Joseph Mitchell, one of America's greatest nonfiction writers, is given an astounding biography in Thomas Kunkel's Man in Profile. Mitchell, who wrote some of the most enduring pieces ever to appear in the New Yorker, including profiles of McSorley's Old Ale House and Bowery ticket-taker Mazie, was also infamous for not producing anything after 1964--over three decades before his death at age 87. But despite not publishing one single piece during that time, Mitchell kept showing up to work, and The New Yorker kept paying him. So, what exactly was Mitchell doing the last 30 years of his life? Kunkel investigates.
In his long career at The New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell built a reputation as both a distinguished writer and an unusually deliberate one. Throughout the entire decade of the Fifties, for instance, he produced only five stories, though they were among the most substantive and satisfying he would ever write. The last of these, “The Rivermen,” about shad fishermen who worked the Hudson, appeared in 1959. And then it would be five more years until Mitchell’s byline turned up again.
“Joe Gould’s Secret,” a story in which Mitchell revisited and put a surprising twist on the shabby, homeless protagonist of one of his most memorable early Profiles, appeared in The New Yorker in September of 1964.
Each day, week after week, year after year, Mitchell would head uptown from his tiny Greenwich Village apartment to his office at The New Yorker, where for three decades he had chronicled like no one else the astonishing carnival that was New York City in the first half of the twentieth century. To all outward appearances he was as busy as ever—still engaged, still reporting, even still writing.
He just wasn’t publishing anything.
Of course, in the years immediately following “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Mitchell had no idea he was embarking on one of the most celebrated "writer’s blocks" in American letters. In fact, at the time he was juggling a variety of ideas, hoping—assuming—that in his reporting one of them would logically emerge as his next New Yorker story.
Two of these ideas involved his oldest friends New York City. Ann Honeycutt was, like Mitchell himself, a Southerner who moved to Manhattan between the wars to make her fortune and, along the way, became a regular in the New Yorker circle that included Mitchell, James Thurber, E. B. White, Wolcott Gibbs, and St. Clair McKelway. Mitchell was so intent on producing a Profile of Honeycutt that the material he amassed on her alone—including old family property records, extensive correspondence, and career ephemera—filled seven file drawers. Another longtime friend and potential story was Joe Cantalupo, the informal mayor of the Fulton Fish Market, one of Mitchell’s favorite haunts and the setting of several of his best-known stories. And at the same time he was digging into the history of the Irish families who had owned McSorley’s saloon, the oldest in New York and the subject of a legendary 1940 Mitchell story.
Indeed, by the early Seventies Mitchell had even taken to reporting on himself—working on a memoir detailing his emotional and lifelong tug-of-war between his birth home, North Carolina, and his beloved adoptive one, New York.
For reasons known only to Mitchell, however, none of these ideas really gelled for him as stories. Honeycutt and Cantalupo may simply have been too close to him to keep a comfortable perspective, and as for the memoir, Mitchell produced three striking chapters and then abruptly put it away. Friends said one likely cause of Mitchell’s inability to finish anything was his strain of perfectionism, which had only grown more acute through the years with his literary acclaim.
So Mitchell was staying busy. But to what end, only a few people at the magazine ever really knew. Once a year he would update William Shawn, The New Yorker’s editor, as to his progress. Mitchell and Shawn, more peers than boss and subordinate, went back to the writer’s hiring in 1938. An infinitely courteous and patient man, Shawn never would have pressed Mitchell about his work, much less imposed any kind of deadline on him. Besides, Shawn knew full well that back in the late Thirties and Forties, when Mitchell was relatively prolific and his quirky pieces helped establish the magazine’s popularity—and profitability—the writer earned a relative pittance. So Shawn, in the words of former New Yorker deputy editor Charles “Chip” McGrath, was “content to wait” on whatever Mitchell was trying to produce.
From a physical standpoint Mitchell, who was fifty-six when “Joe Gould’s Secret” appeared, was in fine shape as he crossed into his older years. His lifelong regimen of walking the streets and byways of New York was paying dividends. He was still quite trim, if fighting a bit of the gentleman’s paunch. He dressed as smartly as ever, his bald pate invariably covered with a fedora when he was out. The hair that still grew at each side was closely cropped and mostly gray. His blues eyes could still dance, twinkle or pierce, on cue.
Mitchell still enjoyed taking his lunch with coworkers, most often from his own cohort but not infrequently with younger ones who considered him a literary icon. He preferred the humble yet reliable eateries in the vicinity of the magazine. Like many of the veteran New Yorker staffers, Mitchell belonged to the Century Club, but unlike them, he seldom went there. As he once quipped, “I’m saloonable, I’m even bar-and-grillable, but I have found out to my sorrow that I’m really not very clubbable.”
People at the magazine genuinely relished Mitchell’s company; as McGrath put it, “Every day you had a Joe sighting was a great day.” Because their offices were on the same floor, McGrath said he often seemed to bump into Mitchell in the men’s room, where they might engage in lengthy, impromptu conversations—Mitchell doing most of the talking—about James Joyce (the writer Mitchell most admired) or religion or the latest issue of The New Yorker. Mitchell seldom failed to surprise. In one such exchange, McGrath happened to mention that he felt the poet Elizabeth Bishop, who had recently died, was rather underappreciated. “And Joe blew me away by just standing there in the men’s room, wadding up paper towels and reciting Bishop’s poems. Holy shit; he did that. Whether he was writing or not, he was reading all the time. He knew everything.”
Still, where it came to Joseph Mitchell, most New Yorker people had one burning question: What was he doing? What were once whispers grew louder with each passing year—he seemed to be trapped in what was becoming the longest case of writer’s block in history. There were all the signs that he was writing something; that’s what he told people, and indeed his outward routine was essentially the same as it had been when he was producing stories. He would arrive, go into his office, remove his coat and hang it, shut the door, and go to work. Colleagues often purposefully cocked an ear as they passed that door, and they might well hear Mitchell inside typing. But typing what? What was he working on? With the possible exception of what hermetic J.D. Salinger might be doing up there in New Hampshire, Mitchell was becoming the literary circle’s biggest mystery. If anything, Mitchell’s mystery was all the more fascinating because he was being (professionally) hermetic right there at work, under everyone’s nose.
McGrath, fellow New Yorker writer and friend Philip Hamburger, and others confirmed that the Mitchell fixation reached the point where some staffers were known to rummage Mitchell’s trash can, in a vain search for clues. But this curiosity was driven strictly out of respect, McGrath said, “it was not bemusement at all.” In fact, it was precisely because Mitchell was such a revered writer that this compulsion to know what he was working on existed; had he been a lesser figure, the question would have been of no consequence.
None of this was easy for Mitchell, of course. He was acutely aware not only of the internal curiosity but also the growing number of people outside the magazine who wondered why on earth The New Yorker continued to pay a writer, notwithstanding his past accomplishments, who was not writing. “Joe had a hyperintelligence,” said Hamburger. “I’m sure he was aware of [what was being said]. Nobody ever stopped to think of the pain, how painful it must have been for him not to be writing.” On another occasion Mitchell lowered his guard on the subject with an old friend, the writer Roy Wilder Jr. “Sometimes I just wish they’d fire me,” Mitchell told him, “and I would go home to North Carolina.”
Adapted from the forthcoming book Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, published by Random House.