Obituary: Joseph Mitchell

Joseph Mitchell was a poet of the waterfront and a writer of surpassing tales that captured the unsung and unconventional life of New York and its denizens from before the Depression to the mid-Sixties.

As a reporter at large for the New Yorker, he avoided the standard journalistic palette of moguls, tycoons and movie stars and preferred to pursue the hidden characters that gave the city its relief and colour: gypsy fortune-tellers, gin-mill owners, flops and drunks on the Bowery, abrasive bartenders, the American Indians who worked high iron on skyscrapers, bearded ladies and even a man who sold racing cockroaches.

Most famously, Mitchell's last signed article in the New Yorker in 1964 was a two-part portrait of Joseph Ferdinand Gould, a self-described genius and fast talker who claimed to have written 9 million words of An Oral History of Our Times. Admired by e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound, Gould, a former archaeologist, frequented the coffee bars of Greenwich Village where he might suddenly launch into an imitation of seagulls (whose language he claimed to have mastered) or lament the last of the Bohemians. "Some are in the grave," he would say, "some are in the loony bin and some are in the advertising business."

In 1964, 21 years after the New Yorker published "Professor Sea Gull" and seven years after Gould died imitating a gull in a psychiatric hospital, Mitchell revealed that the bags Gould carried, which many believed to hold hundreds of dime-store notebooks containing his Oral History research, merely contained other paper bags. He had written no words at all.

An admirer of Joyce and Gogol, Mitchell wrote with a grace and humanity that complemented the contentiousness of his subjects and he set the standards to which later generations of reporters would aspire. Once, asked why he wrote about the "little people", he responded that there were no little people in his work."They are as big as you are, whoever you are," he said.

Among the most memorable were Commodore Dutch, who held charity balls for his own benefit; Mazie Gordon, who took tickets at a Bowery theatre; and Arthur Samuel Colborne who said he had not uttered "a solitary profane word since a Sunday morning in the winter of 1886" and toured the bars promoting his Anti-Profanity League.

"You start out with 'Hell', 'Devil take it', 'Dad burn it', 'Gee whizz' and the like of that, and by and by you won't be able to open your trap without letting loose an awful, awful blasphemous oath," Colborne told Mitchell, adding that spreading the word had come at a price - he had had to drink an enormous amount of beer.

Or the case of John S. Smith, a penniless hitch-hiker who gave cheques for thousands of dollars to anyone who gave him a meal or a lift but drew them on a bank that had gone out of business in 1923. "I began to think of the vain hopes he raised in the breasts of waitresses who had graciously given him hundreds of meals and the truck-drivers who had hauled him over a hundred highways, and to feel that about John S. Smith of Latvia, Europe, there is something a little sinister," Mitchell wrote.

In "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon", published in 1943, he described a bar which had become a refuge for its predominantly Irish habitues that had shunned most forms of progress since it opened in 1854. "It is equipped with electricity," he wrote,

but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas-lamps, which flicker and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door . . . it is a drowsy place; the bartender never makes a heedless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale and the three clocks on the wall have not been in agreement for many years.

A small man who retained the soft drawl of his native North Carolina where he was born on his grandparents' farm in 1908, Mitchell dressed in coat and tie and braces and always wore a hat. After graduation from the University of North Carolina in 1929 he was called to New York by the New York Herald Tribune whom he had impressed with an unsolicited story about tobacco.

His first assignment was to report on the Fulton Fish Market, where he began a lifelong affection for the oystermen and clammers and wrote short stories about a character named Old Mr Flood. In August 1937 he came third in a clam-eating tournament. He ate 84, a number he came to regard as "one of the few worthwhile achievements" of his life.

At least in his prose, Mitchell was a melancholy man who disappeared into the scenes he described. In later years he recalled that his father, a successful cotton buyer, was not impressed with his son's profession: "He said to me, 'Son, is that the best that you can do, sticking your nose into other people's business?' "

A prolific writer at the start of his career, he often turned out four articles a week, but in the last 30 years of his life Mitchell published nothing. He would go to work at the New Yorker - which he had joined in 1938 - and tell colleagues he was working on a book about life in New York or about his roots in North Carolina but that it was not quite ready.

A janitor at the magazine would find reams of discarded copy in the wastepaper basket and his friends concluded he was suffering a severe writer's block. Mitchell said near the end of his life that the success of his early work became "an albatross around my neck".

In 1994 the body of his work was published in a volume entitled Up in the Old Hotel, which became a critical and commercial success. In reviewing the collection, the New York Times said, "Mr Mitchell always mediates the sadness such subjects bring - the loss of time, the life slipping by, the way old manners fail to hang on - and he lets the reader feel only that the pleasure comes from his own very personal discoveries."

Mitchell himself seemed to rue both the changes in the city and at the magazine. "At the old New Yorker, the people were wonderful writers," he reminisced in 1992. "A lot of us would go to lunch together. Now, everybody goes in and out. I go lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar and eat by myself."

Edward Helmore

Joseph Mitchell, writer: born Iona, North Carolina 25 July 1908; married 1931 Therese Dagny Jacobson (died 1980; two daughters); died New York 24 May 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003