09 Jun 1996: The Observer By ARNOLD KEMP
THE psychologist Carl Jung wrote that he needed many days of silence to recover from the futility of words. New York is still pondering the meaning of the enormous and profound silence of Joseph Mitchell, honoured by the city as its supreme chronicler when he died last month.
The New Yorker paid Mitchell a compliment probably unique in journalism. For the last 31 years of his life he wrote nothing, but remained on the staff and came to the office every day.
The magazine’s editor, Tina Brown, said: ‘His presence in the office, his encouragement to younger writers, and his kindness to all of us was a kind of honour. We will miss him, remember him, and always read him.’
Mitchell was appointed to the New Yorker by its great editor, Harold Ross, in 1938. His last article appeared in 1964. He never spoke about the fact that he submitted nothing more. Some thought it a spectacular case of writer’s block, or the refusal of a perfectionist to tolerate infelicities.
Others speculated that a loss of sympathy in the direction of the magazine in the 1960s, after the end of the Ross era, might have terminated his flow. Such questions will stimulate a new line in literary archaeology, since Mitchell’s importance as a writer is now generally recognised.
His closely observed tales of what Ross called New York’s low life and the colourful characters who inhabited it – in the seaport, the Bowery, the Staten Island ferry, the Village – transcended journalism. He anticipated the attempts of Tom Wolfe and others several decades later to go beyond the shorthand notebook and what they regarded as a spurious convention of objectivity.
Ms Brown said: ‘Joe Mitchell was one of the great innovators of modern American writing and a cornerstone of the New Yorker. ‘What made him even more precious was the way he gave voice to seemingly ordinary people in stories such as his classic Joe Gould’s Secret (his last piece, a profile of a New York eccentric).’
His inactivity after 1964 was probably highly painful to him, but he bore it with stoicism. He showed delight when the collected articles of his golden period appeared in 1992 under the title Up in the Old Hotel. This became a classic, won him a new audience among the young and invited comparison with his great hero, James Joyce. The New Yorker, in its extensive tribute to Mitchell in the current issue, wrote: ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon is this city’s Dubliners.’
He was punctilious in his attendance at the office. At the due hour he put on his fedora and went to lunch, and at the due hour he returned. One obituarist reported an overflowing waste-basket, evidence of perpetually false starts.
By the 1980s, there was a loss of confidence in the New Yorker’s editorial direction. Mitchell revered Ross, the magazine’s founder and first editor from 1925. Under Ross, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, the cartoonist Charles Addams, EB White and many others emerged. The wit, elegance and a certain eccentricity of the halcyon era was in the 1980s often replaced by verbosity, and some articles were a long, weary trudge. Ross’s successor, William Shawn, wept when he told the staff in 1985 that the magazine had been sold, resigning the chair after a stint of 32 years. Mitchell once let slip that, although he thought Shawn was a lovely man, he had come near to ruining the magazine.
Mitchell in his later years became something of a mascot, a link to those glorious days when he hung out with Thurber, Parker and the rest of the gang at Costello’s. ‘Write it, damn you, write it! What else are you good for?’ exhorted Joyce, although addressing himself. Perhaps that was the despairing incantation in Mitchell’s mind as he struggled all those years with blank sheets of paper.