Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Two Josephs

I'm finally reading Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell. Actually, the book is composed of two classic essays, "Professor Sea Gull" and "Joe Gould's Secret," published twenty-two years apart in The New Yorker (1942 and 1964). The first essay is shorter by far. It's a profile of Gould, an eccentric, Harvard-educated homeless man in Greenwich Village, and one of the best things I've read in a while. It details, among other things, Gould's ongoing attempt to complete a massive oral history of modern times, his distaste for possessions ("If Mr. Chrysler tried to make me a present of the Chrysler Building, I'd damn near break my neck fleeing from him. I wouldn't own it; it'd own me."), and his spirited imitations of sea gulls at refined cocktail parties.

Here's a taste:
As long as he can remember, Gould has been perplexed by his own personality. There are a number of autobiographical essays in the Oral History, and he says that all of them are attempts to explain himself to himself. In one, "Why I Am Unable To Adjust Myself To Civilization, Such As It Is, or Do, Don't, Do, Don't, A Hell Of A Note," he came to the conclusion that his shyness was responsible for everything. "I am introvert and extrovert all rolled in one," he wrote, "a warring mixture of the recluse and the Sixth Avenue auctioneer. One foot says do, the other says don't. One foot says shut your mouth, the other says bellow like a bull. I am painfully shy, but try not to let people know it. They would take advantage of me." Gould keeps his shyness well hidden. It is evident only when he is cold sober. In that state he is silent, suspicious, and constrained, but a couple of beers or a single jigger of gin will untie his tongue and put a leer on his face. He is extraordinarily responsive to alcohol. "On a hot night," he says, "I can walk up and down in front of a gin mill for ten minutes, breathing real deep, and get a jag on."
The second piece, also fascinating, was published after Gould's death and sheds light on the previous essay.

Years ago, I owned Up in the Old Hotel, a collection of Mitchell's writing, but never really dove in. Technically, that copy might still be among my possessions -- in a parent's garage or a long-buried box or on the shelf of a friend who borrowed it and never returned it -- but I felt compelled to buy another copy today. I recently had lunch with a friend, who said, "It's amazing reading him now how clear his writing is, but also how obvious it is that he made lots of stuff up."

Joe Gould's Secret features a quote from Vogue on the cover that calls Mitchell "the great artist/reporter of our century." What a great slash that is. Not everyone agrees -- though my friend and I do -- that in some cases fudging of the facts can be forgiven if in the service of great artistry. Jack Shafer at Slate published this piece in 2003 about the reporters -- Mitchell, A. J. Liebling, H. L. Mencken -- whose legacy preceded Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and other recent "fabulists."
...Joseph Mitchell...also diluted fact with fib. In the mid-'40s, he wrote three New Yorker pieces about New York's Fulton Fish Market, which were presented as fact. Only when the stories were collected as a book, Old Mr. Flood, in 1948 did Mitchell offer this disclaimer: "Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past." In a 1992 article, the New Criterion catalogs a few of his embellishments: Mitchell assigned Flood his own birthday, July 27; his "gustatory predilections"; his love for the Bible; his high regard for Mark Twain; his taste for columnist Heywood Broun; and his affection for all things old.
For this reason and many others, it seems Mitchell was just as rich a subject as the city denizens he regularly chronicled. According to Wikipedia:
Mitchell's account of Gould's extravagantly disguised case of writer's block...presaged the last decades of Mitchell's own life. From 1964 until his death in 1996, Mitchell would go to work at his office on a daily basis, but he never published anything significant again. In a remembrance of Mitchell printed in the June 10, 1996, issue of The New Yorker, his colleague Roger Angell wrote: "Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained."


Anonymous JPW said...

I remember being riveted by that remembrance of Mitchell in the NYer. Plus, I think it related the following Mitchell quote that I summon whenever I'm in need of solace:

"Life is a goddamned mess, but you wouldn't want to miss it."

10:22 PM  

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