Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Joe Mitchell's Secret

Stick with me on this one, please.  This story is quite a bit odd, and totally true.

The old man loved the seafood
There was a man by the name of Joseph Mitchell (1908 - 1996) who came from prosperous farm people in North Carolina, a state that in about ten months should be seeing a boom in baby boys named Earl, and little girls called Earlene. But that has nothing to do with Mitchell, who came to New York in the early 1930s and worked for a time as a newspaper reporter in those golden days of newspaper reporters.  He moved on to The New Yorker magazine, where he became a chronicler in long form of the city's offbeat characters.  When that old TV show said there were ten million stories in the Naked City, they surely knew what they were talking about.

Mitchell wrote about the denizens of the docks, the bars where longshoremen congregated, the seafood restaurants and the seafood.  He loved seafood so much that he called himself a seafoodetarian ("When I get through tearing a lobster apart, or one of those tender West Coast octopuses, I feel like I had a drink from the fountain of youth."). Such a way with words had Mitchell that he found plenty to write about in the history of bars, such as McSorley's Saloon, and people who hung around in bars, such as Joe Gould.

Joseph Ferdinand Gould (1889 - 1957) was a Boston-born, Harvard-educated man of, again, prosperous parents, but whereas Mitchell earned a nice living writing about the pre-beatnik bohemians and free spirits of the waterfront, Gould found it less profitable to be one of those spirits.  Having himself worked as a newspaper reporter for a time, Gould hit upon a great idea: to write the longest book ever written, and so he told everyone that he had begun to compile An Oral History Of Our Time.  Oh, what a book it was going to be. Gould claimed that he was interviewing scholars, journalists, eyewitnesses and people who knew something about anything and writing this epic tome.  For years it was all he could talk about, and he did so with such a sense of self-promotion that Mitchell began writing about Gould writing a book. (Later, someone wrote a movie script about Mitchell writing about Gould writing a book, and here I am writing about someone writing a movie script about Mitchell writing about Gould writing a book.  You see what happens when you let this stuff get started?

Gould was not Mitchell's only subject, but he did figure prominently in Mitchell's life, occasionally cadging dinner, a drink or a night's sleep on the office sofa.  He kept writing until 1964, when he published Joe Gould's Secret, and the secret was that there was no book.  All the "manuscripts" that Gould had left buried here and there were blank pages or old scrap paper.  Gould was dead by then, but something else died too: Mitchell's ability to write.

From 1964 until 1996, Mitchell continued to report to work at the New Yorker every single day, and never wrote another word.  Those who know about the magazine's bizarre business model in those days were not surprised to look up toward the end of the man's life and realize that hey, it's been years, he goes into that office every day and does who-knows-what, and then writes nothing.  Roger Angell, a great writer and editor at The New Yorker, wrote these words after Mitchell passed away in 1996: "Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained."

Mitchell himself, toward the end of his days, allowed as how he thinks his preoccupation with the Gould "book," and his dismay at being hoodwinked over it, led him to the 32-year case of writer's block that he suffered.  Mitchell was an intelligent man, fond of New York history and architecture, and conversant on many topics. But these sad words to a newspaper reporter four years before he died say so much about a life confused: "You pick someone so close that, in fact, you are writing about yourself. Talking to Joe Gould all those years he became me in a way, if you see what I mean."

Robert Frost wrote this in "The Road Not Taken:"  

"Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both  And be one traveller, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth..."

I love Mitchell's writing - books of his pre-1964 essays are available - and he had a marvelous way with our language.  I wish he had written more, but perhaps he followed the path to which life led him.I think about all those lonesome days in the office, and I wonder how that must have felt, to be on such a lonesome path.




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