The Old Man and the Seafood

Reporter Joseph Mitchell's fiction finally emerges in book form. Pass the cod bladders!

Joseph Mitchell was a reporter. It's tempting to say his beat was the waterfront, but though he's certainly the poet laureate of the Fulton Fish Market, this would be too literal-minded and geographically limiting. His beat was the margins, including the metaphysical margin of life itself. Mitchell invented a temporal dimension for his stories, a strange and twilit place—Mitchell Time—where a density of historical fact and the feeling of whole eras fading from view are sharply juxtaposed with scenes of cinematic immediacy related in the present tense. A cozy aura of death pervades his work, which often features oldsters experiencing the chilling fear of its approach while gleefully playing hide-and-seek with the reaper.

Mitchell arrived in New York City from rural North Carolina in the early '30s, developed his style at several local papers, and then joined The New Yorker, where he had a distinguished career as a contributor and, to a degree, inventor of that magazine's long-form profile. He worked at The New Yorker from 1938 until his death in 1996. That span, during which he was present at the magazine's offices more or less daily, can be divided roughly in half—the time up to 1964, when his work appeared in the magazine's pages, and the long, mysterious episode from 1964 till the end, when his work did not appear. Which is to say, he never published another word. So the Mitchell legacy falls into these two camps, an abundance of work on the one hand, and an extreme practice of Joyce's maxim for a writer: "silence, exile, and cunning." In Mitchell's case the exile occurred in and around his office, where he fielded the polite if exasperated queries from colleagues about what he was working on and if they would soon see a piece. No one ever saw a word.

His substantial body of work, collected in 1992's Up in the Old Hotel, suggests a man allergic to fame and power. Life's nourishment was found in the city's nooks and crannies, where he encountered subjects who, in their own circles, behaved with the self-assertion of the rich and powerful. When Diane Arbus was scouting for freaks to pose for her in the late '60s, she called Mitchell, whom she considered an expert on the subject. The courtly Mitchell spoke to Arbus at length but didn't open his address book for her. Their tendencies as artists were almost diametrically opposed. Arbus could take even an innocent young girl and bring out something ghoulishly lonely about her; her work with more unusual subjects also highlighted their freakishness, even as it humanized them. Mitchell, however, possessed a natural empathy, approaching even his more unusual subjects without condescension. As a result, he could get very private people to open up to him. His idea of research seems to have been to hang around a scene for five or 10 years; when he wrote his pieces, one of the marvels was how effaced the reporter was, often to the point of invisibility.

Mitchell: Silence, exile, and cunning
photo: James Hamilton
Mitchell: Silence, exile, and cunning

He had a flair for finding what Janet Malcolm calls the "Auto-novelist"—people who deliver grand soliloquies on the nature and structure of themselves. And Old Mr. Flood (the eponymous star of a book just published by Macadam/Cage) is one of Mitchell's grandest auto-novelizing characters. I say "character," because, as Mitchell tells us in his introduction, "Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work and hang out in Fulton Fish Market. . . . I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts." One truth, if not fact, about Mr. Flood is that one of the people Joseph Mitchell is writing about seems to be Joseph Mitchell. This might be a matter of passing interest except for the aura of mystery that has always surrounded Mitchell. Part of this mystery is the one surrounding all artists who have made something in an original style, but the other part involves his long period of silence. I have always been obsessed by this silence and that it coincided with the hibernation of another writer affiliated with The New Yorker who also made his reputation in the '40s and '50s and whose vision of the world seemed to center on an emotional sweet spot, a purity of spirit: J.D. Salinger. Salinger's sweet spot was the wise child. Mitchell, by contrast, found his in the obstinate energy that incongruously appeared in people like Mr. Flood and his gang. Both went silent in 1964, the year the Beatles arrived.

Mitchell writes: "For a man past ninety who worked hard in the wet and the wind from boyhood until the age of eighty, he is, in fact, a phenomenon; he has his own teeth, he hears all right, he doesn't wear glasses, his mind seldom wanders, and his appetite is so good that immediately after lunch he begins speculating about what he will have for dinner."

Having a good appetite may be Mitchell's highest praise. But beneath this litany is Mitchell's reiterated theme: We are all survivors. Mr. Flood, aged 93 in the mid 1940s, when these pieces first appeared, is in one respect an extremely contemporary figure—obsessed with food and its implications for a better life. He calls himself a "seafoodetarian," claiming, "When I get through tearing a lobster apart, or one of those tender West Coast octopuses, I feel like I had a drink from the fountain of youth." Mitchell isn't coy with the details of Mr. Flood's diet: "He eats with relish every kind of seafood, including sea-urchin eggs, blowfish tails, winkles, ink squids, and barn door skates. He especially likes an ancient Boston breakfast dish—fried cod tongues, cheeks, and sounds, sounds being the gelatinous air bladders along the cod's backbone."

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