The only analogy I can think of for what today was like for me is what December 4, 1995 might have been like for Beatles fans, when the surviving Fab (which then still included George Harrison) released the first song that all Four had performed on since “The End” in 1969, despite John Lennon’s having died fifteen years earlier. That song was John’s “Free As a Bird”, which the three living Beatles pulled out of a heap of unreleased demos and added their own voices and playing to (here’s a video of it that for good or ill tacks “The End” on the end). That was a great day whose air I felt privileged to breathe, and I was never even a devoted fan. To witness the release of a new song by the Beatles, and all four of them at that, was to feel the wind from the rushing wheel of history blow the forelock from my brow.
Informed last week by a friend that a never-before-published work by Joseph Mitchell — this boy’s fave — was about to be published in The New Yorker, and informed today that indeed the event was upon us, I rushed out to buy the annual anniversary issue. I couldn’t even wait until lunch. I padded up Post Alley, the back way to the Farmer’s Market, and emerged from the cobbled lower level of Pike Street at the corner of First Avenue, where I found a fresh, thick bunch of the new issue faced out in the front row at First and Pike News, and carefully lifted out the second one back.
“BY JOSEPH MITCHELL” the cover flap read. His byline is in the table of contents for the first time since 1964 (five years before the Beatles’ last released album hit the shelves…think about that!*). Friends, you know this about me…I love the man’s writing, and even though everyone knows that Mitchell was working on something, or many somethings, for the thirty years he continued to go to the magazine’s offices after his last published piece came out, I never really imagined myself actually being able to go and buy an issue of The New Yorker with a new Mitchell piece in it, especially since he had died before I ever even encountered his work.
So there it was in my hands. I paid for the number and hied back down my cobbled lane like one of those burrow spiders who only emerge to catch a small bird or a vole, then drag it back down into their hole. At great peril to my life, given the delivery trucks backing up to the brewery and the Four Seasons Hotel, I flipped through the magazine to find the story and, not finding it because of the stiff inserted ads, consulted the table of contents — page 62 — then opened the spread and saw my literary hero in his Brooks Brothers suit and fedora, standing in front of Sloppy Louie’s restaurant.
That’s when the significance of what I was about to do — what thousands have no doubt already done in this past few days who have received their subscription copy, like my friend James, or signed in as members online — hit me like two cymbals clanging on the sides of my head. I was about to read material that, from everything I’ve read and been personally told by folks who knew him, Joseph Mitchell had not considered ready to be published, i.e. that he did not wish people to read.
The piece, called “Street Life”, is apparently one of three excerpts from a memoir that was incomplete when Mitchell died in 1996. Thomas Kunkel has been writing a biography of Mitchell (for too many years than Mitchell fans eager to read it are happy about) and the excerpts are among the Mitchell papers to which Kunkel has access through Mitchell’s estate. Mitchell famously quit publishing his work after “Joe Gould’s Secret” came out in 1964, but he never stopped writing and his fans never stopped hoping.
I shut the magazine and walked back to my office, disturbed a little. Would it be wrong to read these newly unearthed Mitchell pieces, these treasures from his pyramid? Did I really want to be that kind of person? I’ve written a lot of posts that I have never published because I didn’t feel they were quite right or I wasn’t able to finish for one reason or another. I can understand from my own experience how the more Mitchell wrote the more he became dissatisfied with his work. The perfectionist blossoming into stillness. I wondered whether I would feel betrayed if someone posthumously posted my drafts or whether I would feel honored, only a little anxious because they weren’t fully baked.
Fortunately I didn’t have to answer the last question, because it suddenly occurred to me that I’m not Joseph Mitchell. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Nicole Noone’s delightful word-to-the-unwise Flynn Carsen in the movie “The Librarian: Quest for the Spear”, comes to mind about now: “Hey, let’s stop for a moment, and consider. I’m way out of your league. Way out. If your league were to explode, I wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days.” We’re not talking about my little screeds here. We’re talking about unpublished work by one of the finest writers in American letters. It would be a sort of crime against humanity for Kunkel not to give these pieces to TNY and likewise for TNY to refrain from publishing them.
And once published, they must be read. So I’m going to read the piece. Of course I am. But I’m not going to do it while walking down the alley dodging trucks. I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day. I’m going to sit down with the magazine and consider the history, the privilege, even the theft. I’m going to keep in mind that the author likely would never had allowed this work to fall under my eyes if he had been able to prevent it. And then I’m going to savor every word.
*As I don’t need to tell you, “The End” comes from the last recorded album, which was not the last released album (Let It Be was recorded in January 1969 but not released until after Abbey Road, which was recorded in April). And a snippet of the medley, a little ditty called “Her Majesty”, was cut out and then stuck on the end, after “The End”. So even though “The End” was the last song the Beatles recorded together in the same spiritual plane, it was not the last song on the disk nor was its album the last one fans were introduced to.