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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.

9 comments:

  1. Wonderful. I've just finished reading 'The Art Of Fielding' by Chad Harbach wherein a character refers to a journalist who, after writing a handful of articles in the '50s, goes into the office everyday without penning anything else. I assume this is who he meant. Thank you.

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  2. I will be in London shortly and will endeavour to pick up a copy of this.

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  3. Sounds excellent. We're going to be passing a Waterstones this morning and I will look out for this.

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  4. Thanks David. Great review. I'm downloading my copy now.

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  5. You've put it on my 'must read' list.

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  6. I'm about halfway through this collection. The level of detail is incredible but never overwhelming. Mitchell methodically builds up his profiles piece by piece until you have a complete mental image of a person. You feel like you've spent time with them and know them to some degree.

    I get to the end of each of these essays which are generally about an individual and I wonder what happened to the subject. A lot of them existed in quite precarious circumstances and their fiercely idiosyncratic personalities were likely to keep them in that state. I was reminded of the late Soho Pam who was a good person at heart, and who was homeless for reasons that she kept to herself.

    I wonder about Mitchell too; why he carried on writing but stopped submitting his work. He was so good at it. I wonder what happened that made him say 'enough.'

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  7. I was just catching up with the New Yorker podcasts today and there's one (March 11, I think) that features a long discussion about him with two people who remember sharing an office with him. It's really interesting stuff and I think you'll find it here. http://www.newyorker.com/online/podcasts/outloud

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  8. I was just catching up with the New Yorker podcasts today and there's one (March 11, I think) that features a long discussion about him with two people who remember sharing an office with him. It's really interesting stuff and I think you'll find it here. http://www.newyorker.com/online/podcasts/outloud

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  9. It’s the February 11th podcast. The staff there still talk about Mitchell with great reverence. I wonder if he became so much of an institution at the magazine that people felt that they couldn’t intervene and maybe give him a gentle push.

    I’ve been typing the names of some of the people in his book into Google: Philippa Duke Schuyler – the gifted child who Mitchell interviewed when she was nine - had the predictably tragic life of a young prodigy. The resentment towards her parents in her latter years and a belated search for her own identity – something that most of us experience during our teens. She died, aged 35, evacuating orphans from Vietnam. The helicopter she was riding in crashed into the sea. Having never learned how to swim, she drowned.

    One other point of interest in the podcast is something that New Yorker editor - David Remnick touches on towards the end: The need to balance the articles on ‘society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors and any actress under the age of thirty-five’ with more leftfield idiosyncratic pieces. In this he seems to be guided by intuition. He comes across as man with a vision of what the magazine has to cover in order to survive, and also what it should be doing in order to broaden it’s perspective.

    He reminded me of a short piece that appeared in The Word Magazine, about the barefoot bandit - Colton Harris-Moore: A former resident of Camano Island, Washington, who taught himself to fly using the Microsoft Flight Simulator, and who went on to steal a number of light aircraft and commit over 100, relatively benign, burglaries, all while evading capture. This is a story that didn’t resonate at all in the UK, and it’s really the last thing that you would expect to read about in an English magazine that concerns itself mainly with music, film and books. And yet there it was – this real-life drama that sounded like the source material for a Bob Dylan song - and it was very interesting. Afterwards I followed the saga of Colton Harris-Moore online until it reached it’s bizarre conclusion.

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