Though we both came to the offices of the New Yorker nearly every day for 15 years, Joseph Mitchell and I were never introduced and we never introduced ourselves. I seldom saw him; mostly he stayed in his office with the door shut. But I knew who he was, almost from the day I was hired, and over time he came to know who I was too. Usually we ran into each other in the elevator, most often in the summer. He was an immaculate man who always seemed to be wearing the same plain clothes, year in and year out – a white cotton shirt, a dark tie, a tan poplin suit, a coconut-straw hat with a maroon and navy striped band. He was an avid reader of newspapers – his knowledge was said to be encyclopedic – and he always carried one around with him. One time I noticed it was the Irish Times; another, the Financial Times. He had a face that was more beautiful, because of what was behind it, than handsome, though it was that too. It was set with large, vivid-blue eyes that opened wide in pleased surprise when he encountered you. He would look into my face and smile sweetly and say, ‘Well, hello!’ When we parted, he would say, ‘Well, I’ll be seeing you.’ He had a Southern accent and his voice was smooth and lyrical; a colleague likened it to Bing Crosby’s. Now and then he would say something nice about an article I had written in the magazine or in one of his papers, and these comments filled me with a childish joy. He died on 24 May, of cancer, at the age of 87.
Mitchell was born on 27 July 1908, in Fairmont, North Carolina, a small farming community interspersed with swamps and woods, fifty miles or so inland from the Atlantic Ocean. His father was a farmer and a tobacco and cotton trader, and his ancestors on both sides had farmed land in the region since before the Revolutionary War. Now he is buried alongside them. When he was 21, he left the University of North Carolina to come to New York and work for the Herald Tribune, where he began by covering the city’s endless crimes and catastrophes – murders, robberies, fires. He also worked for the World and the World-Telegram, where he started writing features that took him to the Fulton Fish Market on the South Street seaport, in lower Manhattan – later the setting for some of the brilliant stories in his books Old Mr Flood and The Bottom of the Harbour.[*] (The market is operational today, but the seaport has been radically transformed: like all anachronistic places that avoid demolition, it has undergone ‘renovation’ and is now an upscale tourist and shopping centre.) Mitchell was mesmerised by the harbour, by the people who worked in and around it, and by the stories they had to tell. Through their histories, he relates a larger history of New York City – of the people who ended up there and why, what they did, what their names were, why some stayed and others left. These writings are pieces of scholarship, about the fishing and clamming and oyster industries that once thrived in the area, and meditations on vanished or vanishing worlds. Often Mitchell’s subjects are ageing, melancholy men, with their imminent demise weighing on them. The waterfront becomes a place of longing, and Mitchell writes of it as hauntingly as John Lee Hooker sang of it.
In 1938 Mitchell was hired by Harold Ross as a staff writer for the New Yorker, though his first contribution to the magazine had been published in 1933. He took up with writers like Philip Hamburger, S.J. Perelman and James Thurber, but his best friend at the magazine was A.J. Liebling, with whom he developed a relationship of affectionate rivalry. Liebling, who died in 1963, was an ebullient man, renowned among other things for his tremendous speed and brilliance as a writer. Mitchell, on the other hand, was a quiet man of great curiosity and patience with an admiration for things well made – exactly the qualities to be found in his own writing. Many of his pieces are told largely in the language and voices of his subjects, and the effort and care that went into them are obvious only inasmuch as there are no false moments. His ear is unerringly accurate, his sentences as smooth as his voice. Humour is present in nearly everything he wrote, and sometimes he is hilarious, though not at the expense of his subjects. Unless they happen to be rats. In a factual piece about the city’s rat population, ‘The Rats on the Waterfront’, he writes:
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[*] Both of these volumes are included in Up in the Old Hotel, a compilation of all Mitchell’s books (Vintage. 716 pp., $14, May. 1993, 0 679 74631 5).