Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A writer.

Joseph Mitchell worked as a writer at "The New Yorker" from 1938 when he was hired, until 1996 when he died.

He published hundreds of pieces, many of which were collected in book form in "Up in the Old Hotel," "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon" and other volumes. Copies of these great books are widely available. You can probably pick them up for a dollar or two (plus shipping) on abebooks.com

Mitchell is also famous for his 32 years of writer's block.

He didn't publish anything from 1964 until his death, though he regularly showed up at his office at "The New Yorker."

Just yesterday, my copy of the magazine arrived in my mailbox and there it was, something previously unpublished by Mitchell.

This is like finding a never-before-seen Caravaggio or an unheard etude by Beethoven.

Here's what the magazine had to say about the piece.

"What follows here is the initial chapter of a planned memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies but, as with other writings after 1964, never completed."

You can buy the magazine for $6.95 and read the story.

Here's the bit of it I liked the most. A rumination on aging, I think.

"Because of all this sort of thing, and because of other and perhaps far more interesting things that I will mention later, I used to feel very much at home in New York City. I wasn't born here, I wasn't a native, but I might as well have been: I belonged here. Several years ago, however, I began to be oppressed by a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn't belong here anymore. I sometimes went on from that to a feeling that I never had belonged here, and that could be especially painful. At first, these feelings were vague and sporadic, but they gradually became more definite and quite frequent. Ever since I came to New York City, I have been going back to North Carolina for a visit once or twice a year, and now I began going back more often and staying longer. At one point, after a visit of a month and a half, I had about made up my mind to stay down there for good, and then I began to be oppressed by a feeling that things had gone past me in North Carolina also, and that I didn't belong down there anymore, either. I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was. When I was in New York City, I was often homesick for North Carolina; when I was in North Carolina, I was often homesick for New York City. Then, one Saturday afternoon,while I was walking around the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression. A change took place in me. And that is what I want to tell about."


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Walter Dufresne said...

In 1983 I was unemployed and scanning the shelves of the old Mid-Manhattan Library when I picked up a copy of Joseph Mitchell's long-out-of-print "The Bottom of the Harbor". The tattered spine's great title only hinted at the good stuff inside. That summer I devoured all of Mitchell's writings, all out-of-print. I knew nothing of the writer, excepting his prose and the stories he told and his affection for seafood. Oh, and one of the old books mentioned he wrote for The New Yorker.

Eight years later all the skinny old books are in a fat new book, "Up in the Old Hotel" and I buy it. I'm happy to own copies of the stories. One day before a meeting near Grand Central I call up The New Yorker to ask if Mr. Mitchell still works there and would it be okay to drop off my copy for his autograph? Sure, says the receptionist.

Two weeks later I have another mid-town meeting and I telephone again. The receptionist says stop by. Mitchell *himself* comes out of the office, a gracious man. My first blunder was in my note to Mitchell, asking him to "autograph my copy of your book". I wrote I didn't want any dedication, just his autograph, because "you don't know me from Adam." I treasure that book to this day, but what I didn't know was something John Szarkowski pointed out years later: older writers know their days are short, and a reader who asks for no dedication is perhaps a ghoul seeking something more salable after the writer's death.

The elderly Mitchell offers to dedicate the book, and witless me, I decline, asking again only for his autograph. He autographs the book and dumb ass me further steps in it. I didn't know it, but Mitchell, along with Henry Roth and Ralph Ellison made up the entire short list of 20th Century American writers cursed with extended writer's block.

Grateful for his autograph and trying to further express my gratitude -- full of good cheer -- I brightly asked "So Mister Mitchell, are you working on anything good lately?"

I should've been shot.