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Joe Mitchell’s Secret

Considered the best profile writer New York’s ever seen, Joseph Mitchell’s influence is unfortunately on the wane. Why today’s prose-makers have lost their way.

Joseph Mitchell’s writing boils down to two simple, enduring principles: One doesn’t have to be a celebrity to be interesting, and there are more interesting non-celebrities in New York City than anywhere else in the world. Mitchell, a New Yorker staff writer for over 50 years, might not have made such a bold statement (he had a renowned sense of humility), but it comes through in his writing—construction workers, shad fishermen, and cops by the dozen dominate My Ears Are Bent and Up in the Old Hotel, the two collections of his work (the first contains his pre-New Yorker writing; the latter is a compendium of the four books of profiles he released at the magazine). There isn’t a Rockefeller to be found anywhere.

Mitchell is often praised as one of the greatest American writers of the last century, and few journalists would challenge his position at the top of the non-fiction mountain. His long-form profiles of Bowery bums and self-proclaimed gypsy kings were revolutionary in their application of narrative techniques, predating Tom Wolfe and the New Journalists by 20 years. He began writing profiles soon after moving to New York, in 1928, from North Carolina, and after working at several local papers settled at the New Yorker in 1938.

William Maxwell, writing in the New Yorker after Mitchell’s death in 1996, said that ‘as a literary artist there was no one like him, though many people have tried to be.’ Few would argue with Maxwell on the former point, though the latter has become less and less true over the decades. There was a time, in the 1950s or 1960s, when you could open a New Yorker or other long-form magazine and find a writer taking a stab at the sort of rambling chronicle of the mundane in which Mitchell specialized. But even as the New Journalists were claiming to storm the Bastille of literary pretension that Mitchell had single-handedly conquered years before, the whole idea of writing about the everyday was falling out of favor. And perhaps because Mitchell’s last published work appeared in 1964, today the term ‘narrative non-fiction’ conjures up The Right Stuff more often than The Bottom of the Harbor.

More ominously, the ‘everyday New York’ profile—the genre Mitchell ruled like a god on high, but in which he was hardly the sole practitioner—has fallen by the wayside. There are myriad explanations—the expansion of ‘infotainment’ that prizes the lurid and controversial over the quotidian and human; the possibility for even rank-and-file journalists to move into upper-middle-income brackets, with all the class biases that accompany such a shift; or the city’s increasingly mobile population, with fewer lifetime New Yorkers than before. New York is no less intriguing than it was in Mitchell’s time, but writers—fiction and non-fiction—as well as the media that publish them, seem more interested in writing about personal shoppers at Tiffany’s than fishmongers on the Lower East Side.

And there’s yet another element of Mitchell’s writing that also seems fast on the wane. Unlike so many contemporary profile journalists, Mitchell never judged his subjects—he was, writes Noel Perrin in the Sewanee Review, ‘the master of the equivocal lead.’ But his attitude toward his subjects went beyond a refusal to judge—he didn’t analyze, he didn’t put them under a microscope, he never, in other words, made them objects. His profile of Mazie Gordon, a ticket taker at a Bowery movie house, isn’t written to make a point about the decline of the Lower East Side theater world. It’s written to tell us about Mazie, and that’s it. By way of introducing her, Mitchell writes:

A bossy, yellow-haired blonde named Mazie P. Gordon is a celebrity on the Bowery. In the nickel-a-drink saloons and in the all-night restaurants which specialize in pig snouts and cabbage at a dime a platter, she is known by her first name. She makes a round of these establishments practically every night, and drunken bums come up behind her, slap her on the back, and call her sweetheart. This never annoys her. She has a wry but genuine fondness for bums and is undoubtedly acquainted with more of them than any other person in the city. Each day she gives then between five and fifteen dollars in small change, which is a lot of money on the Bowery.

Besides calling her ‘bossy,’ Mitchell passes not an iota of judgment on Mazie. He is simply reporting the facts. And yet clearly he has spent an enormous amount of time with her, and uses his entire experience—not simply, say, his observations of her work as a ticket-taker or her informal charity program—as the basis of his profile. Mitchell lets the facts of Mazie’s life speak for themselves, and it shows he’s got heart, that he really cares about her.

Contrast that to a recent New Yorker profile of Harvey Weinstein by Ken Auletta, one of the magazine’s best profile writers. Weinstein is the undisputed lord (some would say dictator) of the New York film scene—but, we learn, someone whose histrionic temper may soon be his undoing. The profile begins: ‘Harvey Weinstein sometimes believes that Hollywood is out to get him. He believed this even before it was true.’ Weinstein never says (at least in the profile) that he feels Hollywood is out to get him. Nor is it possible, barring the exposure of a vast, anti-Weinstein conspiracy, to prove that Hollywood actually is out to get him. These are not observations—they are judgments by Auletta, and because he is a seasoned reporter on the media we should pay attention to his analysis. But by beginning the profile with a bold statement of his thesis, Auletta is disabusing us of any illusion that we are about to learn something about Weinstein the human being—instead, we are in for a dissection of Weinstein the concept, Weinstein the power center. Weinstein the object.

Through Weinstein, Auletta is trying to say something about the ruthlessness of the film industry, but by the end of the profile all we know is Weinstein the Miramax executive; we know precious little about Weinstein the man. Of course, the latter isn’t Auletta’s point. Weinstein is a vessel in which Auletta can pour his observations of the film world, and so it makes sense for him to pick out only the details that fit his thesis.

Unfortunately, though, this sort of profile is a lot of what runs in the New Yorker these days, as well as the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, and a bevy of other outlets for great writing: analysis, prognostication, discussion, bon mots by the boatload. Along the way, subjects of profiles become more objects of discussion than people in their own right; certain facts of their lives are extracted and used to further a particular argument.

Not that Mitchell’s ghost doesn’t pop up occasionally. Take, for example, Michelle O’Donnell’s ‘The Book of Joel,’ a brief profile of a Flatbush, Brooklyn football nut that ran on the inside pages of a recent Sunday Times City section. (The City section appears in the metro edition each Sunday, and is a good reason for migration to the Big Apple—it is one of the last strongholds of New York City writing.) Joel Buchsbaum is a radio host, a football columnist, and the author of the annual Pro Prospects Preview. But he is also a momma’s boy, which we learn as he visits his mother for his daily chat, and he worships his late father, who taught him to ‘treat people with respect.’ This is the Mitchell piece redux: a fascinating man with a unique claim to a tiny patch of fame, someone from whom we learn something not telegraphed in the headline, whom the author allows to talk to us, rather than her speaking through his character. Buchsbaum died on December 29.

Mitchell may have been the preeminent chronicler of the New York experience, but his heart—and style—lay in his southern roots. He was born in rural North Carolina; after dropping out of U.N.C-Chapel Hill and writing for a local newspaper, he moved to New York City. And though he lived the rest of his life in the city, he returned to North Carolina often; until his death he held the deed on his family’s farm. His southern style appears in everything he writes—his love for landscape, his concern for dialect, and his conviction that difference, even eccentricity, are the defining condition of urban life. New York, Mitchell seems to say throughout Up in the Old Hotel, is not John D. Rockefeller or Harvey Weinstein, but Johnny Nikanov, the self-professed gypsy king, and Joe Gould, the author of the 9,000 page Oral History of Our Time (a book that turns out to exist only in his head).

Woe be unto the person who tries to pass judgment on the state of contemporary profile journalism. The New Yorker is at the top of its game, the best it’s been in decades, thanks to a half-dozen writers—along with Auletta, there’s Mark Singer, Adam Gopnik, Lillian Ross, Tad Friend, Jane Kramer—who can bat the hell out of a profile. And yet they all share Auletta’s drive to find a story within a story, to tell about race or fame or Hollywood by highlighting select bits from their subject’s life. Mitchell, like most non-fiction writers, has been forgotten by many outside the craft, which for today’s practitioners may be a good thing—because when you read him, you realize that for all their current skill, today’s profile journalists are missing something big.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen