Joseph Mitchell’s New York is long vanished. We can only argue about whose New York has succeeded it, but Tom Wolfe’s, painted in his broad, gaudy burlesque strokes, would have to be considered. With its lunatic obsession with money, New York from Reagan through Giuliani has become too grotesque to be captured by mere satire. Satire is subtle; turn-of-the-millennium New York runs irresistibly to grossness.
In The Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe has a character die while dining in a fancy East Side restaurant and paints a scene, both hilarious and disgusting, in which the management’s only concerns are to get the body out fast and to collect the bill for the dead man’s unfinished meal. They end up shoving the body through a toilet window. It is hard to recall a more savage literary comment on New York’s character.
Some readers thought Wolfe unjustly cruel to the city, and maybe he was. Still, in the present New York people go out to dinner, pay a thousand dollars a bottle for the wine, and go home to three-million-dollar apartments while others are bedding down on sidewalks in cardboard boxes. Only burlesque can catch the spirit of it.
New Yorks come and go so quickly that literature has trouble keeping up with them. From Washington Irving to Poe to Melville to Whitman to Edith Wharton, somebody’s “old New York” has always been turning into a new city. Joseph Mitchell became its chronicler as F. Scott Fitzgerald was leaving the scene, and Mitchell’s city would have absolutely none of the gauzy romantic charm of Fitzgerald’s. Fitzgerald’s New York was a 1920 prairie boy’s dream of white towers and gloriously desirable girls, but Daisy Buchanan already belonged to a past as remote as Lillian Russell and Boss Tweed on the day Mitchell arrived in town. That was October 25, 1929. The stock market had crashed the day before.
Mitchell was not much for romantic charm anyhow, but in a dark time he saw and painted the city as a place with a great sweetness of character which eased the hard lives he recorded. His New York was born of the crash, hardened by the Great Depression, civilized by the sense of mission generated by World War II, and made genial by the Eisenhower era’s sense of well-being.
When he stopped writing in the 1960s the inevitable change was almost complete. The martini hour was ending; marijuana, hallucinogens, and the needle in the arm were the new way. The tinkling piano in the next apartment was giving way to the guitar in the park. People now had so much money that they could afford to look poor. Men quit wearing fedoras and three-piece suits to Yankee Stadium and affected a hobo chic—all whiskers and no creases. Women quit buying hats and high-heeled shoes and started swearing like Marine sergeants. College students, who had once rioted for the pure joy of it, began rioting for moral and political uplift, issued non-negotiable demands, held the dean hostage, and blew up the physics lab. Gangster funerals disappeared into the back of the newspapers, upstaged by spectacular nationally televised funerals of murdered statesmen.
Mitchell stopped writing, but through the middle third of the twentieth century he had created a tapestry of New York lives comparable to Charles Dickens’s astonishing assortment of Victorian Londoners. To be sure, Dickens’s most memorable people were fictional while Mitchell’s had all actually lived and breathed, but just as Dickens’s fictional Londoners seem more real than life, Mitchell’s real New Yorkers seem born to live in novels.
In McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon, he produces Charles Eugene Cassell, who operates Captain Charley’s Private Museum for Intelligent People in a Fifty-ninth Street basement, admission fifteen cents when he remembers to collect it. Captain Charley brings to mind Dickens’s Mr. Venus, the taxidermist in Our Mutual Friend, who has acquired the rascally Silas Wegg’s amputated leg bone. Mitchell reports visiting the museum one day to find the Captain “searching for a bone which he said he hacked off an Arab around 9 PM one full-moon night in 1907 after the Arab had been murdered for signing a treaty….”
Like Dickens, Mitchell roamed his city looking for people worth preserving in stories. Dickens found the makings of Sairy Gamp, Mister Bumble, and Gaffer Hexam, who fished the Thames for corpses of men who might have drowned with money in their pockets. Mitchell found Cockeye Johnny, one of New York’s several gypsy “kings,” and through him learned of the superior cunning of gypsy women and how to operate a classic swindle the gypsies called “bajour”; Commodore Dutch, who for forty years made his living by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself; and Arthur Samuel Colborne, founder of the Anti-Profanity League, who devoted his life to stamping out cussing in New York, or, as Colborne put it, “cleaning up profanity conditions.”
I’m past seventy, but I’m a go-getter, fighting the evil on all fronts. Keeps me busy. I’m just after seeing a high official at City Hall. There’s some Broadway plays so profane it’s a wonder to me the tongues of the actors and the actresses don’t wither up and come loose at the roots and drop to the ground, and I beseeched this high official to take action. Said he’d do what he could. Probably won’t do a single, solitary thing.
It won’t do to press the Dickens parallel too hard. Mitchell himself doesn’t seem to have been especially interested in Dickens. His favorite writers were Mark Twain and James Joyce. His passion for Joyce ran so deep that he guessed he’d read Finnegans Wake a half-dozen times. Moreover, though Dickens and Mitchell both began as reporters fascinated by the dark side of city life, Dickens was a deep-dyed moralizer whose journalistic style would have horrified Mitchell. In The Uncommercial Traveler, a book of reporting, Dickens visits a London workhouse, views the bleak lives of the aged, sick, addled, and orphaned paupers who are stored in such places in 1850, and writes:
In ten minutes I had ceased to believe in such fables of a golden time as youth, the prime of life, or a hale old age. In ten minutes, all the lights of womankind seemed to have been blown out, and nothing in that way to be left this vault to brag of, but the flickering and expiring snuffs.
This is classic Dickens on an emotional binge, and it would have appalled Mitchell. Dickens’s inability to keep his passions out of his writing may have helped make him a great novelist, but it made for some very bad journalism. Mitchell, whose few attempts at fiction were not notably successful, was incapable of sermonizing about the hardships of his subjects. Serious reporters were not supposed to do that, and he thought of himself as a reporter, not a man of letters. He was trained in the hard discipline of an old-fashioned journalism whose code demanded self-effacement of the writer. A reporter’s effusions about his own inner turmoil were taboo.
The discipline by which he worked required something like the artistry needed to compose good music: the writer had to stir an emotional or intellectual response in his audience without telling them how to feel or think. The portraits of people who caught his fancy are worth close study by writers who want to learn how to move an audience without preaching a lesson. These pieces usually start as if they are going to be funny, then almost deliberately deceive this expectation and become touching and sometimes terribly sad, as in “Lady Olga.”
Here his subject is Jane Barnell, a sixty-nine-year-old woman whose life has been spent as a “bearded lady” in circus sideshows. She has a thick, curly, gray beard thirteen-and-a-half inches long and is working in the basement sideshow of Hubert’s Museum on Forty-second Street when Mitchell meets her in 1940. She has recently left Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey because union trouble ended its season and is afraid that if she goes back “that union will get me.” A “violently opinionated Republican,” though she never votes, she believes everything she reads in the Hearst newspapers and assumes “the average union organizer carries a gun and will shoot to kill.”
But Mitchell is not dwelling on her “freakishness” to provide the reader with a supercilious smile. He is out to explore what it means to be a “freak” in America, and the notion that we are going to be titillated with anecdotes about Miss Barnell’s bizarre appearance vanishes as he piles up details. What emerges is a portrait of a woman who has spent most of her life in pain:
In an expansive mood, she will brag that she has the longest female beard in history and will give the impression that she feels superior to less spectacular women. Every so often, however, hurt by a snicker or a brutal remark made by someone in an audience, she undergoes a period of depression that may last a few hours or a week. “When I get the blues, I feel like an outcast from society,” she once said. “I used to think when I got old my feelings wouldn’t get hurt, but I was wrong. I got a tougher hide than I once had, but it ain’t tough enough.”
Because Miss Barnell’s sideshow colleagues were touchy about the word “freak,” the Ringling circus—in a prehistoric concession to political correctness—changed the name of its Congress of Freaks to Congress of Strange People. Miss Barnell cannot cheer. “No matter how nice a name was put on me,” she tells Mitchell, “I would still have a beard.” Considering herself engaged in show business as truly as any Broadway actor, she holds that “a freak is just as good as any actor, from the Barrymores on down.” Mitchell lets her speak the closing line of his story, perhaps because it speaks the message he would speak himself if he felt free to preach as Dickens did: “‘If the truth was known, we’re all freaks together,’ she says.”
Although Mitchell wrote voluminously about the kind of people the world happily ignored until he wrote about them, he wrote very little about himself. My Ears Are Bent, written in 1938, was his only extended exercise in self-advertisement. It is a small, modest book about his early newspaper days with the Herald Tribune and the World-Telegram. Published when he was thirty, it was out of print for decades, but is now back in the shops in a new, slightly refreshed edition issued by Pantheon.
This is not the mature, polished work of the later New Yorker pieces, but the writing is already remarkable for its economy, precision, and power to get at what makes odd people more interesting than their oddness. From the very beginning he seems to have had a perfect ear for the astonishing quotation; he cannot resist telling of the streetwalker who, asked why she had become a prostitute, replied, “I just wanted to be accommodating.”