There’s an independent bookstore up in Mount Vernon called Scott’s Bookstore. It’s in an old converted brick warehouse or factory and it has a franchise of the local Calico Cupboard restaurant in one half of the vast and woody space. On cloudy, sullen Sundays before Mara was born, Angela and I used to hop in the car (actually, we’d climb up into my old Ford pickup — what I used to call the Buckboard) and hit the long road to Scott’s. We’d lunch at the restaurant, and spend an hour or so perusing books. They always seemed to have the most interesting titles out on the display tables, which surprised me because even though the space is large, an indie store’s inventory has be very selective.
One day I came across a thick paperback collection of all of Joseph Mitchell‘s articles for the New Yorker, Up in the Old Hotel. I had never heard of the man, but the image on the front cover of old windows in a brick-fronted building just tugged at me. I spent much of the next year reading these stories. I’m a very slow reader and none of it is what anyone would ever call a “quick read”. Mitchell wrote for the magazine during the 1920′s, ’30s and ’40s. The stories are interviews with and articles about various persons or groups of people who lived in Lower Manhattan at the time he was writing. Most are eccentric, but Mitchell looks on his often lunatic subjects with a kind of reverence or awe, letting them speak for themselves and rarely if ever passing a judgment. One is a lady named Mazie who sold tickets at a theatre on the Bowery during the Depression and was known by all the bums in the neighborhood because of her generosity toward them. Another is the Don’t Swear Man, and still another is a junk dealer. One story is about the Indians who worked on skyscrapers, stepping around empty space hundreds of feet in the air as gracefully as cats. Many stories are about people who worked the Hudson River as oystermen or fishermen or clammers. My favorite, “Mr. Hunter’s Grave”, is simply about a walk in the countryside outside the city.
The reading of this thick tome was interrupted by several more “exciting” books, not one of which I can now recall the name of, but I kept coming back to these quiet little vignettes of lives and worlds that were disappearing even in Mitchell’s time. He was interviewing crusty old farts whose fathers and mothers had been born during the War Between the States. And he was writing for the most part before World War II changed the topography of American life.
Mitchell’s writing I found to be unlike anything I’d ever read. He wrote in a style that has been called “generous” and even “languid” (although it might have been I who used that word, I’m not sure). A little background: My favorite author when I was 24 was Mark Helprin, the lyricism of whose Winter’s Tale and other novels and short stories seemed to speak to some part of me that wanted to soar. His books were like long poems. When I was 34, I was all about John Barth, who wrote gymnastically, nay acrobatically, using words with such elegant efficiency that it was like watching a juggler of fire and swords. I was constantly awed and amused at the way he used language to point at language. My favorite sentence from my favorite Barth book (The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor), comes after the narrator and his companion meet up with an old friend and are told by that friend that “he had much to tell us”. The next sentence is, “We too him, said we.” I chuckled for a week over that line, wishing I had written it. Barth’s stories were all about story. Stories within stories, stories about storytellers. He eschewed what he called the “Windex” style of writing, where the words are just a transparent window onto plot. (I did too.) Barth preferred what he called the “stained glass” approach, where the words ARE the story. (I did too, and copied his style.) Consequently, nothing much ever happened in most Barth books, especially the later ones, and by my late thirties I had begun to grow tired of the same old “man sailing a boat” routine.
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When I encountered Joseph Mitchell I gradually recognized that I had found my narrative home. Here was a man who not only valued what I valued – folkways and oral history, crooked alleys that predate and ignore the city grid, old eateries and the smell of fish — but he also honored his subjects with the kind of unhurried attention and treatment that has made his essays, decades later, treasures of insight into a time that is now gone. He recounted pages’ worth of oral communication (“torrents of dialog”, as one reviewer put it) from these characters without inserting his presence through even so much as a cough. And he enumerated whole lists of items, such as types of clams that might be found in one corner of the river bottom. But even at the level of his sentences, he was repetitive and expansive and sweet in a way that I first wondered at, the tongue of my mind so long accustomed to the tartness of Barth’s condensed phrasings. Mitchell didn’t take the obvious structural short cuts. In fact, I began to hear a cadence, a long-arc rhythm that the repetition served, and it seemed to harken to Mitchell’s upbringing in rural North Carolina. This storyteller had time. The story wasn’t in a hurry either. The telling would endure itself. The repeated structural elements rocked me into a state of restful attentiveness.
Mitchell was a self-professed loner who, like me, needed lots of walks during his workday. He seemed to be very open to meeting and talking with people, though it was probably one-sided. As a writer teasing out stories to make a living by, he knew how to get others to speak while “laying low” himself, even disappearing in a way. His best stories are about people who just wanted to hear themselves talk anyway, so his own reticence was an asset rather than a liability. Mitchell left us with only five books, all but one of which are collected in Up in the Old Hotel. My favorite is The Bottom of the Harbor. Every so often I go on a Mitchell jag and read one or all of his books again. Several of them have recently been reprinted.
Mitchell’s stories reveal depths of people and of the times they lived in that would have eluded the grasp of the quick, sassy and cynical journalism of today, the kind I was weened on and took part in during my years as a writer for local newspapers and magazines (and which prevails still). His journalism, I think, is so enduring because he left himself out of it, except occasionally to explain what led him to be wandering around in graveyards on the Jersey shore, for example. This humility is gone from popular essay-making today. I thought I was pretty doggone hot with a pen when I was a journalist, but that’s all it was — a blazing pen. Perhaps because of this emphasis on swankiness at the expense of humble inquiry in my own writing, I did not miss it much when my career took me away from essays and articles to corporate copywriting and technical documentation. I do read some blogs (and other published things) that make me smile and laugh because of their smart, hip writing and their drum-thump comic notes, but I don’t feel any compulsion to add to that body of literature. It seems as though much of it will turn out to be ephemeral. Hand-cuffed to a specific time period through its use of lingo and references to fleeting cultural memes, I think a lot of it will be unintelligible after a short time and uninteresting in the long run. I’ve been happy to be a bystander these past years.
It wasn’t until Mitchell that I felt that old pang inside me, that drive to write again, and I truly missed it for the first time. But it was because I saw how it might be done with more integrity and for a more enduring purpose than I had previously practiced the art. Before starting this blog, I had not written creatively for many years, but I had often said that if I were to write again, I would want to write the way Mitchell wrote.
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I’ve told all this by way of giving some insight into why I write the way I do, which many of you may have noticed is not very Internet-friendly. There seems to be a predilection in popular blog-writing toward a hyperactive – dare I say in some ways Barthian — zaniness, as though the writing is desperate to sound fun, even comic. I struggle to avoid mimicking that cheap style, which comes so easy and is nurtured and bolstered every time I use FaceBook (though the irony should be noted that posts on FaceBook and its even more compressed cousin, Twitter, don’t demonstrate the cleverness and zip that they seem to be perfectly suited for). There are any number of easily googled guides to writing for the Internet. At the top of these lists (because they’re always lists) is… use lists. People can scan and ingest lists easily, the logic goes. These guides assume that the world has attention deficit disorder, and also that depth is unwanted on the Internet, in fact that depth is wasted on the Internet.
But I am not writing for the Internet, even though I’m writing on the Internet. I’m writing for myself first, because I have to. And secondly I’m writing for you. And you are Louis, Kip, Marni, my brother Ben and my sister Jeni, my parents, my nephew Scott, some chums at work (Michael and Jon, what ho!), mostly my daughter in the future, even my wife who sits across the living room late some nights waiting for me to finish a post so she can read it on her computer the way others do.
I still don’t write the way I wish I could, the way Joseph Mitchell did. But if you’ve read this far, you now have an idea of what I’m aiming for.
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It’s scarcely imaginable that you’re still awake, but if you are, here are some resources for further reading:
A blog entry from the Williamsburg Regional Library: http://bfgb.wordpress.com/2007/08/07/up-in-the-old-hotel-by-joseph-mitchell/
An excerpt from The Bottom of the Harbor on the Neglected Books Page: http://neglectedbooks.com/?p=46
An excerpt from The Bottom of the Harbor (“Mr. Hunter’s Grave” in full, I think) on Google Books.
*This image of Mitchell appears uncredited all over the Internet but may be by Maryland Stuart.