street Life” twice that day.
As someone who has read about Mitchell extensively, I’m tempted to say that I knew this work was there, hidden in his papers among the discarded profiles and pieces that went nowhere. Signs of continued production pepper the historic record. Besides the recollections of colleagues hearing Mitchell’s typewriter keys, Mitchell’s daughter Nora Mitchell Sanborn told The Guardian in 2012: “[My] father was always writing. He would talk about certain projects and get involved in a million things. He had oceans of paper in many file cabinets, at home and at the office. Unfortunately these papers have been in storage since he died and in the charge of his executor [from whom his daughters are estranged].” The truth is that I never would have guessed those oceans of paper contained a memoir.
In The New York Times recently, New Yorker editor David Remnick said, “What’s so poignant about [the excerpts] is the sadness of the incompletion but the brilliance of the voice.” The voice, the declarative sentences, the catalogues of details, many of the hallmarks of Mitchell’s canonical nonfiction are here. What’s different is the volume: that recognizable voice often takes a maximalist tone, what Remnick describes as “more Joycean.” Mitchell is still pushing the boundaries of the form, seeing how much material he can include before the paragraphs bend and narrative snaps. But the lengthy sentences, long lists and repetition that defined pieces like “Old Mister Flood” and “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” now exhibit a manic quality. Where older pieces contained direct quotation that ran between four and ten straight pages, here we have a sentence on the first page that contains four hundred and thirty-nine words, thirty-one commas, one emdash, one parenthetical remark and a semicolon. Many paragraphs in “Street Life” reach such a dizzying pitch that you question the author’s mental state, even wonder if some sort of psychological collapse caused his forty-year silence. For some readers, the voice will try their patience and cause them to turn to the next piece. For others, the voice will deliver exactly what we’ve been missing.
“I keep on walking,” Mitchell says early on, “sometimes only for a couple of hours but sometimes until deep in the afternoon, and I often wind up a considerable distance away from midtown Manhattan—up in the Bronx Terminal Market maybe, or over on some tumbledown old sugar dock on the Brooklyn riverfront, or out in the weediest part of some weedy old cemetery in Queens. It is never very hard for me to think up and excuse that justifies me in behaving this way (I have a great deal of experience in justifying myself to myself)—a headache that won’t let up is a good enough excuse, and an unusually bleak and overcast day is as good an excuse as an unusually balmy and springlike day.”
At another point he says: “[I] have been down in three tunnels while they were under construction—the Queens Midtown Tunnel, the Lincoln Tunnel, and the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel—and watched the sandhogs forcing their way inch by inch through the riverbed.”
Later he says: “Pretty soon my obsessive curiosity began to dominate me, and I went to a succession of Masses in St. Patrick’s that encompassed seven Sundays, the Easter-cycle Masses, and then I went to Masses in such representative Eastern Catholic churches that are in union with Rome, Syrian-rite churches and Byzantine-rite churches and Armenian-rite churches; and then I went to Masses or Liturgies in some Orthodox churches, Greek Orthodox churches and Russian Orthodox churches and Carpatho-Russian Orthodox churches and Ukrainian Orthodox churches and Bulgarian Orthodox churches and Serbian Orthodox churches and Romanian Orthodox churches; and then I went to Liturgies in two so-called Old Catholic churches, one that I found in a Polish neighborhood in Manhattan and another that I found in a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn.” It isn’t simply the information that’s important here, it’s the pleasure the author and the reader experience while hearing these items strung together, side-by-side. To my ear, it seems Mitchell has fallen in love with the sound of it all, the way each name offers a variation on the theme of churches and tunnels, Orthodox this and Orthodox that, adding a slight twist to the stock he’s temporarily toying with. In this way, Mitchell resembles a baby making sounds after discovering the sonic capabilities of its lips. The fact that the person who wrote this was well into middle age makes you think that, despite the dearth of published work, Mitchell still found great pleasure in working with words.
If this piece provides many readers with their first taste of Mitchell, the exuberance and details might not provide a good introduction. It piece might run some of them off.
In addition to the strength of Mitchell’s voice, the other difference between “Street Life” and his previous work is the subject matter. In place of characters like Joe Gould, shad fisherman and Caughnawaga Indian construction workers, the piece’s central character is Mitchell himself. Irrespective of its origins, this is the rarest sort of Mitchell piece: an entirely first-person narrative.
In it, he describes his compulsive wandering around New York City. He talks about what he calls his “obsessive curiosity,” and his attraction to “old restaurants, old saloons, old tenement houses, old police stations, old court houses, old newspaper plants, old banks, and old skyscrapers.” In a broad sense, “Street Life” tells readers a lot of what they already know: the aimless walking, the preoccupations with old New York, marginal New York, underground, off-limits and working class New York. Setting the scenes of his profiles, Mitchell often included comments about his personal habits. The most recognizable might be the opening lines of “Up in the Old Hotel,” where he says, “Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River.” Mitchell opens “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” which an equally dark, revealing admission: “When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries there. …Invariably, for some reason I don’t know and don’t want to know, after I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries, looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk.”
If the themes are the same, “Street Life” offers unique particulars. We learn about a few specific moments from his explorations – his encounter with a priest in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for instance, who told him “a church is simply four walls and a floor and a roof inside of which the Mass is celebrated. Never mind the ins and outs of the architecture,” and the way a certain Mass gave Mitchell “an aperture through which I could look into my unconscious, a tiny crack in a wall that all my adult life I had been striving to see through or over or around—” For all its detail and personal revelation, though, “Street Life” never answers the question at the core of his legacy: What else was Mitchell working on all those years?
For seven pages, Mitchell speaks in a controlled frenzy, cataloguing his travels and the city’s topography, and when your patience starts to wane and you begin to wonder where the author is going with all this, he ends a sixty-seven line paragraph to say, “And now I must get to the point.” He then goes on for thirty-one more lines – not lists but a candid description of his paralyzing homesickness, where he felt at home neither in New York nor his native North Carolina – before drawing to what feels like a close: “Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around in the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression.” Ah, you think, here it comes, the moment of revelation, the insight we seek, a portrait of what he was doing for forty years behind his closed office door. Instead, he says, “A change took place in me. And this is what I want to tell you about,” and a black diamond icon marks the piece’s end. Because Mitchell never finished the memoir, we assume he never got around to writing the section that would have addressed this.
“Street Life” provides a deeper look inside the mind of one of our best nonfiction writers, but its charms cause certain frustrations. To fans, Mitchell’s life was already incomplete. The memoir reminds us of this. After making peace with the permanence of the Mitchell mystery and the finality of his work, this story comes along out of nowhere and stirs up the kind of sediments that Mitchell’s characters dredged for fish and oysters, leaving readers with a renewed and possibly irrational feeling of hope, a sense that we might finally find out what he was working on all those years, if not here in “Street Life,” then maybe in the next memoir excerpt. If not there, then maybe in the next, or at least in Kunkel’s biography. The most seductive thought of all: That an entirely new long-form profile of a personality as compelling as Joe Gould might sit in the author’s papers, waiting to be discovered. Until Kunkel tells us otherwise, we are left with this titillating fragment, this story that repeats so much of what we already know in different language, and reminds us what Mitchell already knew: that we really don’t know as much as we think, that nothing is finished until we ourselves are finished, and that the known body of an author’s work exists, like the old wharfs and train tracks that lined the shores of New York Harbor, in a state of flux. It’s as if Mitchell came back from the grave to tease us. “Okay,” he seems to be saying. “You want to know what I was up to all those years? Sit down. I’ll tell you.” And just as he starts to speak, he disappears again.