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.

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