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Friday, December 28, 2012

The best writers tell you what they see, not what they think


I bought Up in the Old Hotel in Foyle's just before Christmas. I was attracted by the cover, the testimonials from Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie and the fact that the author, Joseph Mitchell, wrote for the New Yorker for fifty years. He died in 1996. For the last thirty years he clocked in at the office daily and wrote but didn't come up with anything he considered worth publishing.


If you read his collected works you can see why. If his portraits of New York characters from the thirties, forties and fifties are notable for anything it's the density of information and observation he packs into each one. Mitchell would hang out with his subjects for years before he'd filled his notebooks with enough detail to justify writing them up.

He was probably one of those writers who regarded his job as a trade rather than a profession. At no stage in the 700 pages does he appear to acknowledge the fact that he is going to places and meeting people that we, gentle readers might find a little too real. This applies whether he's detailing the money-making scams of New York's gypsy tribes, describing the rituals of the beefsteak dinners put on by the city's Tammany societies, telling the story of how the Mohawks recovered their warrior prestige by working in "high steel" or levelly reminiscing about the nocturnal activities of the Ku Klux Klan during his Southern boyhood.

There are good writers around today but generally they've read about things before actually encountering them. They're graduates. They come at life book-first. They delight in measuring how far experience exceeds or falls short of how they feel things ought to be. They need to tell you what they think about everything. Their stories are peopled by goodies and baddies. Their prose is peppered with hooray words and boo words.

Mitchell is from a very different school and was fortunate the world of print could support him. In the introduction he says that the only people he doesn't care to listen to are "society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors and any actress under the age of thirty-five." Journalists will recognise that these are the very people that editors are most interested in. Mitchell says experience has taught him that the best talk actually comes from "anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes and the occasional bartender."

I've been sitting in front of the fire all Christmas, reading his book. As a result I don't know how he might have voted, what his attitude to religion might have been or what he thought on any of the issues of the day. I do not know "where he was coming from", which is the first thing people expect these days.  In 700 pages Joseph Mitchell doesn't let slip as many clues about himself as most people do in the average night on Twitter.

However I do feel I've learned a lot about people by reading his collected works. One of his most trusted sources is a middle-aged policeman called Captain Campion. Mitchell reports that he was promoted from beat cop because his seniors noticed that he was "unusually intelligent and that he had a remarkably accurate memory for faces, names, conversations, and sequences of actions and that he was deeply curious about human behaviour". I like to think that when he wrote those lines Mitchell might have been describing himself.