The strange trajectory of one writer’s career.
Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) joined the staff of the New Yorker in 1938, quickly earning praise for deft profiles of unusual figures: the bearded circus performer Lady Olga, for example, a gypsy king, and a Native American who worked high above the city on bridges and skyscrapers. The magazine’s founder and editor, Harold Ross, called Mitchell “an exemplar of a Fact writer—a lovely and clean stylist, and someone who brought plenty of fresh characters to the magazine.” In this illuminating biography, Kunkel (President/St. Norbert Coll.; Enormous Prayers: A Journey into the Priesthood, 1998, etc.), a former reporter and editor whose previous books include a life of Ross, portrays Mitchell as a driven perfectionist with a “near-obsession, cultivated over a decade pounding pavement for newspapers, with the city’s ‘lowlife,’ as that class was known around the editorial offices of the New Yorker.” A hugely prolific writer in the 1940s, his output waned in the next decade and ended in 1965 after he wrote a long profile of the eccentric Joe Gould, a drunk and a derelict who boasted that he had written a multimillion-word Oral History of Our Time. Gould had a special attraction for Mitchell, who, by the 1960s, hoping to produce an autobiography, was finding it increasingly hard to write. As he told an interviewer, he found Gould so compelling “[b]ecause he is me.” With the cooperation of Mitchell’s family, friends and colleagues, and steeped in New Yorker lore and personalities, Kunkel examines Mitchell’s devotion to his family, his recurring depressions and his relationship with Ross, his successor, William Shawn, and fellow writer A.J. Liebling. Everyone was mystified by the last three decades of Mitchell’s life, when he arrived each day at the magazine, closeted himself in his office and produced absolutely nothing.
Kunkel cannot solve the mystery, but he offers a finely delineated portrait of the man.