Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of ‘The New Yorker
by Thomas Kunkel
2015, Random House
384 Pages, $30.00
If you have any interest in journalism as a reporter and/or as a wannabe feature writer, Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, is a good place to start. Kunkel recreates in vivid detail the life and times of Joseph Mitchell, who spent nearly six decades, from September 1938 until his death in 1996, as a staff writer at the fabled Manhattan-based weekly, The New Yorker.
A “Tar Heel” to the core, Mitchell was born in 1908 in Fairmont, North Carolina. His father, Averette Nance, known as “A.N.,” owned a sprawling cotton and tobacco farm located in the coastal plains. He was a dominating presence in his son’s life—a man with, unfortunately, little or no sense of humor. His college-educated mother, Elizabeth, mercifully, loved books and instilled in him a zeal for learning, with emphasis on the splendid works of Mark Twain and Jack London. Growing up, Mitchell also devoured Shakespeare and the Irish wordsmith, James Joyce. He could recite from memory long sections of their writings, including Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake!
Raised on a farm, Mitchell also learned to pay attention to the weather, nature, the land, the neighboring farmers, and even the creatures in the swamps. These observational skills, including becoming a great listener, he would take with him into his writing career. His father advised him, “Don’t let anyone know what you’re thinking; that might give them an advantage over you.” Mitchell, in turn, would become “very circumspect” about himself and his work.
After graduating from North Carolina U. and rejecting his father’s plea to stay in the state and become a doctor, Mitchell headed to New York City to make a living. It was just after the stock market crash of 1929; his timing couldn’t have been worse. After pounding the sidewalks and covering the neighborhood police courts in Gotham, he then worked for a number of dailies, such as the Herald Tribune and the World-Telegraph. Mitchell evolved into “a literary writer of the first rank,” according to Kunkel. In fact, while living in New York and hanging out in legendary pubs in the Village, such as McSorley’s, Mitchell became a faithful member of the James Joyce Society.
He also began a long love affair with the city. His book, My Ears Are Bent, is a collection of many of his early stories, which included celebrity profiles. A habitual walker of Gotham’ streets, docks, and markets, Mitchell first saw this metropolis, with its “skyscrapers,” when he was only ten years old. He prophetically told his dad at that time: “This is for me.”
Mitchell, a dapper dresser, who was alway seen wearing a fedora, soon married his “soul mate,” Therese Jacobsen, a “daughter of Scandinavian immigrants.” She was a photographer. They had two girls together. For most of their time in New York City, they lived in a small, crowded apartment in the Village. His pay at The New Yorker was a little over a $100 a week. In the middle of the great depression, however, that wasn’t a problem.
What was it about Mitchell’s prolific profiles in The New Yorker that set him apart from other writers? Dan Frank, who edited Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of his New Yorker writing, put it this way: “Joe took ‘Sloppy Louises’, and ‘Mr. Hunters,’ and represented them with all the imagination, depth, and complexity that a novelist employed in the creation of his characters.”
It turned out Mitchell wasn’t without his flaws. He made things up! In fact, in shades of Jayson Blair of the New York Times, some of Mitchell’s subjects, such as “Hugh G. Flood,” didn’t exist. He was a composite created supposedly in the name of a higher literary good. Kunkel deals sensitively with this issues and other journalistic’s failings on Mitchell’s part. The author also has an explanation of sorts for why Mitchell never wrote another word from 1964 until his death in 1996—32 years of writer’s block—but I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say, Kunkel’s book skillfully captures Mitchell, warts and all, and an era in our literary history worthy of a spotlight.
Bill Hughes is a photojournalist and author. His book, “Baltimore Iconoclast,” can be found at http://bookstore.iuniverse.com/Products/SKU-000076922/Baltimore-Iconoclast.aspx