Thursday, July 27, 2017

North Carolina birthdays: The man who stopped writing.


Joseph Quincy Mitchell (1908-1996)

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.

Born in Robeson County, North Carolina, to a wealthy cotton and tobacco farmer, Joe Mitchell was fascinated by the laboratories of decay and rebirth that are the swamps around the Lumber River. An ABD student at UNC, 1925-29, he declined his father’s wish that he join the family business.

He was no good at math, and to do well in the cotton and tobacco lines you have to wield a sharp pencil to predict futures contract values and make money at auctions. He thought writing would suit him better, and he had the safety net of family money beneath him most of his life.

Mitchell went to New York City, hoping to become a political reporter. He found crime was more plentiful- and writers of it in demand by papers- and spent nine years a journeyman journo at several. He took a year off to work a freighter to Leningrad. In the summer of 1937, he entered a cherrystone clam-eating contest on Block Island; he placed third, with 84 down the hatch.

A chance passing of one of Mitchell’s features to an editor led to his getting hired by The New Yorker in 1938. He worked there the rest of his life. He had exacting standards for his work, and that made him slow. It could be two years, easy, between his published articles in the magazine. He produced one collection of those stories a decade. McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943) and The Bottom of the Harbor (1959) are among his best-loved books.

Mitchell chronicled New York’s oddballs, outcasts and fringe-dwellers. He loved the riverfront bars and hotels time and economic changes passed by. One of his most famous subjects was a 1911 Harvard alum, Joe Gould, who was writing the longest book in history. By 1942, when Mitchell profiled him in “Professor Seagull,” Gould claimed his history of his times had reached nine million words.

Over time, however, Mitchell discovered Gould had written no such thing. He wrote the same stories of his early life, over and over, until he died: Gould suffered from a manic need to write, called hypergraphia, combined with writer’s block. Eventually Gould pestered and irritated Mitchell to the point of a break between them. Mitchell published Joe Gould’s Secret as a New Yorker piece in 1964, and it came out as a book the next year, a few years after Gould’s death.

For the next 32 years, Mitchell- always in Brooks Brothers clobber- turned up at The New Yorker every work day and closed his office door. Passers-by could hear the clack of typewriter keys. In 1992 the re-publication of his books in the omnibus, Up At The Old Hotel, delighted Mitchell- then, though a legend among writers, long out of print- and raised hope for new works.

But Mitchell never talked about his work, and never released anything else. When he died, at 87, it turned out he had become Joe Gould, and had not produced anything publishable in those three decades of solitude.

Over time, another feature of Mitchell’s work emerged: he made a lot of things up. Presented as reportage, Mitchell’s stories included composite characters, and people made up out of thin air.

In 1961, Mitchell got wind the novelist Sidney Sheldon was seeking backing for a Broadway show about female gypsy con artists; Mitchell, concerned that a gypsy con artist in one of his stories would be appropriated by Sheldon because she was real, wrote The New Yorker’s lawyers, asking for advice. She was completely made up, he declared, and, as such, should be protectable as his own intellectual property.

His waywardness with factual accuracy spawned a lively debate, but the consensus settled around the idea that only Joe Mitchell could have gotten away with that sort of thing, because only Joe Mitchell was so good he could pull it off. Rather like an 18th century country estate park by Capability Brown, Mitchell’s work presented nature, slightly improved.

Mitchell was a friend of historic preservation, serving on the landmarks Preservation Board for years, and as a patron of The Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture.

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