Vanished world: The immortal journalism of Joseph Mitchell

Life comes at you fast. Somehow, I’ve been a working, paid journalist for 30 years now, and the industry is almost an entirely different animal than it was back in 1992 when I started getting my first bylines in the college newspaper. 

I came in just as the digital world started to change everything. The town newspaper I first worked at professionally in small-town Mississippi still had dusty trays of hot type slugs tucked under the composing table. While chunky early Macs were being used to lay out the pages by then, the final layouts were still painstakingly pasted up from print-outs before being walked over to the press room. These days, much of my journalism work is in mediums I wouldn’t have even quite comprehended in 1992. 

The appeal of journalism for many newcomers is a fundamentally romantic one. The big scoop! The breaking news! It’s never exactly as you imagined it, of course, and there’s plenty of dull moments, like there are in any job. In recent months, I’ve been revisiting the work of one of the patron saints of long-form journalism to spark inspiration and to remember that at its heart, before counting clicks and hot takes and fighting misinformation, it’s all about telling a story.

Few people told a story better than Joseph Mitchell, who walked the streets of New York for a variety of long-gone papers nearly a century ago, before going on to become one of the best-loved New Yorker writers of all time.  

Mitchell was the bard of cheap dives and eccentrics, finding stories to tell far away from the ivory towers. “I believe the most interesting human beings, as far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender,” he’d write.

His most famous work, Joe Gould’s Secret, memorably explored a bohemian “blithe and emaciated man” who claimed to be writing the longest book in history – or maybe he wasn’t. 

But Mitchell wasn’t just about the oddballs – his “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is a gorgeous, sensitive look at an elderly Black man at the end of his days, while “Up In The Old Hotel” is a captivating read about mysteries hidden in Manhattan’s old buildings. “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” evokes every beer stain and cigar stub at the oldest Irish bar in New York and its impossibly stern manager, who served only one kind of ale and would close up if the bar got too crowded with “too much confounded trade.” 

Mitchell is all meat, no fat in his writing, and many of us journalists today could learn from his economic, indelible descriptions – a man whose “profanity was so vigorous I expected it to leave cavities in his teeth,” or former President Herbert Hoover, who had “the face of a fat baby troubled by gas pains.” But clarity is the guiding light – he’d note, “A newspaper can have no bigger nuisance than a reporter who is always trying to write literature.”

“The best talk is artless,” Mitchell would write. “The talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun, grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” 

Decades after his death, it’s worth mentioning there is some controversy over how Mitchell may have blurred the line between fact and fiction in some of his later work. It’s a fuzzy line that probably shouldn’t have been crossed, although times were different then, and the essential core of his storytelling remains based on fact. 

Leaving the desk and hitting the streets to find your story has gotten less and less common as journalism has changed, as stories are put together via scraping social media posts or quick emails to the same talking heads over and over. I’m as guilty as anyone else of this tactic, but have to admit that over my 30 years now in the industry the stories I remember most are the ones where I went out and talked to another human being face to face, listening to their ‘artless talk’ and their stories. Mitchell’s world is long gone, but his writing remains a touchstone for me. 

Joe Mitchell’s best is collected in the essential collections Up In The Old Hotel and My Ears Are Bent. Decades after he scribbled his bylines, it’s all still mandatory reading for anyone who wonders what journalism and telling people’s stories should be about. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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