Man in Profile
By Thomas Kunkel
366 pp, $30
By Lee Coppola
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Before there was Jimmy Breslin, before there was Pete Hamill, before there was Gay Talese, there was Joseph Mitchell. All were chroniclers of New York City, Breslin, Hamill and Talese for newspapers, Mitchell for the New Yorker.
What they all had in common was providing readers with insights into people and places that weren’t newsworthy until they chose to write about them.
Mitchell, the son of a successful cotton farmer in North Carolina, was first introduced to the subject of his literary career when he was 8. It was love at first sight, the buildings, the noise, the masses of people, all so unlike his life in the South.
He went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and were it not for his difficulty with math, his future title might have been one he aspired to, Dr. Mitchell, M.D. That incapacity to calculate drove him to the liberal arts and a stint as writer for the university magazine. He had found his calling.
Following graduation, it was off to New York in search of a job as a reporter. His father, who wanted him to take over the growing family business, did not approve. “Son,” he told him, “is that the best you can do, sticking your nose into other people’s business?”
But it was the way Mitchell stuck his nose into other people’s business that made him one of the most respected writers of his era, which extended through the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. He was a prodigious listener, allowing his subjects to fully expound on the few questions he asked. He respected hard workers and seldom chose the rich or wellborn for his stories. And he loved to walk the streets of the city.
It was during those walks that his eyes and ears found the fodder for his work. At first it was for a newspaper, the New York World Telegram. But working for a newspaper, with its word and space limits, stifled him. Enter the New Yorker.
The New Yorker allowed writers to write, thousands of words, if necessary, installments, if necessary, days, weeks, months, if necessary, and fiction, if desired. Mitchell took full advantage. He was prodigious when it came to churning out stories.
He wrote about all sorts of topics: saloons and the men who ran them; ships and shipyards and the men who tended them; graveyards and their inhabitants; rivers and the communities they traversed; native Americans and the steel girders they walked. He did so with elegiac prose and deep insight into the locales and characters he chose to spotlight.
And he was scrupulous when it came to sitting down at his typewriter. For instance, for an article about rat-infested buildings, he gave his readers a historical and generic view of the city’s rodent population.
Thomas Kunkel, president of a tiny Wisconsin college and former dean of the University of Maryland journalism school, treats Mitchell as Mitchell treated subjects he brought to the pages of the New Yorker, with a kind of reverence and respect.
He offers the reader snippets of Mitchell’s work as he details his life and career. And he doesn’t shy away from the warts. Mitchell was known to imbibe a bit too much on occasion. He had a surly temper, on occasion. And, mysteriously, for more than a decade, he disappeared from the literary world.
Kunkel thinks he found the answer. Through interviews of family and friends and meticulous research into Mitchell’s writings, both published and unpublished, Kunkel determines Mitchell tried to write, tried to finish, but just couldn’t. As editors screamed for more and New Yorker readers wondered what happened to him, Mitchell was suffering from a severe bout of depression. It paralyzed him and cut short his literary output. In fact, as Kunkel notes, Mitchell’s last published work was a lengthy letter to his North Carolina hometown imploring the town not to allow a church expansion to invade his family’s property. It didn’t.
Ironically, as successful as he was in his writings, he wasn’t rewarded by his employer in accordance with his popularity and value to the New Yorker. He worked sometimes for salary and sometimes per piece, but either way it wasn’t sufficient for him to support his wife and two children in their Greenwich Village apartment. Kunkel figures Mitchell earned about $60,000 a year by today’s standards, forcing him to supplement his salary with his share of the income from the family cotton farm.
Most likely he would have had a far easier time financially if he had been able to master the intricacies of math, but then the literary world would have been deprived of a true giant.
He was 87 when he died in 1996.
Lee Coppola is a former print and TV journalist and the former dean of St. Bonaventure University’s Journalism School.