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’.

Mitchell’s essays are chapters in such a history. Large sections are given over to direct quotation, to what people have to say about their jobs and sprees and sorrows. Many of the stories are taken over by the voices of his characters: Rev. Hall’s fervent evangelical rhetoric, Wilmouth Houdini’s Calypso improvisations, the ‘seafoodetarian’ reminiscences of Mr Flood. Mitchell is quite happy to relinquish the first-person narration of his stories. Orvis Diabo, a Caugh-nawaga Indian who counts among his favourite books Theodore Dreiser’s Is Our Civilisation Oversexed?, has a four and a half page monologue. In The Bottom of the Harbour (1960), Mr Hunter has a soliloquy lasting over eight pages. Captain Campion, the NYPD’s expert on Gypsies, has one uninterrupted speech more than nine pages long. Sometimes a character will quote at length from another character, so that the ‘I’ of the narrative is passed on like a baton from speaker to speaker. This is exactly the kind of oral history to which Joe Gould aspires.

Mitchell’s technique was to set as much direct speech as he could in a structure of exposition: background information from interviews and research, and his own firsthand observations of character and place. His long paragraphs are built up from simple, declarative sentences:

He never owns more than one suit at a time. His current one it beetle green. Most nights he sleeps in it. As a rule Johnny is unobtrusively drunk by noon. He is a gin-drinker. He says that he never drinks less than five quarts a week. He mixes gin with Pepsi-Cola, half and half, and calls the mixture old popskull. Johnny is a highly skilled coppersmith, but he brags that he hasn’t touched a tool since 1930.

Above all, Mitchell drew strength from detail. A botanist and an ornithologist, he had a natural historian’s talent for observation and the same taxonomical precision in his prose that Nabokov derived at least in part from lepidoptery. The meat in a clam is ‘a rosy yellow, a lovely colour, the colour of the flesh next to the stone of a freestone peach’. The Rev. Hall’s telephone has nine feet of cord. On top of nine-year-old Philippa Schuyler’s piano Mitchell sees ‘a Modern Library edition of Plutarch, a peach kernel, a mystery novel called The Corpse with the Floating Foot, a copy of the New York Post opened to the comic-strip page, a teacup half full of raw green peas, a train made of adhesive-tape spools and cardboard, a Stravinsky sonata, a pack of playing cards, a photograph of Lily Pons clipped from a magazine, and an uninflated balloon’. Little escaped Mitchell’s virtuoso noticing.

The details of ‘Professor Sea Gull’ present a character whose heterodoxy is completely benign. Gould’s rakishness is ‘forlorn’. Without his glasses he has the wild stare not of a lunatic but ‘of an old scholar who has strained his eyes on small print’. We learn that he grew up in a suburb of Boston, went to Harvard, became interested in Balkan politics, campaigned for Albanian independence, measured the heads of Chippewa Indians as part of a eugenic survey, and was briefly a reporter on the New York Evening Mail. We get an idea of what the ‘Oral History’ contains: not just transcribed conversations, but also Gould’s descriptions of Greenwich Village night life in such venues as Eli Greifer’s Last Outpost of Bohemia Tea Shoppe, and discursive essays on a variety of Gouldian preoccupations – the zipper as a sign of the decay of civilisation; the emasculating effect of the typewriter on literature. At the end of the essay we learn that Gould has been refused membership of the Raven Poetry Circle: he is rejected, an outcast.

Mitchell was always drawn to those marked out as different, to anyone excluded from the circle of the majority. A lady with a beard. A child prodigy. A group of deaf-mutes. Gypsies. His characters are often stared at or consider themselves abnormal. Jane Barnell, the bearded lady, admin to being a freak: ‘When I get the blues,’ she says, ‘I feel like an outcast from society.’ When deaf-mutes converse with one another in sign language, Mitchell is told, ‘they are stared at as if they had escaped from the zoo.’ Philippa Schuyler, the child prodigy, is stared at by classmates when she snacks on a cup of raw peas. In the short story ‘Goodbye, Shirley Temple’, a woman called Peggy has ‘a large birthmark on her left cheek’; a child stares at this mark and asks if she can touch it Mitchell will later compare Joe Gould to the Ancient Mariner and the Wandering Jew: he is ‘a banished man’.

Mitchell himself figures in all these stories as a solitary and a wanderer. ‘Mr Hunter’s Grave’ begins: ‘When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.’ When, in ‘Up in the Old Hotel’, Mitchell writes, ‘Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market,’ the echo of the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick is unmistakable: ‘Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul ... then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.’ The echo is telling, for Melville had given his narrator the name of Abraham’s illegitimate son, Ishmael, the archetype of outcasts and banished men.

Mitchell acknowledged this seam of self-portraiture. ‘It turns out,’ he would say on rereading his work, ‘when I look at these things, just about everybody is me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I interviewed people like me.’ In the Author’s Note that serves as the introduction to the omnibus collection Up in the Old Hotel (1992), Mitchell refers to the ‘graveyard humour’ he detects in the stories. He is pleased to discover this, he says, ‘because graveyard humour is an exemplification of the way I look at the world. It typifies my cast of mind.’ He mentions his enthusiasm for the morbid engravings of the Mexican artist José Posada. He recalls childhood expeditions to the Scottish Presbyterian cemeteries of North Carolina, cemeteries ‘out in the middle of fields – usually in a grove of cedars and magnolias and usually surrounded by an old wreck of a cast-iron fence’.

He never lost his enthusiasm for graveyards. We find him loitering in cemeteries in both ‘Mr Hunter’s Grave’ and ‘The River-men’. In ‘The Mohawks in High Steel’, Mitchell pays special attention to the Catholic and Protestant graveyards on the Caugh-nawaga reservation in Quebec. And his stories are littered with intimations of death. Tommy Kelly, an employee at McSorley’s, quits his job as the night-watchman in a Brooklyn funeral parlour when a corpse speaks to him. Captain Campion, the NYPD’s expert on Gypsies, ‘often reflects on death’. The Rev. Hall tells Mitchell: ‘Every step you take, Death walks right behind you. No matter how fat and sassy you may be, you’re living every second on the lip of the grave.’ Mr Flood has ‘a nagging fear of the hereafter’. His friend Mr Bethea, an embalmer, is also terrified of death: ‘Every time I think about it in connection with myself, I tremble all over.’ When Mr Flood is told that he looks ‘a bit pale’, he reacts as if to a sting: ‘Coffins! Undertakers! Hearses! Funeral Parlours! Cemeteries!’

In ‘Up in the Old Hotel’, Mitchell turns an essay into an allegory of death, a glimpse of the other side. Louis Morino, a restaurateur in the neighbourhood of Fulton Fish Market, has never been to the upper floors of the building he has rented for 22 years. He is frightened of the old-fashioned elevator: the cage makes him think ‘of a coffin, the inside of a coffin’. Mitchell tells Louis that he’ll go up in the cage with him. They get flashlights, put on hard hats and work the ancient rope-pull elevator, and they find themselves in the reading room and corridors and bedrooms of the Fulton Ferry Hotel. The coffin elevator has brought them to this gloomy place. Louis cannot wait to get back down to earth: ‘Sin, death, dust, old empty rooms, old empty whiskey bottles, old empty bureau drawers. Come on, pull the rope faster! Pull it fester! Let’s get out of this.’

Mitchell registers this kind of gloom with conspicuous frequency. Repose, he says, ‘comes easy in a gloomy place’. He likes ‘to sit in the gloomy, mouldy basement’ that houses Captain Charley’s museum. Eddie Guest is ‘a gloomy, defeated, ex-Greenwich Village poet’. The bearded lady’s face is ‘round and gloomy’. Joe Gould prefers the genealogy room to the main reading room in the New York Public Library ‘because it is gloomier’. These may be chance repetitions, or they may amount to a signature image that throws light on the author’s ‘cast of mind’. Either way, Mitchell picked out the shadows even in his brightest scenes.

‘Joe Gould’s Secret’ (1964) is the sequel and shadow of ‘Professor Sea Gull’. Mitchell wrote this second profile of Gould in the knowledge that, after a spell in psychiatric wards, his subject had died in the Pilgrim State Hospital in 1957. Mitchell recalls their encounters: Gould always wandering, ‘almost always alone’, clutching his portfolio, flitting in and out of the saloons on Lower Sixth Avenue. He adds details missing from the earlier profile, details which present Gould in a less favourable light. We learn that he was a thief who stole books from bookstores and sold them to secondhand bookstores, and even stole from friends. The benign eccentric of ‘Professor Sea Gull’ is now described as ‘nonsensical and bumptious and inquisitive and gossipy and mocking and sarcastic and scurrilous’. Mitchell has changed his tune.

Going over the notes he made about his dealings and conversations with Gould, Mitchell comes across a letter in which Gould refers to a portrait painted of him by an artist called Alice Neel. Mitchell seeks out the painter and visits her studio. The ‘underground masterpiece’ to which the letter had referred shows Gould sitting on a bench, naked: ‘He had one set of male sexual organs in the proper place, another set was growing from where his navel should have been, and still another set was growing from the wooden bench.’ The expression on Gould’s face is one Mitchell remembers as typical: ‘half satanic and half silly’.

Blithe, impish Joe Gould is no longer quite so harmless. Now he is remembered in images that elicit disgust more often than affection: ‘His face was greenish gray, and the right side of his mouth twitched involuntarily. His eyes were bloodshot ... His beard was unkempt, and around his mouth cigarette smoke had stained it yellow.’ He is boastful and ungrateful and coarse. His voice is ‘nasal’. His manner is ‘leering’ and ‘condescending’. His ‘deceptively blank expression’ reminds Mitchell of ‘the faces of old freaks sitting on the platforms in freak shows’. Many people, Gould admits, ‘loathe’ and ‘despise’ him.

Mitchell also tells us more about the ‘Oral History’. Far from being encyclopedic, what Mitchell has read of the book ‘bore no relation at all that I could see to the “Oral History” as Gould had described it’. Gould’s output seems limited to several versions of an essay on the death of his father, an essay satirising statistics, and a short memoir of his time spent with the Chippewa Indians. Mitchell remembers how Gould would insist that the bulk of the ‘Oral History’ was ‘stored away in a place that’s quite inaccessible’.

So ‘Joe Gould’s Secret’ starts to raise questions. First: where is the ‘Oral History’? Then: does it exist at all? Mitchell remembers how Gould had ‘recited’ parts of the book to him. He remembers meetings with Gould that lasted for ten hours – meetings during which he realised that Gould was coming to depend on him, as if Mitchell’s interest were a validation which Gould could now not do without. He becomes a nuisance, then a leech. And after ‘Professor Sea Gull’ is published, Gould will not leave Mitchell alone. He turns up at his office two or three times a week, his clothes smelling of ‘the fumigants and disinfectants used in flophouses’. It is as if a novelist’s unpleasant creation had stepped out of his work and into his world, and then refused to return to the safe house of the page.

Mitchell decides that the best way to get Gould off his back is to get a publisher interested in the ‘Oral History’. He calls friends in the literary world. He sets up meetings with publishing houses. But Gould does not make things easy: he breaks appointments; he does not consider the firm of Harcourt, Brace ‘good enough’ to publish him. He refuses to produce the complete manuscript, offering one lame excuse after another. Mitchell begins to suspect that the ‘Oral History’ does not exist outside Joe Gould’s imagination.

The idea of a great book, envisioned but never set down, reminds Mitchell of a novel he himself had planned to write in his twenties. The novel was to be about a young man who, like Mitchell, came to New York from the South to work as a reporter. The man grows fond of Fulton Fish Market and the city’s cemeteries. One day he hears a street preacher whose rhetoric reminds him of the fundamentalist evangelists of his Southern childhood – preachers whose sermons had left him ‘with a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the apocalyptic’.

Mitchell had dreamed about this novel but never written it. So he cannot blame Gould for the grand figment of the ‘Oral History’. He recognises something of himself in this wanderer who loved the voices of New York City, whose masterpiece remained a marvellous idea. ‘Joe Gould’s Secret’, which appeared on 26 September 1964, was the last piece Mitchell ever published. He went into work at the New Yorker almost every day for the next 31 years and six months but submitted nothing further.