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.
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.”
The book consists of three long stories, none with much of a plot beyond Mr. Flood holding forth about life, often while eating and drinking. The last piece is an account of his 95th birthday party, where there was a lot of drinking to go along with the seafood. There is so much boozing in Old Mr. Flood, described with such merriment and approval, that if Mitchell suddenly became widely read I wouldn’t be surprised if AA issued a reproach to his whole oeuvre.
Mr. Flood is casually but deeply concerned with history, speaking not just about now extinct oyster houses (such as Still’s Oyster and Chop House, Third Avenue between 17th and 18th streets), but about a particular horse named Sam, owned by George Still himself, who opened the place in 1853. If this information sounds a bit obscure to be the thread of a whole book, note that what makes Old Mr. Flood so satisfying is not the information, but the enormous spirited gusts of Joycean declaration on which it is delivered. The wild ramblers and free-associating talkers of Joyce are present in Mitchell’s work, transplanted to the flinty, vanishing waterfront milieu of early-20th-century Manhattan. Mitchell is a pioneer of the long quote in journalism and a master of making it sing.
Here is one of Mr. Flood’s friends posing a question to him: “You’ve got enough money put away you could live high if you wanted to. Why in God’s name do you live in a little box of a room in a back-street hotel and hang out in the fish market when you could go down to Miami, Florida, and sit in the sun?”
“Nobody knows why they do anything,” Mr. Flood explains, and to illustrate this point he launches into a long anecdote involving a New Jersey farmer who has just taken the train to Trenton to pick up his supply of booze. On his way home a drummer sitting across from him on the train asks the farmer the time. The farmer, who has just looked at his watch, will not tell him the time.
” ‘Friend, all I asked was the time of day. It don’t cost anything to tell the time of day.’ ”
Mr. Flood acts the whole thing out, speaking both parts: “If I was to tell you the time of day,” says Mr. Flood, as the farmer, “we’d get into a conversation, and I got a crock of spirits down on the floor between my feet, and in a minute I’m going to take a drink, and if we were having a conversation I’d ask you to take a drink with me, and you would, and presently I’d take another, and I’d ask you to do the same, and you would, and we’d get to drinking, and by and by the train’d pull up to the stop where I get off, and I’d ask you why don’t you get off and spend the afternoon with me, and you would, and we’d walk up to my house and sit on the front porch and drink and sing, and along about dark my old lady would come out and ask you to take supper with us, and you would, and after supper I’d ask if you’d care to drink some more, and you would, and it’d get to be real late and I’d ask you to spend the night in the spare room, and you would, and along about two o’clock in the morning I’d get up to go to the pump, and I’d pass my daughter’s room, and there you’d be, in there with my daughter, and I’d have to turn the bureau upside down and get out my pistol, and my old lady would have to get dressed and hitch up the horse and go down the road and get the preacher, and I don’t want no God-damned son-in-law who don’t own a watch.”
Thomas Beller’s How to Be a Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood (Norton) will appear in August.