Book Essay

Journeys with Joseph Mitchell

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By William Zinsser

January 27, 2010


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. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands to the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or spilt sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.

Any Joseph Mitchell fan would recognize that opening paragraph as his and nobody else’s: the plain declarative sentences, the leisurely accretion of detail, the naggings of mortality, and the promise of renewal through the sight and smell and grateful consumption of food brought from the sea by old-fashioned toil and cooked by old-fashioned methods. The title of the piece, “Up in the Old Hotel,” is no less revealing of the author—a man drawn to old places and old people—and it also hints at a mystery. We are about to be taken on a journey.

These journeys with Joseph Mitchell, which ran in The New Yorker for more than a quarter of a century, from 1938 to 1965, were hugely influential on nonfiction writers of my generation—a primary textbook. They appeared with maddening infrequency, often two or three years apart. Sometimes I would ask friends who worked at the magazine when I might expect a new Mitchell piece, but they never knew or even presumed to guess. This was mosaic work, they reminded me, and the mosaicist was finicky about fitting the pieces together until he got them right. When at last a new article did appear, I saw why it had taken so long. It was exactly right.

Then, abruptly, everything stopped. After Joe Gould’s Secret, in 1965, Mitchell didn’t publish another word, though he continued to go to his New Yorker office, as he still does today, at eighty-four. What he has been writing is his own secret as are his reasons for shutting the door on his career, refusing even to have his books reprinted. Only this year did he drop a clue, in an interview with the New York Times. “The luster of his best work became a kind of burden,” the Times reporter wrote. “The past, which had always exerted a powerful pull on his imagination, exacted a kind of revenge as he grew older. His books and his reputation, he says, became ‘an albatross around my neck.’”

One result was that Mitchell’s work was unavailable by the early 1970s, when I became a writing teacher and wanted to pass him along to a new generation of students, believing that they would find in his writing—in his effortless style, his organization of enjoyable information, his humor and his humanity—much that they would need to know. Like all teachers who own the only copy in town of what they want to teach, I improvised, reading certain passages aloud, and over the years that introduction to Joseph Mitchell is what many students have especially thanked me for. But because the work was out of print, the legacy was snapped, and I took to steering students to his closest heirs in the next generation: Calvin Trillin, Mark Singer, and Ian Frazier.

Now at last Joseph Mitchell has consented to be anthologized, his four principal books collected under one roof for the first time: McSorely’s Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Gould’s Secret. The anthology is called Up In the Old Hotel (Pantheon), and, again, the title struck me as apt, for as I opened the book I felt not unlike Mitchell himself and Louis Morino in that story, poking into the long-closed upper floors of Sloppy Louie’s restaurant, which had once been a waterfront hotel for steamship passengers. I didn’t know what ghosts I would rouse and what I would think of what I found.

The first half of the new anthology consists of McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943), the book about some marginal residents of downtown Manhattan that gave Mitchell his initial fame. For this collection he has added seven stories from the same period, including “The Mohawks in High Steel,” his piece about the Caughnawaga Indian construction workers, remarkable for having no fear of heights, that Edmund Wilson used as the introduction to his book Apologies to the Iroquois. The table of contents—“King of the Gypsies,” “Obituary of a Gin Mill,” “Houdini’s Picnic,” “A Sporting Man”—is ample warning that Mitchell’s interests didn’t run to society’s stable citizens, and the pieces themselves are classic examples of writing about “ordinary” people without a tinge of condescension.

That achievement is at the heart of all of Joseph Mitchell’s work—a matter of both craft and character. “Lady Olga” catches the ultimate humanity of one of nature’s ultimate freaks, a bearded lady. “Mazie” is about the resident ticket-taker at a dime movie house called the Venice Theater—a celebrity on the Bowery because “she has a genuine fondness for bums” and probably knows more of them than anyone in the city; every day she hands out money to them. “On the Bowery, cheap movies rank just below cheap alcohol as an escape, and most bums are movie fans. They go into the Venice early in the day and slumber in their seats until they are driven out at midnight.” Mazie once told the manager that movies with a lot of shooting were bad for business because “they wake up the customers.”

Just as “Mazie” is both one person’s story and the larger story of the Bowery, “King of the Gypsies” is both about Johnny Nikanov and about all the New York Gypsies; Mitchell is so genuinely curious and so dogged a listener that he eventually gets it all—the whole culture as well as a representative individual:

They [gypsies] rent the cheapest flats in the shabbiest tenements on the worst blocks. Three or four families often share one flat. They move on the spur of the moment; in the last two years one family has given seventeen addresses to the Department of Welfare. They have nothing at all to do with gajo [non-gypsy] neighbors. Even the kids are aloof; they play stick- and stoopball, but only with each other. The children are dirty, flea-ridden, intelligent and beautiful; one rarely sees a homely gypsy child. They are not particularly healthy, but they have the splendid gutter hardihood of English sparrows.

A gypsy gets to be a king by calling himself one,” Mitchell writes, stating an outlandish fact in a sentence so simple that it goes by almost before we see how much it amuses him. Such deadpan sentences form a current of humor that runs through his work, and such is his control that nobody is patronized. He never pokes us in the ribs to notify us that something he has recorded is considerably odd; we are allowed the pleasure of realizing it on our own. Alternatingly, he uses his subjects’ own words to supply a comic edge; “Johnny says that his gypsies are the poorest in the United States. ‘If you was to turn them all upside down and give them a good shaking,’ he says, ‘you couldn’t buy a quart of gin with what fell out.’” Mitchell has a sure ear for vernacular speech, and one of the pleasures of reading his work is to hear how engagingly Americans get things said in idiomatic and regional turns of phrase.

But a funny thing happened to me on the way back to McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon. Though I still admired the craft, I wearied of the subject. Mitchell was writing about a world whose mother church was the Irish saloon, a time when drunks and bums were lovable and when garrulous moochers like Joe Gould were amusing. Today there’s no such thing as a picturesque alcoholic, and homeless people on the sidewalks of our cities are a national shame and sorrow. Bums have lost their literary lovability. (So have hard-drinking writers.)

It’s not Mitchell’s fault that our perception of his chosen milieu has shifted after a half century of tumultuous social change and consciousness-raising. Nonfiction writers are captives of their given moment, and New York in the 1930s was still a small town; people knew their neighborhood bum. But I also couldn’t help wondering how lovable all those drunks and bums and freaks were in the first place, or whether Mitchell romanticized them because they represented an American frontier type that he honored and perhaps even envied: the maverick, the outsider, the crazy individualist. Writers are in business to rattle the establishment and Mitchell was only one of many New Yorker stars of his era who took loners and losers as their beat: the droll malefactors of St. Clair McKelway’s “Annals of Crime,” the raffish prizefighters of A. J. Liebling’s boxing ring, the poetic dreamers of John McNulty’s Irish bars.

I had the same problem with Joe Gould’s Secret, the last of the four books collected here. Of all the half-mad misfits Mitchell met in a career that began as a young reporter on the New York Herald Tribune and the New York World-Telegram when he arrived from North Carolina in 1929—interviews that constitute his earliest book, My Ears Are Bent—no ear-bender held him in such thrall as Gould, a legendary Greenwich Village bohemian who claimed to be writing a book called “An Oral History of Our Time” that was already eleven times as long as the Bible. “Gould’s life is by no means carefree; he is constantly tormented by what he calls ‘the three H’s’—homelessness, hunger and hangovers,” Mitchell wrote in his first shot at Gould, a New Yorker profile and subsequent chapter in McSorley’s called “Professor Sea Gull,” so named because Gould cadged drinks by, among other things, doing sea gull imitations. He said he had translated many of Longfellow’s poems into sea gull.

Returning to the subject twenty-one years later in Joe Gould’s Secret (1964), Mitchell recapitulates the endless visits and monologues that the sea gull man inflicted on him. “I kept hoping that Gould would talk himself out,” he recalls, “but the months went by and he showed no signs of doing so.” One monologue lasted from 6:00 P.M. to 4:00 A.M. Even for a famously patient and courteous reporter, such forbearance goes well beyond normal limits, and it occurred to me, rereading this valedictory book, that Gould just plumb wore Mitchell out. Untypically, the book skates close to the edge of exasperation. Finally unburdening himself of Gould’s secret, finally coming to terms with all that manipulative behavior and trying to maintain both Gould’s dignity and his own, Mitchell may well have seen his whole professional life pass before his eyes, Gould being only the most tenacious of the hundreds of lost souls who trusted him to bear witness to their gallant but ultimately pathetic lives. It would be enough to give anyone terminal writer’s block.

But lodged between the McSorley’s book, in which Mitchell developed his craft, and the Gould book, in which he said good-bye to it, are two gems that have lost none of their brilliance. With Old Mr. Flood and The Bottom of the Harbor, Mitchell grew beyond his infatuation with eccentrics and became a matchless chronicler of plain people doing plain work with integrity. The two books, however, are not the brothers they might appear to be.

Originally, the slender Old Mr. Flood took the form of three pieces in The New Yorker, and the opening paragraph is a pure concentrate of Mitchell’s style:

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. “I don’t ask much here below,” he says. “I just want to hit a hundred and fifteen. That’ll hold me.” Mr. Flood is small and wizened. His eyes are watchful and icy-blue, and his face is red, bony and clean-shaven. He is old-fashioned in appearance. As a rule, he wears a high, stiff collar, a candy-striped shirt, a serge suit, and a derby. A silver watch-chain hangs across his vest. He keeps a flower in his lapel. When I am in the Fulton Street Fish Market neighborhood, I always drop into the Hartford House, a drowsy waterfront hotel at 309 Pearl Street, where he has a room, to see if he is still alive.

Like most old people, Mitchell goes on to say, Mr. Flood “feels best when he is around things that have lasted a long time,” and the book takes its tremendous gusto from the old men’s recollections of the pulse of the Fulton Market and the golden age of restaurants like Still’s, which had “a white marble bar for the half-shell trade, and there were barrels and barrels and barrels of oysters stood up behind this bar, and everything was nice and plain and solid—no piddling around, no music to frazzle your nerves, no French on the bill of fare; you got what you went for.”

So full of exact detail were these “stories of fish-eating, whiskey, death and rebirth,” as Mitchell called them, that when Old Mr. Flood was published as a book, in 1948, I was startled to read the authors prefatory note, which said: “Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past. I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts.” (In the new anthology, he calls the book “fictional.”) I felt slightly betrayed by that admission and didn’t know what to make of such tinkering with the rules of my craft. I now see that Mitchell anticipated by several decades the “New Journalism” that writers like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe were hailed for inventing in the 1960s, using fictional techniques of imagined dialogue and emotion to give narrative flair to works whose facts they had punctiliously researched.

I also suspect that the obvious pleasure of writing about the waterfront in Old Mr. Flood told Mitchell that he had found his true subject—a world of dignified work that he could examine in depth, with no fictional fooling around. The result was The Bottom of the Harbor (1960), which still strikes me as perfect—one of the best of all American nonfiction books.

The Bottom of the Harbor consists of six long articles that appeared in The New Yorker over the space of twelve years. These were the pieces that I once awaited with so much impatience. Beginning with “Up in the Old Hotel,” they include “The Bottom of Harbor,” an anatomy of what’s under the city’s waters—everything living and dead, from fish and clams and oysters to long-sunken wrecks; “The Rats on the Waterfront,” an enjoyable group portrait of the harbor’s least enjoyable creatures; “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” a visit with one of the oldest survivors of a nineteenth-century village of Negro oystermen on Staten Island; “Dragger Captain,” the story of an old salt in the fleet out of Stonington, Connecticut, that supplies the Fulton Fish Market with flounder; and “The Rivermen,” which is about the men of Edgewater, New Jersey, just below the George Washington Bridge, who fish the Hudson River for shad.

With this book the past becomes a major character in Mitchell’s work, giving it a tone that is both elegiac and historical. Because the characters in The Bottom of the Harbor are mainly old men, they are custodians of memory, their stories a link with the history of a city that has always been mercantile at heart. My own family’s shellac factory stood near the river on West 59th Street for well over a century—I’m a fourth-generation New Yorker —and I, too, was once a young reporter on the Herald Tribune, in love with the city and writing features about shad fishermen on the Hudson. My gratitude to Mitchell is therefore that of a native son. I got lucky that a man whose family has farmed in North Carolina since before the Revolutionary War came north, with his inborn respect for continuity and work, and caught my city’s metabolism.

The mixture of themes in The Bottom of the Harbor is uniquely Joseph Mitchell’s: specialized knowledge, pride of labor, enjoyment of the simple pleasures of the present, and mindfulness of the past and of the soon-to-be-joined dead. So organically are these themes woven through The Bottom of the Harbor that I could cite almost any page as evidence. One that comes to mind deals with the boats that take fishing parties out of Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay. It comes to mind because my father spent his boyhood summers there, visiting his grandfather, who had been brought from Germany when he was a boy. Mitchell explains that there are hundreds of wrecks lying on the bottom of the approaches to New York harbor, some so close to shore that on sunny fall days it’s possible to see schools of sea bass streaming in and out of their hulls, which provide shelter.

Furthermore, [the hulls] are coated, inside and out, with a lush, furry growth made up of algae, sea moss, tube worms, barnacles, horse mussels, sea anemones, sea squirts, sea mice, sea snails, and scores of other organisms, all of which are food for the fish. The most popular party boats are those whose captains can locate the fishiest wrecks and bridle them. Bridling is a maneuver in which, say the wreck lies north and south, the party boat goes in athwart it and drops one anchor to the east of it and another to the west of it, so that the party boat and wreck lie crisscross. Held thus, the party boat can’t be skewed about by the wind and tide, and the passengers fishing over both rails can always be sure that they are dropping their bait on the wreck, or inside it. Good party-boat captains, by taking bearings on landmarks and lightships and buoys, can locate and bridle anywhere from ten to thirty wrecks. A number of the wrecks are quite old; they disintegrate slowly. Three old ones, all sailing ships, lie close to each other near the riprap jetty at Rockaway Point, in the mouth of the harbor. The oldest of the three, the Black Warrior Wreck, which shelters tons of sea bass from June until November, went down in 1859. The name of the next oldest has been forgotten and she is called the Snow Wreck; a snow is a kind of square-rigged ship similar to a brig; she sank in 1886 or 1887. The third one is an Italian ship that sank in 1890 with a cargo of marble slabs. Her name has also been forgotten and she is called the Tombstone Wreck, the Granite Wreck, or the Italian Wreck … . Several of these wrecks have been fished steadily for generations, and party-boat captains like to say that they would be worth salvaging just to get the metal in the hooks and sinkers that have been snagged on them.

So insistent is the tug of the past—of long-gone ships and long-gone people—that The Bottom of the Harbor ought to be lugubrious. But it has a certain prevailing merriment. Since Mitchell and his subjects regard death as a normal part of life, his book has none of the self-indulgence common to the work of journalists confronted with aging and mortality. It’s not sentimental, or maudlin, or strenuously colorful. It’s Dickens without tears.

“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,” Mitchell writes in “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” my favorite of all his pieces and the one I would commend to all nonfiction writers hoping to crack the secret. I still remember the exhilaration of reading it for the first time.

Mitchell meets the eighty-seven-year-old George H. Hunter— “one of those strong, self-contained old men you don’t see much any more”—while exploring a settlement of dilapidated houses on Staten Island, called Sandy Ground, that has “an empty look, as if everybody had locked up and gone off somewhere.” It’s a relic of the oyster-planting business—a once-thriving community and a “garden spot”—founded before the Civil War by free Negroes from the Eastern Shore of Maryland and still inhabited by their descendants. Mr. Hunter, an elder of the African Methodist Church, spends an afternoon showing Mitchell around, and the day has the unhurried quality of actual time. Before it’s over, Mr. Hunter, reflecting on the history of oyster farming in New York harbor, on the passing of generations in Sandy Ground, on families and family names, planting and cooking, wildflowers and fruit, birds and trees, churches and funerals, change and decay, has touched on much of what living is all about.

Near the end, in the old cemetery, not far from his own grave, he says: “To tell you the truth, I’m no great believer in gravestones. There’s stones in here that have only been up forty or fifty years, and you can’t read a thing it says on them, and what difference does it make? God keeps His eye on those that are dead and buried the same as He does on those that are alive and walking … . He knows the exact whereabouts of every speck of dust of every one of them. Stones rot the same as bones rot, and nothing endures but the spirit.”

William Zinsser is the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well.


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