The Master Writer of the City

Therese Mitchell/Estate of Joseph Mitchell
Joseph Mitchell in Lower Manhattan, near the old Fulton Fish Market; photograph by his wife, Therese Mitchell

In 1942 The New Yorker published Joseph Mitchell’s profile of a homeless man in Greenwich Village named Joe Gould, whose claim to notice—the thing that separated him from other sad misfits—was “a formless, rather mysterious book” he was known to be writing called “An Oral History of Our Time,” begun twenty-six years earlier and already, at nine million words, “eleven times as long as the Bible.” Twenty-two years later, in 1964, the magazine published another piece by Mitchell called “Joe Gould’s Secret” that ran in two parts, and that drew a rather less sympathetic and a good deal more interesting portrait of Gould.

Mitchell revealed what he had kept back in the profile—that Gould was a tiresome bore and cadger who attached himself to Mitchell like a leech, and finally forced upon him the realization that the “Oral History” did not exist. After confronting Gould with this knowledge, the famously kindhearted Mitchell regretted having done so:

I have always deeply disliked seeing anyone shown up or found out or caught in a lie or caught red-handed doing anything, and now, with time to think things over, I began to feel ashamed of myself for the way I had lost my temper and pounced on Gould.

Mitchell went on to make a generous imaginative leap. “He very likely went around believing in some hazy, self-deceiving, self-protecting way that the Oral History did exist…. It might not exactly be down on paper, but he had it all in his head, and any day now he was going to start getting it down.”

“It was easy for me to see how this could be,” Mitchell continued in a remarkable turn, “for it reminded me of a novel that I had once intended to write.” The novel, conceived “under the spell of Joyce’s Ulysses,…was to be ‘about’ New York City” and to chronicle a day and a night in the life of a young reporter from the South who was no longer a believing Baptist but is “still inclined to see things in religious terms” and whose early exposure to fundamentalist evangelists has

left him with a lasting liking for the cryptic and the ambiguous and the incantatory and the disconnected and the extravagant and the oracular and the apocalyptic…. I had thought about this novel for over a year. Whenever I had nothing else to do, I would automatically start writing it in my mind…. But the truth is, I never actually wrote a word of it.

In fact, however, Mitchell did write—if not a novel exactly—a book about New York City that fully achieved his young self’s large literary ambition. The book is The Bottom of the Harbor, published in 1959, a collection of six pieces that are nothing…

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