All I Can Stand
- Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the ‘New Yorker’ by Thomas Kunkel
Random House, 384 pp, £22.50, April 2015, ISBN 978 0 375 50890 5
Joseph Mitchell of Fairmont, North Carolina lived one of the classic American lives: dreamy boy in a Southern town with a mother interested in the finer things, read a zillion books in college following no particular plan, decided he was going to get a newspaper job in New York City and become a writer, and by God did. He’d been thinking about New York since a visit in 1918 when he was ten. After one look at the bustling city he told his father: ‘This is for me.’ His father was not pleased then or later. At the World-Telegram while Mitchell was still in his twenties, the paper liked his stories so much they put his photo up on the side of their delivery trucks. The year he turned thirty the city’s most ambitious magazine, the New Yorker, hired him away. Two years after that, in the annus mirabilis of 1940, Mitchell published three stories of the hard to describe but unforgettable kind that give a writer a reputation for life: ‘Mazie’, about a woman who sold tickets in a skidrow movie theatre; ‘Lady Olga’, about the sideshow life of a bearded woman; and ‘The Old House at Home’, about a neighbourhood tavern that had been selling ale mainly to elderly gents with Irish names since 1854.
Mitchell wrote a lot of other great stories, too – ‘fact pieces’, the New Yorker called them – and over time a growing body of devoted readers made him about as famous as a writer who never earns a lot of money can be. The last of his fact pieces was ‘Joe Gould’s Secret’, about a Greenwich Village character who claimed for decades that he was writing an epic oral history of our time, but wasn’t. The Gould piece was published in 1964. Mitchell died in 1996. What Mitchell was doing during that final 32 years – he went to the office every day, fellow staffers said they could hear him typing, he met annually with editors to describe what he was working on – is the central challenge faced by Thomas Kunkel in his new life of the writer, Man in Profile. Kunkel found references to several possible projects: a big New York novel in the manner of James Joyce whom Mitchell admired above all other moderns; a life and times of a smart and funny woman who hung out with New Yorker writers and married one of them; a big personality piece about an Italian carter named Joe Cantalupo who was a fixture of the Fulton Fish Market, subject of some of Mitchell’s best writing. Mitchell took all these projects seriously for a time. But the project that was connected most closely to his name during his final decades was a book variously described as a memoir of growing up in North Carolina, a small piece of which he actually wrote; or a book about his father, which is what he told quite a few people, including me.
Here I ought to digress to say that Joe Mitchell and his wife, Therese, lived across the street from my future wife, Candace, while she was growing up in New York City. The Mitchells had moved into 44 West 10th Street, Kunkel tells me, in 1942. I remember a smallish, two-bedroom apartment, sixth floor rear. The next year rents were fixed by federal law to prevent wartime gouging by landlords and for many decades thereafter the Mitchells and a lot of other New Yorkers lived in ‘rent control apartments’, which meant rents could be raised only minuscule amounts, which meant that in effect they grew cheaper and cheaper. In time a rent control apartment was as good as a bequest from a rich uncle. But the odds are good that the Mitchells would have stayed put anyhow; Mitchell disliked change, ever more deeply as the years passed. Some landlords tried to drive tenants out but not Mitchell’s, a slender Belgian named Schwenger, who looked a little like a poet, and lived in the building with his dark-haired, smartly dressed wife and his little boy, who seemed as delicate as a sparrow. The Mitchells were there in the 1960s when Candace and I met and married and moved into her house at 43 West 10th, and they were still there in 1982 when we moved out of the city. Mitchell never left, except for visits home to North Carolina which gradually lengthened after the death of his father, and in the usual, final way that all of us leave, as Mitchell himself might have put it.
It was Candace’s mother, Barbara Bancroft, who introduced me to Mitchell. Everybody knew everybody back then. I was in Mitchell’s apartment once or twice – something to do with Christmas – but just about all our conversations took place in the street or in the lobby of 44, where I often came and went around drink time on a visit to one of Barbara’s friends, Ruth Tremain, who had taught maths to Army Air Corps pilots at Yale during the war. She was a strong chess player and we played often while I was writing a piece about Bobby Fischer. Because I had married Candace, on whom Ruth doted, she let me win a few games, but that didn’t last long. Ruth knew Joe Mitchell, of course. He and I had a long talk in her apartment one year when Ruth invited people in to watch the annual Halloween parade from her apartment windows overlooking 10th Street.
All during the 1970s I saw Joe once or twice a month, and after I started to write for magazines he never failed to mention anything of mine he happened to see. He was a creature of habit. His daughter, Nora, once said that church bells made her sad because all through her childhood her father left home every morning at nine o’clock and returned at six, at the very moment, twice a day, when the bells were being rung at the Church of the Ascension on the corner of 10th Street and Fifth Avenue. At 9 a.m. I was generally coming back from taking my daughters to school and often ran into Joe as he was heading out of the door for the New Yorker, dressed in suit and tie with overcoat in three seasons of the year and wearing a fedora in all. He returned in the evening around six, his tie still up snug but with his fedora hat cocked a little back at the end of the day. Since he remarked on what I was up to I naturally asked him what he was working on. He told me he was writing a book about his father, which did not seem at all strange to me. I wanted to do the same thing. There was nothing tentative about the way he said it, so naturally I often asked how his book about his father was coming along. I suppose he told other people roughly what he said to me. He had an odd speaking style; in a good humour he would kind of wrinkle up his nose and snuffle in amusement. But when I asked about the book about his dad he would grow serious, his voice would slow and drop, and he would report with grave seriousness that it was coming along slowly. He never said anything to me that suggested he had run into a wall. I was expecting that book to appear any time now until Mitchell died in 1996. I wanted to know how he was going to make the book work.
Mitchell’s father, Averette Nance Mitchell, lived into his nineties and for a time was arguably the biggest man in Robeson County, North Carolina. Mitchells had been active in North Carolina since the 1750s; some of the Nances had owned as many as a hundred slaves before the Civil War, and while Averette, according to his son Joseph, refused to use or tolerate the word ‘nigger’, he like his neighbours never quarrelled with the town’s provision of separate restrooms and drinking fountains for Whites, Negroes and Indians. The last were mainly Lumbees, who were treated like Negroes, or maybe a little worse. Unlike his son, whose posture revealed no appetite for command, Averette always stood straight as a cadet at West Point until the last years of his long life. He was Southern in the stiff-necked way of men who answer to no one, who expect to be called ‘sir’, who make up their minds and don’t change them, who brace up to challenge and don’t hesitate to fetch a pistol when they think they might need it. As Averette prospered he built a large, comfortable house with a wrap-around porch for his family, and then built a second just like it next door where one of his sons eventually lived. At one point Averette was farming six thousand acres of cotton and tobacco with the help of fifty tenant farmers. He built his own warehouses to store his crops, became a factor buying and selling for the market, kept free of heavy debt, and counted on his three sons to carry on when he was gone.
Averette Nance Mitchell ruled the house in the manner of a Southern patriarch but it was Joe Mitchell’s mother who had more to do with forming the taste and character of the man Joe became. Elizabeth Parker Mitchell, called Betty, was the first on either side of the family to earn a college degree (Southern Presbyterian in Red Springs, North Carolina) and she wanted her children to feel they were part of the larger world. She subscribed to dozens of magazines and encouraged her son Joe to become a reader, which did not take much pushing. As a child, he loved the obvious things like Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild and The Oregon Trail, but his favourite novel was the now mostly forgotten Lorna Doone, about a farm boy in love with a girl related to the man who murdered his father.
Reading was half of Joe’s life. The other half was the natural world beyond his dooryard. Once his parents trusted him to keep shy of snakes and alligators, he was left free to poke about alone among the swamps and creek bottoms, closely inspecting all the creatures that walked, crawled, swam or flew in Robeson County. He devoured the book of nature as avidly as he did Lorna Doone. The passion for knowing and naming things stuck with him for life. In one of his New Yorker pieces, ‘Mr Hunter’s Grave’, he named nine of the ten kinds of weed that he found choked around a tall marble gravestone in the cemetery of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in a little community called Sandy Ground on the south shore of Staten Island. They were poison ivy, cat brier, trumpet creeper, wild hop, blackberry, morning glory, climbing false buckwheat, partridgeberry and fox grape. The tenth he couldn’t identify. Growing over other graves were milkweed, knotweed, ragweed, Jimson weed, pavement weed, catchfly, Jerusalem oak, bedstraw, goldenrod, cocklebur, butter-and-eggs, dandelion, bouncing Bet, mullein, partridge pea, beggar’s lice, sandspur, wild garlic, wild mustard, wild geranium, old-field cinquefoil, cinnamon fern and lady fern. Mitchell might have written that the cemetery was overgrown with weeds and left it at that, but he didn’t. It was in this wilderness of weeds and wildflowers that Mr George H. Hunter, whose mother had been born a slave, wished to place his grave.
Mitchell’s interest in cemeteries was another relic of childhood that he brought with him to the writer’s life in New York City. He was kin by blood or marriage to people buried in cemeteries all over Robeson and Scotland Counties and his father and mother seemed to know something about all of them. But the person who knew most was his mother’s sister, Aunt Annie Parker Lytch, who always led a tour of the Iona Presbyterian Church cemetery after the annual church picnic had concluded with watermelons. Aunt Annie was cheerful but frank.
‘The man buried here,’ she would say, ‘was a cousin of ours, and he was so mean I don’t know how his family stood him. And this man here,’ she would continue, moving along a few steps, ‘was so good I don’t know how his family stood him.’ And then she would become more specific. Some of the things she told us were horrifying and some were horrifyingly funny.
Mitchell said those cemetery walks with Aunt Annie gave him a ‘graveyard … cast of mind’. He liked to hear about all his Mitchell, Parker and Nance relatives going back a hundred years, just as he liked to poke about the swamps and creek bottoms, be free to read whatever and whenever he liked and to live in a town where people all knew who he was and spoke of his father in tones of respect. But one aspect of traditional Southern life Mitchell didn’t like. There was no escaping church in a Southern town, and what you heard there depended on where you went. Averette Mitchell’s people were all Southern Baptists. He let his wife take the girls to the local Presbyterian Church, which fell short of the full Baptist obsession with an angry God, but Averette insisted that Joe and his brothers join him on Sunday mornings in Fairmont’s First Baptist Church, which made no secret of what it thought was important: we preach Jesus Christ crucified risen and coming again. Boomed out in sermons was no-nonsense description of God’s determination to punish those who broke his laws with eternal torment in a fiery hell.
Planted early and repeated often this dark theology can be hard to shake. Some Southerners after they grow up and move north leave the Baptist horrors behind, but not Mitchell. I would say that he did not really believe that stuff but it stuck with him; it became part of his cast of mind. He seldom spoke openly about these unsettling fears but they had a way of getting into some of his New Yorker pieces. Ellery Thompson, a dragger captain out of Stonington, Connecticut, confesses in one Mitchell piece that he may look serene but he’s dreading something. ‘What?’ a sceptical woman asks. ‘I don’t know,’ says Ellery. ‘I wish to God I did know.’ He was raised Baptist but gets along without it. ‘I used to go to church,’ he adds, ‘just to hear the good old hymns, but the sermons finally drove me away.’
Another stand-in for Mitchell was ‘Old Mr Flood’, a character he confessed later was a ‘composite’ based on several different men he had known around the Fulton Fish Market; any reader of Kunkel will understand that one of Flood’s originals was Mitchell himself. He gave Flood his own birthday, for example – 27 July – but more to the point were Flood’s love of the physical city right down to the architectural ornament, an obsession likewise of Mitchell’s; Flood’s refusal to follow the family business, as Mitchell had done; and Flood’s plain speaking about the torments of a Baptist upbringing, which Mitchell could never bring himself to confess in a plain flat way. Flood
comes of a long line of Baptists and has a nagging fear of the hereafter … He broods about religion and reads a chapter of the Bible practically every day. Even so, he goes to church only on Easter … For at least a week thereafter he is gloomy and silent. ‘I’m a God-fearing man,’ he says, ‘and I believe in Jesus Christ crucified, risen and coming again, but one sermon a year is all I can stand.’
‘Old Mr Flood’ was published in 1944, when Mitchell was still in his mid-thirties, a time when men often think that they have got everything sorted out and under control. But 25 years later, a few months after Mitchell turned sixty, he had a crazy dream that came straight out of the preaching in Fairmont’s First Baptist Church:
I was standing on the muddy bank of a stream … near my home in North Carolina … I was fishing for red-fin pikes … I was intent on what I was doing and oblivious to everything else. And then I happened to look up, and I saw that the bridge was on fire. And then I saw that the mud on the opposite bank was on fire. And then I saw that the mud on the opposite bank was beginning to quiver and bubble and spit like lava and that smoke and flames were beginning to rise from it. And then, a few moments later, while I was standing there, staring, fish and alligators and snakes and muskrats and mud turtles and bullfrogs began floating down the stream, all belly-up, and I realised that the central stream of Old Field Swamp had turned into one of the rivers of Hell.
Mitchell woke up from his dream at about 4 o’clock in the morning of Friday, 4 October 1968. Four years had already passed since the publication of his previous piece for the New Yorker, ‘Joe Gould’s Secret’, but the dry spell had not got anybody worried yet – Mitchell often took his sweet time writing a piece, and the magazine’s editor, William Shawn, was never one to press a question, or even ask one in a voice above a whisper. Mitchell thought of his dream as marking the exact day ‘I began living in the past,’ but that, it could be argued, was a natural step for a man writing a book about growing up in the South, or about his father, whichever it turned out to be.
Kunkel met Joe Mitchell while he was researching a biography of Harold Ross, the founder of the New Yorker, published in 1995 under the title Genius in Disguise. A couple of years later he decided to follow the Ross book with a Life of Mitchell, ‘remembered too much’, in Kunkel’s opinion, ‘for what he hadn’t written – the wilderness years of his late career – instead of for what he had’. Man in Profile has two great strengths. One is Kunkel’s impressively broad and intuitive feel for Mitchell’s inner life, which Mitchell didn’t make easy. He found a lot of things painful to think about, starting with his father, and like his father he did not like to speak about himself. But Kunkel made good use of what he learned from Mitchell’s daughters and friends and the result is a richly persuasive portrait of a man who cared about everybody and everything.
The second great strength of Kunkel’s biography is its emphasis on writing. This might sound inevitable in recounting the life of a writer but it’s not. Subject is what obsesses a lot of them, not how to say what needs to be said about a thing. Mitchell wrote with careful deliberation and talked about it well. There’s nothing tricky about Mitchell’s approach. He builds a narrative around scenes with increasingly strong emotional content, leading the reader down a circuitous path until the core of the story is finally revealed. His special gift was to extract strong feeling from common things like shad fishing, or running a movie theatre, or having an ale in a familiar place at the end of the day. Kunkel’s view of the wilderness years was shared by Mitchell’s colleagues. ‘Why didn’t he write more?’ Philip Hamburger, one of Mitchell’s friends at the New Yorker, asked. ‘Well, he wrote enough.’
The great bulk of Mitchell’s work can be found in the 718-page omnibus volume, Up in the Old Hotel, published by Pantheon four years before Mitchell’s death, and it is enough. The first thing to stress about Mitchell as a writer is that it is no work to read him; his pieces are funny, full of surprise and intensely interesting. Among the good ones are ‘The Old House at Home’, about Old John McSorley and his son Old Bill, who founded and carried on McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York’s East Village; the already described ‘Mazie’ and ‘Lady Olga’; and ‘The Mohawks in High Steel’, which, along with much else, is one of the best things ever written about what it is like to be an American Indian. The really good Mitchell pieces take matters a step further, conveying something of the disoriented feelings that rise up in a man when he looks plainly at the meaning of his life and his place in the universe. The very best of the really good ones are ‘Up in the Old Hotel’, ‘The Rivermen’ and ‘Mr Hunter’s Grave’. Mitchell’s reputation rests solidly on the good stuff, and while Kunkel was certainly interested in the reasons Mitchell didn’t finish his final project, and tried hard to find out, in the end he was willing to let it go. Maybe, he writes, there is something in what Mitchell’s friends said: ‘he has turned into such a perfectionist that nothing he produces is good enough for him.’
Maybe. But the impression left by Mitchell’s work over the years is not of a man growing ever more fastidious, but of a man slipping into despair. Some of Mitchell’s distress was routine late life depression with the usual causes. The biggest among these was the death of his wife, Therese, at seventy in Fairmont in 1980 from cancer, but other losses bit deep as well. The old crowds at the World-Telegram, at the Herald Tribune hangout called Bleeck’s, at McSorley’s – ‘worlds within worlds’, Mitchell called them – were thinning towards oblivion. ‘Of the many,’ Mitchell increasingly felt, ‘I am the only one left.’
But there was no single or even chief source of Mitchell’s sorrow. He had been dealing with this for years. Take the first sentence of ‘Up in the Old Hotel’, with its deliberate echo of the opening of Moby-Dick: ‘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.’ It was 1944 and the war was on, but that’s not what Mitchell had in mind. The Old Hotel was a six-storey building with one of Mitchell’s favourite restaurants on the ground floor, Sloppy Louie’s, a fish place run by his friend Louis Morino. The piece tells us much about Louis’s life in the food business, about the old Dutch family that owned the building, and about the place of the Fulton Market in the city’s life, but be not deceived. Mitchell is working his way around to the upper storeys of the building, formerly a hotel, which Louis has never seen. An old hand-powered, dumbwaiter-style elevator is the only way up. Nobody knows what’s up there. Louis is afraid to go alone. Mitchell agrees to go up with him, but what they find terrifies Louis: ‘Sin, death, dust, old empty rooms, old empty whiskey bottles, old empty bureau drawers. Come on! … Let’s get out of this.’
Mitchell is a master of the bait and switch. ‘The Rivermen’ (1959) might be about the town of Edgewater, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from upper Manhattan; or it might be about the graveyard of abandoned ships and barges in the mudflats along the New Jersey side, or it might be about the longtime Edgewater resident Harry Lyons, who knows the town and the river, or it might be about the annual spring migration of shad up the Hudson to spawn, and the immense effort of Harry and others to set up nets to catch the shad that they will box up and sell down at the Fulton Fish Market. But it’s not about those things. It’s about the visit one spring afternoon to Harry’s fishing barge by Joe Hewitt, a fellow in late middle life from an old Edgewater family. Hewitt has done well in just about everything he has turned his hand to, but he is a gloomy sort of fellow just the same. With him he has brought a friend who knows nothing of shad fishing so Harry delivers the basic 101 shad course while some schoolgirls just outside are skipping to an ancient song – ‘Doctor, Doctor, will I die? Yes my child, and so will I.’
We quickly learn that shad fishing is not what the old-timers are really thinking about as they listen to Harry. The skipping song has shifted their attention and Joe Hewitt takes it a step further. While Harry has been lecturing, Hewitt has been brooding over a photograph on the wall of a big fish bake taken only a year or two earlier. The men in the photo are all well-known Fulton Street fishmongers holding up beers and smiling at the camera, Hewitt among them. He starts to point out the men who are already dead. It’s quite a list with a question at the end that the others cannot face. ‘When I was young, I had the idea death was for other people,’ Hewitt concludes. ‘Now I’m an old man, and what I want to know is, what was the purpose of it?’
Harry tries to cheer him up with something his grandfather used to say.
‘You can’t talk your way out,’ he said, ‘and you can’t buy your way out, and you can’t shoot your way out, and the only thing that mitigates the matter in the slightest is the fact that nobody else is going to escape. Nobody – no, not one.’
‘I know, I know,’ said Mr Hewitt, ‘but what’s the purpose of it?’
Mitchell fell silent in 1964. It took a while for people to notice. The year before his mother had died, and a few months later she was followed into the grave by Mitchell’s closest friend since their meeting at the World-Telegram in 1931, A.J. Liebling. Mitchell and Liebling, the other great writer of fact pieces for the New Yorker, had lots to talk about. Both wanted to write fiction, but didn’t. Both loved the classic writers of low-life – George Borrow, William Cobbett, François Villon, Laurence Sterne, Rabelais. Liebling, a secular New York Jew, was fascinated by the history of Christian controversy – how Baptists got to be Baptists, among other things – but he disliked it when Mitchell in his cups would deliver mock sermons in the classic Baptist style. Both loved long palaver over food and drinks: oysters in the Washington Market, pigeons at the Du Midi, drinks at Costello’s, mixing with friends at Bleeck’s, an Italian place called The Red Devil; certain cheap Italian restaurants in basements where they ordered sheep’s heads and ate everything, including the eyes. Mitchell ate too much when he was with Liebling, and sometimes he drank too much more generally, followed by periods when he didn’t drink at all. Liebling always ate and drank too much. He was so fat by the end of his life that friends had to walk behind him on city sidewalks. In Liebling’s last weeks he was fitfully collecting materials for a piece about the Kennedy assassination. Liebling’s life ended in a mood much like Mitchell’s but sooner. A kind of crash senescence carried him off a few days after Christmas in 1963. Mitchell delivered his eulogy, stressing that Liebling was not really dead because his books would live on after him.
Fifteen years of acute political, racial and social conflict brought the United States to the edge of nervous collapse following the killing of Kennedy but Mitchell took no writerly notice of any of it. What troubled and saddened him was the death of the city around him, beginning with a grand old structure purpose built for artists’ studios right across 10th Street. Its wide, high-ceilinged rooms with northern light had been home since 1858 to a procession of American painters, including some of the greats: Winslow Homer, Frederic Church, John La Farge and William Merritt Chase. But the ground under the Tenth Street Studios had grown too valuable for painters. On a Thursday in November 1955 plans were announced to build apartments on the site and promptly the following Monday, as Mitchell would have been walking out of the front door of number 44, demolition workers were bashing down the studios. Facing the wrecking ball next, half a block away at the corner of 10th Street and Sixth Avenue, was the brick, Victorian-Gothic Jefferson Market Courthouse with its commanding clock tower. The city wanted to tear it down along with the adjoining Women’s House of Detention, an improbably handsome Art Deco building which Mitchell had passed every morning for many years while walking his daughters Nora and Elizabeth to school. Above them as they passed, prisoners at the barred windows could often be heard shouting down to their boyfriends in the street below. An eight-year struggle saved the courthouse, at least, but old buildings were disappearing all over the city, none more shockingly than Pennsylvania Station, a McKim, Meade and White structure as imposing as the Colosseum. It disappeared the year Liebling died, and the Women’s House of Detention was demolished at last in 1974. Mitchell involved himself in many of these battles which were mostly won by ‘the god damn sons of bitches’ (a favourite epithet, according to his daughter Nora) who wanted the land the buildings sat on. After his daughters grew up and moved away he started to fill the apartment with relics of the old city he collected on his endless walks – door hinges, nails, bottles, bits of stonework, doorknobs, bricks, drawer pulls, bronze taps, the tarnished brass street numbers above doorways. Once or twice he was guilty of breaking and entering to get something he wanted from a building awaiting demolition. All of it was precious to Mitchell, who liked old things generally in the way of people who have never quite left behind the attachments of childhood. But none of that mattered to Averette Nance Mitchell, who never had much good to say about his first-born son’s New York life.
The two men had roughly nothing in common. They were father and son, and both habitually wore hats, and both were devoted to Betty Parker Mitchell, but it stopped there. When Joe told his father in 1929 that he was going to New York City to find a newspaper job, his father said: ‘Son, is that the best you can do? – sticking your nose into other people’s business?’ Averette was not happy about Joe’s marriage to Therese, either, although he warmed to her in time. Joe was never entirely at ease in his father’s company. Age had not slowed Averette’s quick temper nor dulled his sharp tongue. ‘He is still able to make an offhand remark,’ Joe wrote in his sixties in one of the notes he was slowly accumulating for the book he planned to write, ‘and cut me to pieces.’ Sometimes the two men quarrelled. On one occasion as they were sitting on the porch in Fairmont, Joe got so angry at something his father said on the subject of civil rights that he jumped up and kicked some spindles out of the railing that ran around the porch. The tension between them lasted into the last moments of Averette’s life. ‘I wanted his respect,’ Joe told a hometown reporter in 1992, when he was close to the end of his own life, ‘and I believe I got it.’
Mitchell didn’t regret his move north to New York City, but he was so homesick when he got there that he promptly subscribed to the daily paper back home, the Robesonian, to keep up with the local news. The tug of home never left him, and he went on doing pretty much the same things in New York that he had liked in early life. ‘When things get too much for me,’ he began one of his New Yorker stories, ‘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.’ The wild flowers were mainly an excuse. ‘After I have spent an hour or so in one of these cemeteries,’ he continued, ‘looking at gravestone designs and reading inscriptions and identifying wild flowers and scaring rabbits out of the weeds and reflecting on the end that awaits me and awaits us all, my spirits lift, I become quite cheerful, and then I go for a long walk.’
On one such expedition a local minister on Staten Island told him there was a particularly rich sampling of wild flowers in the half-abandoned cemetery in Sandy Ground, a hundred-year-old south shore community founded by free blacks, where the man to see was Mr George H. Hunter, a skilled baker of pies and cakes, a great Bible reader and the possessor of a long memory (he had been born in 1869) who knew the history of the town and the people in it and, more particularly, the local names of all the weeds and wild flowers.
Mitchell followed this advice, made a friend of Mr Hunter, knew him for many years, talked to him often, and during one of those conversations picked up something that brought Mr Hunter to life in his mind. In the 1980s Mitchell explained how he went about things to a professor called Norman Sims. What Mitchell waited for was ‘the revealing remark’, the thing a subject told him that came up from his unconscious and surprised both of them. Mr Hunter’s revealing remark touched on an incident during his early life when for several years he was a drunkard. One day, standing in a grocery store, Mr Hunter told Mitchell, he saw his mother outside. ‘I just caught a glimpse of her face through the store window as she walked past, and she didn’t know anybody was looking at her, and she had a horrible hopeless look on her face.’ About a week later, Mr Hunter remembered that look just as he was pulling the cork out of a whiskey bottle. ‘The best way I can explain it,’ he told Mitchell, ‘my gorge rose. I got mad at myself … I poured the whiskey on the ground … And I never drank another drop. I wanted to many a time, many and many a time, but I tightened my jaw against myself, and I stood it off. When I look back, I don’t know how I did it, but I stood it off, I stood it off.’
With that Mitchell knew he had a story. ‘Mr Hunter’s Grave’, published in 1956, covers a great deal of ground but all the while Mitchell is making his slow way towards the thing he really wants to put on paper. The final scene finds the two men in the Sandy Ground cemetery one day while Mr Hunter is clearing the weeds and the wild flowers from his second wife’s grave. He doesn’t really see much purpose in gravestones. ‘They come under the heading of what the old preacher called vanity,’ he tells Mitchell. ‘And by the old preacher I mean Ecclesiastes.’ Half the stones in the Sandy Ground cemetery are so weathered you can’t read the names. ‘What difference does it make?’ Mr Hunter asks. ‘When the time comes the dead are raised,’ he says. ‘He knows where they are; He knows the exact whereabouts of every speck of dust of every one of them.’
But even so Mr Hunter is irritated with the man who dug his second wife’s grave. The gravedigger was supposed to go down an extra two feet so that Mr Hunter, when the time came, could be buried in the same plot. But the gravedigger didn’t do it. What irritates Mr Hunter – indeed, more than irritates him – is the fact that his name has already been carved on his second wife’s gravestone; and the fact the man didn’t do what he said he would, and the fact that Mr Hunter had wanted to lie with his wife. ‘Instead of which,’ he says, walking over to an adjacent spot, ‘I’ll be buried over here in this grave.’ ‘Ah, well,’ he adds. ‘It won’t make any difference.’
There the piece ends, but something in the reader protests – not make any difference? Well, maybe not to Mr Hunter, who is sure that when the dead are raised he will be among them because God will know where to gather him up. But there is a second sense in which it might make no difference – because there would be no one to remember or care. Mr Hunter’s only son is dead, he is soon to follow, and already most of the hundred-year-old community of blacks living in Sandy Ground has disappeared. To disappear is the common fate and it would have been Mr Hunter’s, too, were it not for one thing – Joe Mitchell’s refusal to let him go. In the way of writers, Mitchell has listened to Mr Hunter, told his story, and stayed the clock.
Mr Hunter is one of the many who live on in Mitchell’s fact pieces, along with Joe Hewitt, Harry Lyons, Old John McSorley and his son Old Bill, Louis Morino, the dragger captain Ellery F. Thompson, Mazie, Lady Olga. Mitchell’s plan had been to include his father on that list, the man he had probably spent more of his life thinking about than any other. ‘I am only now,’ Mitchell wrote in a note to himself when he still thought he might pull it off, ‘beginning to realise what I was writing about in those stories: my father as a Hudson River shad fisherman; my father as an Italian-American restaurant keeper; my father as an old Negro man.’ But Joe Mitchell never talked to his father as he had to the others. He knew him too well. Letting his guard down, talking on at length, trying to get to the bottom of things, telling his son what he really thought – that was the very last thing stiff-necked Averette Nance Mitchell would ever permit himself to do.