Joseph Mitchell (writer)
||This article may contain original research. (April 2010)|
July 27, 1908|
Fairmont, North Carolina
|Died||May 24, 1996
New York, NY
Joseph Mitchell (July 27, 1908 - May 24, 1996) was an American writer best known for the work he published in The New Yorker. He is known for his carefully written portraits of eccentrics and people on the fringes of society, especially in and around New York City.
Mitchell was born on his maternal grandparents' farm near Fairmont, North Carolina, the son of Averette Nance and Elizabeth A. Parker Mitchell. The family business was cotton and tobacco trading, and family money helped to support Mitchell throughout his life.
Mitchell came to New York City in 1929, at the age of 21, with the ambition of becoming a political reporter. He worked for such newspapers as The World, the New York Herald Tribune, and the New York World-Telegram, at first covering crime and then doing interviews, profiles, and character sketches. In 1931, he took a brief break from journalism to work on a freighter that sailed to Leningrad and brought back pulp logs to New York City. He returned to journalism after this interlude and continued to write for New York newspapers until he was hired by St. Clair McKelway at The New Yorker in 1938. He remained with the magazine until his death in 1996.
His book Up in the Old Hotel collects the best of his writing for The New Yorker, and his earlier book My Ears Are Bent collects the best of his early journalistic writing, which he omitted from Up in the Old Hotel.
Mitchell's last book was his empathetic account of the Greenwich Village street character and self-proclaimed historian Joe Gould's extravagantly disguised case of writer's block, published as Joe Gould's Secret (1964). Many of Mitchell's admirers agree that this last book sadly presaged the last decades of Mitchell's own life. From 1964 until his death in 1996, Mitchell would go to work at his office on a daily basis, but he never published anything significant again. In a remembrance of Mitchell printed in the June 10, 1996, issue of The New Yorker, his colleague Roger Angell wrote: "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."
Perhaps an explanation does emerge, however, in a remark that Mitchell made to Washington Post writer David Streitfeld (quoted here from Newsday, August 27, 1992): "You pick someone so close that, in fact, you are writing about yourself. Joe Gould had to leave home because he didn't fit in, the same way I had to leave home because I didn't fit in. Talking to Joe Gould all those years he became me in a way, if you see what I mean."
Joseph Mitchell served on the board of directors of the Gypsy Lore Society, was one of the founders of the South Street Seaport Museum, was involved with the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, and served five years on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In August 1937, he placed third in a clam-eating tournament on Block Island by eating 84 cherrystone clams. He died of cancer at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan at the age of 87.
In 2008, The Library of America selected Mitchell’s story "Execution" for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime.
Books by Joseph Mitchell 
- My Ears Are Bent (1938; reissued in 2001 in a revised and expanded edition by Sheila McGrath and Dan Frank)
- McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943)
- Old Mr. Flood (1948)
- The Bottom of the Harbor (1959)
- Joe Gould's Secret (1965)
- Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories (a 1992 collection that includes all of McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Gould's Secret plus some additional stories)