Joseph Mitchell, my favorite Beatle

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.

Not since I was two.

Not since I was two.

“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.

Is there such a thing as reader's block?

Is there such a thing as reader’s block?

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.


13 Responses to “Joseph Mitchell, my favorite Beatle”

  1. 1 marni February 9, 2013 at 00:51

    Oh….am I picturing you. Cup of (in my mind) tea,settlin’ in…maybe on your little kitchen porch while Angela distracts the waifs,perhaps having taken a bit of a hike somewhere remote…or maybe just a walk down the street to a litte secluded spot only you know. Maybe just in your car, a stolen moment of privacy. Whatever, wherever..I’ve been waiting for this post ever since I knew this piece in TNY would be published. Happy to see you in print again my friend, and happy that what you wrote about brings you such immeasurable joy!

    • 2 Matt February 9, 2013 at 08:39

      It’s something rare for me these years, to be so excited about some little thing as an article or a book or piece of music…a “new release”. And I would never even have known about it had it not been for my bibliophile friends. It will be in a proper chair, not in a car.

      • 3 leatherhead109 February 9, 2013 at 08:42

        Ah, you see I was going to point that out! My brother savoring a new treasure in a Subaru? No, I think not, didn’t fit the image in my head. My guess is your other suggestion, a little known by way, haunt. I’d wager on a stout cup of Sumatra vs. the tea….Glad to read a fresh piece by my own favorite street pacer!

        • 4 Matt February 9, 2013 at 09:18

          This made me smile. It may just have to be the sofa, but the day is already a-bustle here in our house and I’ve pledged to help with the neighbors with the clean-up of the foreclosed house cum crack den on our block.this morning. So the gratification promises to be deferred well into the day.

  2. 5 leatherhead109 February 9, 2013 at 09:33

    I can also see you on break at work, slipping your pristine copy of TNY out of a folded newspaper, or perhaps from a pack. Checking left, then right and then left again to see if you are about to be disturbed by some long forgotten acquaintance. Nodding politely, if not a little impatiently at the tall fellow with the beard who brought your Sumatra. (Clink of cup and saucer on the table). Then, ..just as you are about to crack the cover, …Oh, yes. You have to go to your neighbor’s. Something about a crack house..Well, this will just have to wait…

  3. 6 Angela February 9, 2013 at 12:58

    You might think I should know the answer to this question, but I don’t. So I’ll have to ask my husband if he’s read the article yet. DH is currently doing yard work at the “crack house” down the street, so I’ll have to wait to find out. Lovely post, DH. By the way, do you think the neighbors would all rally and clean up *our* yard???

  4. 8 Barb February 10, 2013 at 15:44

    Did you read it and was it all you had hoped it would be? Mom

  5. 9 Matt February 10, 2013 at 16:01

    Funny you should ask. I did read it (with a cup of hot cocoa made by my wife, as it happens). I hadn’t had time to develop any strong hopes. Most notably it lacked any characters other than himself, which is unusual to say the least. It is the opening to a memoir and an introduction to all the things in general that he loves about the city and many things in particular. Also, it’s something of a cliffhanger — more was obviously to follow — so it leaves me feeling a little unfulfilled. I never read a Mitchell piece before that felt incomplete. There was a paragraph about what happens to him when he feels compelled to wander around the city that I felt spoke my very soul. It was funny and dark at the same time — classic Mitchell. I’ll be glad to read the next installment.

  6. 10 James February 13, 2013 at 19:29

    I was waiting to jump in here until you’d finished, Matt. I think I responded to the piece along similar lines. Strange to read some Mitchell that meandered and perambulated in such classic fashion without quite achieving his usual depth of feeling. And the ending–cruel. I certainly hope there’s more to come.

    • 11 Matt February 13, 2013 at 22:30

      Well, and this is surely the discussion he hoped to preclude by not publishing. We do well to remember that he did not in fact release this to the eyes of the world. Also, a memoir is bound to be different, an entirely different animal from the profiles. I think only “Joe Gould’s Secret” is comparable to what this might have been, and critics are divided on whether that was his least subtle, shamblingest work or his masterpiece. I remember Mitchell quoted as saying that the Gould misadventure really took it out of him. I wonder if he felt that writing about other people for publication was no longer an option and yet writing about himself didn’t fire him up in the same way. One can see where the long silence might have come from, and why the memoir never came fully to be.

      • 12 James February 14, 2013 at 12:57

        You’re right that these discussions should always be prefaced with a disclaimer. I’m glad we have the posthumous work of Kafka and David Foster Wallace and Nabokov, but we shouldn’t hold it to the same standard as the work they put before the world themselves.

        I always thought that “Joe Gould’s Secret” threw him for a loop for reasons best articulated by Janet Malcolm in the opening line of The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Something about transforming real people into caricatures of themselves. Bad enough when fictionalizing one’s life, but potentially worse when labeling the results as “fact.”

        • 13 Matt February 14, 2013 at 13:09

          I believe you have nailed it. There is a moment where Gould tells Mitchell, “I didn’t ask for this celebrity…you came to me” and Mitchell realizes that he has used Gould for his own purposes and now wants him to go away. It was very self-revealing and uncomfortable, in my opinion the dramatic climax of all Mitchell’s work. It made me wonder, besides Gould did any of those people he profiled over the decades ever read what he wrote about them in TNY? Would he have wanted them to? That’s a brilliant quote by Malcolm.

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