Everything is fascinating: Joseph Mitchell’s patient journalism

Mitchell strikes me as perhaps the best example of a writer who sees the value not just in investigating what’s behind the everyday, but in really pondering things—figuring out, often over quite a long time, just what he makes of the people and places he’s writing about. It’s interesting to write elegiacally about Mitchell as the type of writer now rarely seen, considering that his own best pieces were also elegiac—writing about things that were overlooked and, often as not, dwindling as the great mid-20th-century rambled on.

This summer marks the 100th birthday of the late Joseph Mitchell, who helped to redefine the art of journalism. In 1938, when Mitchell wrote his first profile for the New Yorker, the notion of the reporter as stylist was still a novelty. By 1992, when the omnibus ”Up in the Old Hotel” hit bestseller lists, it was ubiquitous. The recent republication of Mitchell’s finest collection, ”The Bottom of the Harbor”, brings back into focus innovations that have faded into familiarity or fallen into neglect. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Our current crop of reporter-stylists would do well to study the qualities that make this book remarkable.

Chief among these is patience. Contemporary magazine journalism often seems torn between ratifying conventional wisdom and railing against it. The twin temptations of sensationalism and contrarianism hover over online discourse, in particular. Not that technology is solely to blame; as a newspaperman in the 1930s, covering the Hauptmann murder trial and interviewing George Bernard Shaw for the Herald Tribune and the World-Telegram, respectively, Mitchell was near the centre of the media circuses of his day. Once the New Yorker freed him from deadline pressure, however, Mitchell conserved his attention for (and lavished it on) subjects he felt it might dignify.

It turns out just about anything is fascinating if you look at it hard enough. What Mitchell chose to look at, in his increasingly lengthy “profiles”, were the remnants of Old New York that were disappearing beneath the city’s relentless growth: waterfront rooming-houses (“Old Mr Flood”), petty criminals (“King of the Gypsys”), Epicurean ritual (“All You Can Eat for Five Bucks”) and, in “The Bottom of the Harbor, the maritime life of a city most people forget is an archipelago.


from “Joseph Mitchell’s true facts,” by Garth Risk Hallberg, More Intelligent Life, 25 August 2008

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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