Monday, 9 July 2012
Joseph Mitchell's Secrets
Mitchell spent his working life as a journalist in New York, most famously at the New Yorker. He is often considered the originator of the profile: that essayist impression of a person or place that slips somewhere through the cracks of true journalism. In those cracks and margins, however, Mitchell wrote some of the best pieces the twentieth century produced. Take the opening sentence of the second half of the book:
“Joe Gould was an old and penniless and unemployable little man who came to the city in 1916 and ducked and dodged and held on as hard as he could for thirty-five years.”
This is a sentence of two halves that perfectly – that word again! – encapsulates Gould, but also Joseph Mitchell himself. Those opening words are scolding, condescending. One cannot write ‘Little man’ and not see it typed over the rims of your spectacles and down your nose. This is the man avoided on the street, the underserving poor. Penniless and unemployable: the twin sins of the American. It’s undeniably colloquial, almost barroom conversational. Gould came to the city, not to New York – that would give him too much in the way of ambition – and the only certainty is that he’s been on the streets for a long time. And that’s where Mitchell performs a tightly executed pirouette, just as 1916 is mentioned. The condescension is gulped back, the hauteur replaced word by word into something approaching grudging respect.
Ducked and dodge is a segue – after all, Gould could be a street hustler, a mugger, a vagabond thief, and ducking and dodging could include any kind of nefarious activity – but it’s the simple beauty of: ‘and held on as hard as he could for thirty-five years’ that changes the timbre of the sentence. Quite unexpectedly, the old man is a now cast as an almost hero, a battler against the tide, a survivor of fate and of bad fortune and of the city itself. In this one sentence, Mitchell’s own complicated relationship, with this, the most famous of his New Yorker subjects, is neatly – okay, perfectly – compacted. Are we supposed to look down on Gould, or admire his fortitude? Or are we to do both, all in the space of a single sentence?
Up in the Old Hotel, recently and thankfully reissued by Vintage, contains both Joe Gould piece, as well as multitudes. It is a teeming confection of the kind of people you wish to meet in a city, but would never quite have the guts to spend time with. On arriving in New York, flushed from the joy of Gould, I bought a copy from the Strand Bookstore and wandered around the city, trying as much as possible to visit the places Mitchell describes, and if not the exact same places, then the ones that seemed to have the same kind of atmosphere. I read ‘The Old House at Home’ in McSorely’s Tavern – the subject of that story – the past and the present colliding in odd junctures. The décor was clearly the same and the two braying men alongside me could have been from Mitchell’s piece had they not been wearing Abercrombie & Fitch jumpers and showing each other new apps on their iPhones. It remained a steady companion on my walks around the city, and a constant reminder of the place on my return home.
For so long, Joe Gould was an unopened secret on my shelves; then a secret I briefly thought my own. Talking about it, though, as is so often the case, other readers and writers mentioned their admiration for Mitchell. Up in the Old Hotel was mentioned with as much reverence as the British can muster; Joe Gould's Secret even more so: its mix of the deadbeat and the uptown, the lithe and the lumbersome, the stench of the streets and the grease of the diner, the smile of deceit and the smile of genuine affection, swooningly irresistible. And with good reason. It is the perfect – one more time, for luck, and in toast – New York story.