The Universal Notebook: My hero, Joseph Mitchell

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Most readers have favorite authors and most writers have heroes, writers who have informed and inspired their own efforts, however meager.

Some of my literary heroes are F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Albert Camus, J.D. Salinger and John Updike. They inspired the novelist I never became.

As a journalist I was inspired by practitioners of the New Journalism like Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Joan Didion. They ruptured the membrane between fact and fiction, objective observation and subjective evocation, writing non-fiction prose that read like fiction.

I am also a great admirer of “New Yorker” writers like E.B. White, Roger Angell and John McPhee. My personal hero, however, was and is Joseph Mitchell, a “New Yorker” staff writer who presaged the New Journalism by 30 years. Joseph Mitchell was on the staff at the “New Yorker” from 1938 until his death in 1996 at age 87. One of magazine’s pantheon of individualists and eccentrics, Mitchell went to the office every day until he died, but he did not publish anything after 1965.

Edgar Allen BeemAs it happens, I discovered Mitchell that very year when, as a sophomore in high school, I picked up a copy of “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Mitchell’s book-length profile of a New York character who claimed to have written “The Oral History of Our Time,” though no one had ever seen (or ever will see) his magnum opus.

Joe Gould styled himself as the last of the bohemians and was known around Greenwich Village as Professor Seagull for his practice of talking to the gulls. (I talk to crows, but that’s as close as I ever got to eccentricity.) Something about this strange old fellow and the fact that Joseph Mitchell took him seriously enough to write a book about him captured my imagination.

As a librarian at Portland Public Library in the 1970s, I discovered Mitchell’s oddball oeuvre, a collection of stylish profiles of denizens of the Bowery and lower Manhattan, and recommended them to discerning readers and writers. His books include “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,” “My Ears Are Bent,” “The Bottom of the Harbor,” “Old Mr. Flood” and “Joe Gould’s Secret.” A generous selection of his writings was published as “Up in the Old Hotel” in 2008 and a biography by Thomas Kunkel titled “Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker” came out in 2015.

My Mitchell favorite is “Old Mr. Flood,” a slender little volume that gathered three “New Yorker” profiles in 1948. It cost $2 when new and I paid $12 for a used copy in 1987.

Mr. Hugh G. Flood had owned H.G. Flood Demolition & Salvage Co., Inc. and lived in retirement in a single room in the Hartford hotel at the corner of Pearl and Ferry and Peck Slip. As a pensioner he haunted Fulton Fish Market, determined to eat a seafood diet that would keep him alive and well until July 27, 1965, at which time he would be 115 years old.

Though Mitchell describes Mr. Flood in great detail, he was, in fact, an amalgam of several waterfront characters. Mitchell was a Southerner with an ear for storytelling and an eye for detail. He covered the ordinary life of old New York with extraordinary affection.

If you need a few hours of diversion from the coarseness of 21st century life, I recommend Joseph Mitchell, who once wrote, “It is safe to write accurately only about the nuts and bums. When a public figure does something ridiculous reporters may then write about him accurately.”

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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