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
  • Get to the point
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: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing