- - Tuesday, July 14, 2015


By Thomas Kunkel

Random House, $30, 366 pages

Joseph Quincy Mitchell couldn’t put two and two together … and for that we should all be very grateful.

Born into a North Carolina landowning family in 1908, his chronic innumeracy made it agony for him to keep books or calculate and chart crop values. This disqualified him from entering the ancestral ranks of cotton planters. But if Mitchell couldn’t count he sure could write. Bit by the literary bug as an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina, he headed north early and finished his journalistic apprenticeship at New York’s prestigious Herald Tribune. It was the golden age of American journalism and among the friends he made in his newspaper days was the legendary A.J. Liebling who shared his enthusiasm for food, drink, old New York dives, and the human comedy.

Like Liebling, Mitchell would find his true artistic home in the pages of a rising new magazine called The New Yorker. Legendary founding editor Harold Ross recruited him in 1938 and Mitchell would settle in for life, occupying an office — and collecting a modest salary — until his death 58 years later. Mitchell would use his reporter’s eye and ear to create a prose genre that mixed some of the best elements of journalism with creative writing but, for better or worse, sometimes straddling fact and fiction — word portraits taken from life but then embellished by artistic imagination.

Although New Yorker readers didn’t know it at the time, one of his most memorable characters, “Old Mr. Flood,” an oyster-loving nonagenarian who had a way with words, was actually a “composite” — shades of Deep Throat — who just happened to share many of his creator’s own appetites and enthusiasms. Mitchell, himself a Southern Baptist who frequently brooded about age and death, would write of Mr. Flood that he “comes of a long line of Baptists and has a nagging fear of the hereafter complicated by the fact that the descriptions of heaven in the Bible are as forbidding to him as those of hell. ‘I don’t really want to go to either one of those places,’ he says.” Another of Mr. Flood’s maxims got to the very heart of Mitchell’s view of life, at once whimsical and skeptical: “Nobody knows why they do anything.”

Biographer Thomas Kunkel, a college president with a specialized background in journalism, is remarkably free of academic cant and writes gracefully. He also possesses a keen eye — and even keener sense of humor — that his subject would have appreciated. Mitchell always claimed that his aim was to make his writing “truthful rather than factual,” and Mr. Kunkel is a skilled guide to both the truth and the sometimes-less-compelling facts of his subject’s long and rather curious life.

Like many of today’s readers, I discovered the delights of Joseph Mitchell’s prose when a collection of some of his best pieces was reissued in 1992 as “Up in the Old Hotel.” It was, Mr. Kunkel writes, “as if a long-lost treasure had been retrieved from the ocean floor for people to appreciate all over again,” and it remains in print to this day. One reason the work came as such a pleasant surprise to younger readers was the fact that Mitchell — although he was still a New Yorker staffer and dutifully showed up at the office, typing away on work that somehow never got finished — hadn’t published a single article in the last 32 years of his life. Like an elderly, eccentric, tenured professor, he continued to impress younger colleagues with his range of knowledge and keen insights, but simply had run out of new things to say.

He had already said enough. As highly respected critic Malcolm Cowley wrote of an earlier Mitchell collection: “Reading some of his portraits a second time, you catch an emotion beneath them that curiously resembles Dickens’: a continual wonder at the sights and sounds of a big city, a continual devouring interest in all the strange people who live there, a continual impulse to burst into praise for kind hearts and good food and down with hypocrisy … .”

Mr. Kunkel ends with the perfect vignette. A few months before he died, Mitchell was invited to do a reading from a new edition of one of his most popular works, “Joe Gould’s Secret.” He was nervous, but it went off splendidly. Among the crowd were family members, friends and New Yorker colleagues but also “a waitress from his beloved Oyster Bar at Grand Central; the owner of McSorley’s [his favorite tavern]; a union janitor with a strike placard and a stripper.” In other words, Mr. Kunkel concludes, “Mitchell people.”

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.

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