Thomas Kunkel is the author of the new biography Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker. His other books include Genius in Disguise, Enormous Prayers, and Letters from the Editor. He is the president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book about Joseph Mitchell, and what did you learn in the course of your research that particularly surprised you?
A: My first book was a biography of The New Yorker’s founder, Harold Ross (published in 1995), and I later edited and published a collection of his letters.
I was so fortunate that when I was researching that book, in the early ‘90s, many of the veteran New Yorker writers who had worked for Ross were still alive, including Joe Mitchell, and of course they were all wonderful storytellers.
Joe and I had several long conversations about Ross, who hired him in 1938 and whom he adored. He was extremely helpful to me, not to mention delightful company; you couldn’t not like Joe Mitchell.
Some years later, when I became dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, I figured I should take up a “scholarly” pursuit of my own if I was going to expect that of my faculty members.
So I got the idea of writing a literary biography of Joe. Why? Well, for starters, Mitchell was, and remains, one of the great nonfiction writers in the English language—reason enough for a dean of journalism to pursue it, I thought, more so for the fact he had never been the subject of a full-blown biography.
I loved his work as a reader and a journalist myself. As such, it bothered me that Mitchell eventually became less known for his stories than for the fact that, after 1964, he never published another one—despite going to work at The New Yorker every day, as he always had, for the next three decades.
I wanted to learn about and explain that epic case of writer’s block. But more than that, I wanted to remind people that it was Mitchell’s work and surpassing talent that mattered, not the curiosity of that final creative drought.
What in the research surprised me? Not an awful lot, actually. I was surprised that one of the things he had been working on in that “blocked” period, and fairly diligently, was an autobiography.
I was not especially surprised to discover via his story notes, letters and journal entries that Mitchell had employed considerably more license in producing his stories than journalists are supposed to, or can today.
For instance, Mitchell protagonists typically speak in long digressions—essentially soliloquies. Like any journalist reading these, I’d figured that they must have been cobbled together by the writer from many conversations, which they were, and contained maybe a touch of invention, which I think they did.
On the other hand, it was a big surprise to learn that there were other “factual” Mitchell characters who were actually fictional composites beyond the one he’d acknowledged during his lifetime, Old Mr. Flood.
I discovered that gypsy king “Cockeye Johnny” Nikanov was also a composite of various real gypsies Joe had known, and I couldn’t prove the existence of another principal—Orvis Diabo, from Mitchell’s great story about Mohawk steelworkers.
Q: You write, “For many contemporary journalists and writers of nonfiction, Mitchell still inspires.” What made Mitchell's writing so compelling for writers and also for readers?
A: Joseph Mitchell was one of the first American writers to demonstrate that you could tell great stories about individuals at society’s margins. He proved that New Yorker Profiles didn’t have to be about celebrities or political figures or war heroes to be compelling. And of course Mitchell’s writing is sublime—naturalistic, elegant, and flowing like his beloved Hudson River.
But I think the main reason Mitchell’s work endures is because, in putting across the lives of New York’s characters and curmudgeons, he took as his underlying themes the same themes one finds in all great literature.
He is writing about life and death. He is writing about time passing—and passing one by. He is writing about making mistakes and then redeeming them. He is writing about the sea and the land. He is writing about human foolishness and hubris, but also about the nobility of simple things. These are the verities.
Q: You ask about the later part of Mitchell's career, “At bottom, then, why wasn't Mitchell finishing anything?” What did you conclude?
A: For years people have asked, “Why did Joe Mitchell stop writing?” It’s a fair question, obviously, but it’s not really the apt one. The fact is, Joe never really stopped writing. During the final third of his life, the so-called “writer’s block,” he was writing all the time. He just wasn’t completing anything.
So why was that? I have to say that a lot of Mitchell fans seem to want a “magic bullet” answer to that question; they clearly have been hoping I would turn up that some dark “Aha!” secret to explain that long fallow period, and to their satisfaction. But not surprisingly, the actual answer is more complicated and less mysterious than that.
Mitchell’s block was caused by a coming-together of many factors. He was 56 years old when, in 1964, he published his last piece in The New Yorker, the remarkable “Joe Gould’s Secret.”
Then he set about trying to find his next story, as he always had done in the past. For the next seven or eight years, he worked quite hard and devoted a tremendous amount of reportage to prospective Profiles of several of his colorful friends.
He thought about revisiting his famous portrait of McSorley’s venerable saloon. He thought about profiling the Fulton Fish Market, one of his favorite haunts in the city. He thought seriously (as he had all his life) about trying to weld all these subjects into a big, sprawling novel of New York.
And these weren’t just pipe dreams; Mitchell filled whole file drawers with notes and related materials on them. He was really trying. For all that effort, though, no one topic seemed to satisfy him.
Finally, in frustration, Mitchell turned to the idea of a memoir. He took that seriously, too, drafting scene after scene and essentially “reporting” entire segments of his own life.
By the early ‘70s he had set down the first three chapters, and he even shared these with his editor, William Shawn. Shawn told Joe that he loved what he’d read—and The New Yorker, incidentally, published all three pieces within the past two years—but Mitchell nonetheless dropped that project, as he had all the others.
One big reason why was that Mitchell, by now in his 60s and staring at old age, was somewhat trapped by his own growing perfectionism. People had come to expect literally anything he wrote to be a masterpiece—and so did he.
A lifelong sufferer of depression, he began to be routinely gripped by what he called “the black dog.” And as New York City became a fiscal mess, riven with crime and plagued by homeless and knocking down so many of the architectural treasures Mitchell loved, Joe’s mood grew particularly dark. “Sometimes I think humanity is done for,” read a typical note in his journal from this period.
About this same time, then, he was buffeted by a series of personal setbacks. His mother died. Fellow New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling, his best friend and kindred spirit, died. Mitchell’s father—the writer’s lifelong scold and pole star—died. His wife, Therese, his amiable partner of half a century, died.
Then, too, Mitchell allowed his writing to be interrupted by often-worthy diversions, such as the five years he served, with distinction, on New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
These things all stacked up, one atop the other like bricks on his chest, until finally Joseph Mitchell was essentially an old man who didn’t have the steam left to write stories.
A long answer, I know. But in the end, as one critic put it, what happened to Joseph Mitchell was…life.
Q: How synonymous were Mitchell and The New Yorker, and are there any journalists today that you think are doing similar work, at The New Yorker or elsewhere?
A: Put it this way—it’s hard to imagine Joe Mitchell breaking through with his unconventional subject matter and unique style in any magazine other than in Harold Ross’s New Yorker of the ‘30s and ‘40s, just as it’s hard to imagine The New Yorker becoming the “writer’s magazine” it did without Mitchell’s Profiles and Reporter at Large pieces, as well as those of such colleagues as Liebling, St. Clair McKelway, Lillian Ross, Philip Hamburger, E.J. Kahn Jr. and so many others on the “Fact” side of the shop.
But to me, Mitchell transcends these colleagues in importance because of the enduring influence he has had. The beauty and creativity of his work, and the dignity he gave his humble subjects, inspired countless nonfiction writers who came after him, from the flamboyant New Journalists of the ‘60s (Wolfe, Breslin, Talese, Didion, etc.) to everyday newspaper reporters.
Mitchell paved the way for the likes of John McPhee and Susan Orlean, David Halberstam and Susan Sheehan, Richard Ben Cramer and Mark Bowden—not to mention such self-described Mitchell fans as Calvin Trillin, Ian Frazier, Mark Singer and Alec Wilkinson.
The list could go on and on. Indeed, one can almost say that anyone writing creative nonfiction, be it in best-selling books or cutting-edge magazine pieces, owes some debt to Joseph Mitchell.
Q: Are you working on another book now?
A: Like most writers I have plenty of book ideas, but I’m not pursuing anything at the moment. With a college to run, I need to repay the great patience I’ve received from all my colleagues here at St. Norbert College while I finished “Man in Profile”—and that begins with no more books, at least for the immediate future!
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I would just want to thank everyone who has given this book so much time and consideration. I had a feeling it would get a lot of critical attention, given its subject, but I was knocked out by the number of substantive reviews and essays, and how thoughtful they were. Mitchell’s genius is acknowledged by common consent, but some of his reporting and writing practices raise cocked eyebrows today. I get that; I had a hard time with it myself, as I think one can see in the book.
But I’ve really appreciated how hard the reviewers have tried to balance those concerns against the great art Mitchell left behind—and in the end, they have almost universally come down on the paramount importance of the art. And I certainly agree.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb