Jobs and Sprees and Sorrows

William Fiennes

  • Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell
    Cape, 200 pp, £9.99, October 1997, ISBN 0 224 05107 5

Joseph Mitchell, who died on 24 May 1996, was a staff writer on the New Yorker for 58 years and belonged to the band of contributors who made the magazine’s reputation. His special subject was the sea: he shared Herman Melville’s vision of New York as a city of the sea, ‘your insular city of the Manhattoes, belted around by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs’. Mitchell was the laureate of the waters around New York. He recorded the arcana of the rivermen. He described the harbour’s abundance of shellfish and finfish – not just common finfish like flounder, alewife, sea bass and ling, but also the rarer strays from southern waters: lookdowns, hairtails, goggle-eyed shad. He loved Fulton Fish Market: ‘the smoky river-bank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell’. His stories are filled to the brim with seafood – with oysters and eels and sturgeon, and littleneck and cherrystone clams raked up from the mud of the Long Island bays.

Mitchell’s first collection of articles, a pageant of idiosyncrasy called McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943), introduces such characters as Mazie, the ‘bossy, yellow-haired blonde’ who presides over the ticket cage at a Bowery cinema, and the Rev. Mr James Jefferson Davis Hall, ‘the greatest and most frightening street preacher in the city’. There is the founder of Captain Charley’s Private Museum for Intelligent People, where the exhibits include Theodore Roosevelt’s pith helmet and a parasol said to have belonged to the notorious New Orleans madam Mrs Lily-belle Sue-belle Russell. There is a couple who lived for a year in a cave in Central Park; Jane Barnell, a lady with a beard 13½ inches long; the nine-year-old child prodigy Philippa Duke Schuyler, who reads Plutarch, plays poker, and has composed more than sixty pieces for the piano; and Commodore Dutch, ‘a brassy little man who has made a living for the last forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself’. And the book introduces Joe Gould, the character who would become Mitchell’s dependant, shadow, mirror-image and bête noire.

Mitchell first wrote about ‘blithe and emaciated Joe Gould’ in 1942, in a profile entitled ‘Professor Sea Gull’ – the first of the two essays that make up Joe Gould’s Secret. Gould is a Harvard graduate who fancies himself ‘the last of the Bohemians’ and survives, he likes to say, on ‘air, self-esteem, cigarette butts, cowboy coffee, fried-egg sandwiches and ketchup’. He claims that he understands the cawing of seagulls so well that he can translate poetry into it, and notes that the poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow are particularly suited to this purpose. Reviling the culture of ownership, Gould feels ‘out of joint with the rest of the human race’. He dresses in the cast-off clothes of his friends. On winter days he stuffs an insulating layer of newspapers between his vest and shirt. ‘I’m snobbish,’ he says. ‘I only use the Times.’

Gould carries a portfolio under his arm containing a miscellany of papers and a bag of the breadcrumbs with which he feeds a particular flock of pigeons in Washington Square. He knows the birds by name: Big Bosom, Lady Astor, St John the Baptist, Polly Adler, Fiorello. He wanders from saloon to saloon cadging beers, sandwiches and cash. Most important, he adds to his work-in-progress, a mysterious book that he calls ‘The Oral History of Our Time’. This massive, encompassing volume, a distant cousin of the Key to All Mythologies, is already 11 times longer than the Bible, and possibly ‘the lengthiest unpublished work in existence’. Gould has been writing it for 26 years. The book is primarily an archive of talk: the transcribed monologues of the citizens of New York. More than half of the ‘Oral History’ consists of conversations taken down verbatim or summarised. Gould believes that ‘what people say is history.’ His ambition, he declares, is to ‘put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude – what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows’.

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