“Mitchell may indeed be the best writer in America. . . . [His prose] is so vivid, so real, that it comes out like fiction of the highest order.” —Chicago Sun-Times
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group’s discussion of Up in the Old Hotel
a definitive collection of work by an essential and quintessentially American writer, one of the handful who can be said to have breached the divide between journalism and literature.
Joseph Mitchell’s writing has the virtues of all great journalism: self-effacement, close observation, a reverence for facts, and a masterful use of detail. This volume includes Mitchell’s four best-known books, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon
, Old Mr. Flood
, The Bottom of the Harbor
and Joe Gould’s Secret
along with several previously uncollected stories. Together, they testify to Mitchell’s ability to render small and seemingly incidental lives in portraits as tender, mordant, humorous, and darkly complex as Rembrandt’s.
Mitchell’s subjects were saloon-keepers and street preachers, bunko artists and steel-walking Mohawks, a bearded lady, and the magpie-ish proprietor of a “Museum for Intelligent People,” the upright conservator of an African-American cemetery on Staten Island, and a boozy Greenwich Village bohemian who claimed to speak the language of seagulls and to be composing a literary masterpiece that will live “as long as the English language [p. 57].” There were men who made their living from the river and the harbor, who bred terrapins, dug clams, and hung their hats in the dilapidated old hotels around the Fulton fish market. Even then, some of those hotels were so old that not even their owners knew what lay entombed in the dust of their disused upper stories. Mitchell tried to find out.
His method was not to tell his people’s stories so much as to step aside and let them speak for themselves. Few writers have listened to their subjects so intently or so faithfully rendered their speech in all its cranky, digressive splendor. Few reporters have been so willing to follow a story wherever it leads them, whether it’s into his characters’ dreams or the tangled roots of a community’s history and folklore. The result is nonfiction that has the amplitude, resonance, and strangeness of the best short stories and that, not incidentally, leads readers through a New York that is now as conclusively lost as if it had vanished beneath the sea.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. In his introductory note, Joseph Mitchell notes that his stories are characterized by something he calls “graveyard humor,” which, he goes on to say, “is an exemplification of the way I look at the world. It typifies my cast of mind.” [p. v] What do you think Mitchell means by graveyard humor, and how does it figure in his stories, both in those that deal directly with death, like “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” or “The Mohawks in High Steel” and those that don’t?
2. Mitchell is not so much a storyteller as a portraitist, which is to say that he seems less interested in narrating action than in revealing character. How does he go about this? Which of Mitchell’s character studies are based on the slow accretion of detail and which hinge on his observation of a seemingly incidental habit, utterance, or gesture? One thinks of Mazie Gordon, whaling the tar out of a drunken heckler but then slipping her victim a dime so he can buy himself a drink, or Orvis Diabo’s complicated feelings as he sits in the reservation graveyard listening to the Mohawk singing in the longhouse. Which of these details cements our earlier impression of a character? Which reverses or undermines it?
3. Many of Mitchell’s characters are conservators of one sort or another. McSorley’s new owners are proud of keeping the saloon exactly as it was under its original owners. In his Museum for Intelligent People, Captain Charley keeps everything from old pith helmets and Chinese coins to a bone purportedly hacked off a murdered Arab. How does Mitchell view these people and their undertakings? Are they noble or pathetic? What do their stories suggest about his attitude toward the past? Toward time? What does it mean to be a conservator-of a place, craft, or a tradition-in a city that’s in a constant process of renewal, usually heralded by signs saying, “Going Out of Business Sale” or “Demolition”?
4. Closely allied to the theme of preservation is the theme of collecting or accumulating. Many of Mitchell’s characters are collectors of oddities, like Captain Charley, or seashells, like Hugh Flood. If they don’t amass actual objects, they amass words that denote them. Note the frequency with which lists occur in these stories: the derelict Eddie’s poetic list of Bowery flophouses, Captain Campion’s detailed breakdown of gypsy tribes, families, and surnames, and Hugh Flood’s recitation of varieties of clam. What role do collections and collectors, lists and catalogs play in Mitchell’s writing? How do lists bulk up his otherwise lean sentences? Can someone who successfully collects objects or words or bits of information be said to defeat time, which scatters and disperses all things, and especially, memory?
5. Although Mazie Gordon dislikes the movies, she enjoys watching the daily promenade of drunks and eccentrics outside her ticket booth. With her four diamond rings, violently colored outfits, buzz-saw voice, she too is a kind of performer. “People walk past here just to give me the eye,” she tells Mitchell. “I got a public of my own, just like a god-damn movie-pitcher star [p. 27].” Discuss the theme of performance in Mitchell’s writing. Which of his characters is putting on an act-whether for the reporter, a larger public, or simply for his or her own amusement? Is a performance necessarily false, or can it be an organic expression of one’s true self? Does Mitchell make a distinction between self-conscious performers and unconscious ones?
6. Many of Mitchell’s characters are not just individuals but representatives of a people, a community, or a way of life. Johnny Nikanov is both a disreputable old man and a gypsy king. Orvis Diabo is Mitchell’s guide to the history and folkways of Mohawk construction workers. Houdini speaks-or sings-for an entire world of Calypsonians, as Hugh Flood, Misters Zimmer and Poole, and Captain Ellery Thompson speak for the worlds of the fish market, the harbor, and the waterways. How does Mitchell manage to turn a personal profile into a study of an entire culture? What sort of human groupings seem to interest him? Why, for instance, does he write about clamdiggers rather than stock brokers? Why might he have chosen a non-gypsy police detective as the mouthpiece in his story on gypsy women? What is it that keeps Mitchell’s cultural studies from being anthropological or touristic?
7. Mitchell has often been compared to Dickens, but his character studies are much cooler than the earlier writer’s, without Dickens’s generous servings of heartache and indignation. Mitchell doesn’t tell us what to feel about his people. But does that mean that he is dispassionate about them? How does this highly reticent writer convey feeling? What clues suggest his attitudes toward Joe Gould, Jane Barnell, or Peggy in “Goodbye, Shirley Temple,” for example? Which of these characters do you think he admires? Which ones does he despise? Which ones might he pity?
8. Among Mitchell’s characters are many who lead less than exemplary lives. There are cadgers (Commodore Dutch, Joe Gould), lushes (Gould again, Johnny Nikanov), gluttons (the diners in “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks”), bigots (Mr. Giddy, Mr. Ransom), swindlers, and public nuisances. Does Mitchell judge these people? Which of them seem to arouse his affection and esteem? How would you judge a sensibility that values both lowlifes and upright folks like Mr. Hunter, Mr. Zimmer, and Captain Ellery? What traits do you think Mitchell most admires?
9. Most of Mitchell’s subjects can be divided into working people and idle ones. The working people often have unusual jobs, a partial listing including proprietor of a museum of oddities, street preacher, sideshow attraction, and confidence squad detective. The jobless include a couple of pensioners, a soft-touch artist, a bohemian-that is, a bum with literary pretensions, and a gypsy king. It’s notable that Mitchell never profiles one of the idle rich. How does he treat work? Which of his jobless characters seem paradoxically busy? You may want to consider the different meanings attached to work and idleness during the Great Depression, when a third of the non-farm workforce was unemployed.
10. The pieces in Up in the Old Hotel, especially those from McSorley’s, defy the bounds of political correctness or, really, ignore them, since the notion of political correctness didn’t exist when Mitchell was writing. It’s doubtful that a national magazine today could get away with running a piece about a circus freak (which is what Jane Barnell calls herself) or larcenous gypsies (not without a sidebar that dismissed all imputations of larceny to Romany people as racist libels). Is Mitchell’s writing offensive? Does it trade in ethnic stereotypes or make light of conditions that we now recognize as pathologies? And if not, why not? In this light, consider the implications of Jane Barnell’s remark: “If the truth was known, we’re all freaks together [p. 105].”
11. Another notable characteristic of the people Mitchell writes about is how many of them are engaged in grand endeavors, and how many of those endeavors are futile. Joe Gould immediately comes to mind, but also Daddy Hall, who is crusading to rid New York of sin, and Arthur Samuel Colborne, who wants it to stop cussing. Where else in these pieces do we find people who are trying to do the impossible? Does the futility of their undertakings seem comical or tragic? This raises the question of whether Mitchell is a comic or tragic writer or some combination of the two, and whether that combination is exactly what he means by graveyard humor.
12. Mitchell has a reputation as an urban writer, but some of his best writing explores rural settings, like the North Carolina of his childhood or Staten Island, which back when Mitchell was writing was an idyllic garden hanging off the southern end of the city. How do his “country” pieces differ from his “city” ones? In which environment does he seem most comfortable? And, considering that his longest pieces have rural settings, why do you think we remember Mitchell as a chronicler of the city?
13. In a short preface to Old Mr. Flood, the author reveals that the title character is really a composite of “several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past [p. 373].” Given that New Journalism was still more than a decade away, do you think that Mitchell is guilty of violating journalistic ethics? Where else in this collection may he be taking liberties with the facts? And what do you think of his declaration that “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual” [p. 373]?
14. Why do you think Mitchell felt drawn to write two different portraits of Joe Gould? Does the character who emerges in “Joe Gould’s Secret” seem drastically different from the one in “Professor Sea Gull,” or are his alcoholism, narcissism, and mental paralysis already implicit in the earlier portrait? Is Mitchell’s true subject Gould or his own confused and shifting reactions to him, the way his subject aroused first his curiosity and amusement, then his admiration, then his irritation and contempt, and at last his horror and pity?
James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
; Charles Baudelaire, Paris Spleen
; Anton Chekhov, Collected Stories
Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveler
, Hard Times
Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
, After Henry
James Joyce, Dubliners, Finnegans Wake
Kevin Kerrane, The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism
A. J. Liebling, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris
Phillip Lopate, ed., The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present
Jan Morris, Manhattan ’45
; George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London
Luc Sante, Low Life
Gay Talese, The Gay Talese Reader: Portraits and Encounters
James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times
E. B. White, Essays of E. B. White
, Here is New York
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers
, The Bonfire of the Vanities.