Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
|Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell|
|Reviewer: Lesley Mason|
|Summary: A journalstic literary backdrop to film noir. Full of observation, dry wit and a genuine affection for the people and the place. Rushdie called Mitchell the laureate of old New York - there's no better way of putting it. An enriching read.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 726||Date: July 2012|
One of the joys of reviewing books is when you stumble across something, know you are going to love it, ask for it, have it delivered and then spend a week or so being absolutely entranced. It could so easily have been a disappointment.
Joseph Mitchell is one of those men, one feels one should have heard of, should know about. Not just that, he is one of those, one wishes one could have known.
Mitchell was born in 1908 in Fairmont, North Carolina. He started writing at university and in 1929 he moved to New York to become a political writer. He was alternately delighted and frightened out of my wits by what I saw at night in Harlem. It's not quite clear why this would drive him to take a job on a freighter heading for Leningrad, but when he came back he worked as a feature writer at World-Telegramm, submitting freelance pieces elsewhere, before being taken on staff by the New Yorker. As William Fiennes says in his introduction to this newly issued collection of Mitchell's work, the New Yorker gave him two great gifts. The first was a form. The Profile.. (a major innovation at the time) and the second was Time...spending weeks or even months with his subjects, watching and listening.
Exactly what he watched, listened to, read around, considered and thought about filled numerous articles, which were collected into four books, which are now combined in the edition published in the early 1990s and re-issued by Vintage now. The four books are McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943), Old Mr Flood (1948), The Bottom of the Harbour(1960), and Joe Gould's Secret (1965). A couple of extra stories were added to McSorley's and Professor Sea Gull, which was later used as a prelude to Joe Gould, has been restored to its rightful place in the earlier collection.
In the Author's note to the 1992 edition, reproduced here, Mitchell highlights which stories are fictional and which factual – a distinction that he felt was almost irrelevant since all of them are true. Without his notes, it is entirely impossible to distinguish between the reportage and the story. At this distance in time that might as well be because the factual tales have a touch of unreality to them, as that the fictional ones ring authentic. Boundaries are blurred. Satisfyingly so.
Ultimately it doesn't matter whether specific incidents did happen, that specific people did exist and walk and talk and say these things. What matters is that they easily could have done so, and many of them did so or did something very similar.
It is a picture of a world long gone. A world I'm too young to have ever known and yet one that I somehow miss all the same.
How, then, to give a flavour of some 700 pages of combined whimsy and harsh reality?
Let's start in the Saloon in the early 1940s.
Reviews shouldn't rely on long quotations but forgive me this one. The opening of The Old House at Home the first piece is McSorley's: 'McSorley's occupies the ground floor of a red-brick tenement at 15 Seventh Street, just off Cooper Square, where the Bowery ends. It as opened in 1854 and is the oldest saloon in New York City. In eighty-eight years it has had four owners – an Irish immigrant, his son, a retired policeman, and his daughter – and all of them have been opposed to change. It is equipped with electricity but the bar is stubbornly lit with gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low cobwebby ceiling...There is no cash register, coins are dropped in soup bowls...and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox.
The essence of everything that follows is encapsulated right there. The observation, the conversational style, the affectionate acceptance of the thing reported. If that speaks to you at all, you will love the book.
If it doesn't, give it a chance anyway, maybe the history will grab you..or maybe the humour.
The first book is broken into three sections. There are 20 stories in this first, ranging from 10 pages to 46 which take us into the heart of the saloon, its history and some of the people of have frequented it or the area around it.
People like bossy, yellow-haired Maisie – possibly the best friend a tramp could ever wish for – free with her nickels and times, but working her job right all the same.
People like Joe Gould, Professor Sea Gull, a chancer of the ultimate degree, who treats being a bum as a profession not an unfortunate transient state. Gould will return to haunt Mitchell later and provide the entire subject matter for the final book. Here we are simply introduced to him as a native of Norwood, Massaachusetts, from a family of physicians, who is transcribing the oral history of the world, leaving the exercise books with his precious scribblings with trusted individuals all over town, in between talking to the Seagulls, or pretending to be one. Upon graduating, his mother asked him his intentions: I intend to stroll and ponder – he was true to his word to the end.
Or garrulous old southerner the Reverend Mr James Jefferson Hall the greatest and most frightening street preacher in the City. Scary he might be, but he has an interesting approach to doctrinal dogma Way I figure, you can sprinkle a man or you can totally immerse him face forward, sideways, head first or feet first, and its all the same, so long as the water's pure and he doesn't drown.
Not to mention the bearded lady and the child prodgigy and height-immune riveters of the Caughnawaga Mohawks.
In amongst it all are wry observations that ring true today. Commodore Dutch used to 'listen to the personalities, what they call celebrities nowadays, only a personality was somebody, but a celebrity, who the hell is he?
It's a world full of chancers and fixers and protection money. I'm young enough and ignorant enough to have had to look up Tammany Hall, but if the expression means anything to you, you'll know the world we're in.
There are long and wonderful portraits of the gypsies who have settled in the City, but see no reason why that should mean they adopt city ways. Given how comfortable they are in their own skin, and a sense of honour that looks after its own, but sees nothing wrong with robbing blind those too stupid to see they're being conned, I could almost agree with them.
The joy of reading Mitchell is that he must have asked the questions, but he has the sense to get well out of the way of the answers. Many of the stories are long monologues from his subjects. It is unlikely that so many of them opened up in this way, more probable that he skilfully edited as series of disjointed responses into a coherent whole. In doing so, he lets the subjects' voice drown out his own.
Or so it seems – for when you read the articles consecutively, there is another stylistic and tonal coherence, which can only be Mitchell's. Like Orwell he deplored tinsel words and believed in writing very precisely. Like Orwell, he had that gift of not only writing that way, but of seeing the world that way. Observation of the detail and skilful reproduction of it. That one of his favourite authors was Mark Twain comes as no surprise.
The second and third sections comprise fictional short stories – but by this time you will be so immersed in the place and the people, you may not notice.
The second collection proper Old Mr Flood moves away from the Bowery to the dock area around the Fulton Fish Market. Mr Flood is an amalgam of many of the characters Mitchell met in what was one of his favourite loitering spots and these three short pieces are really a single extended portrait of the life and times of the market.
Book 3 is The Bottom of the Harbour and we stay in and around the docks
The old Hotel of the collection title is our first destination. It is what lurks above Mitchell's favourite restaurant Sloppy Louie's. The piece starts as a portrait of the restaurant and its owner, but then we hear of the unexplored floors above the building and the proprietor's fear of what might be up there. Strange building adaptations mean that it's no simple matter to just go up and look, and maybe that's the source of the intrigue. Fear of the unknown. It's dead space. Fear of death. Of course, our hero-author agrees to go look...
The remainder of this collection is about the rivermen... indeed about what it means to be a river man. Although he didn't make his living from the river or the ocean beyond, in some ways Mitchell was more of one than some who did fish the waters. He was drawn time and again back to it. Again meet individuals and share their very personal concerns for a while, but it is as much a portrait of a way of living, as of a way of life, and sadly both are long gone.
Then finally we come back to Joe Gould, Professor Seagull in Joe Gould's secret. This extended piece tells the full story of Michell's interaction with the strange scribbling tramp, from their first meeting, through a wishe-for and then resented, entwinement, through an estrangement and a rapprochement... and at the heart of it all the oral history and the secret.
This was the last piece Mitchell ever published. It is by far the most personal piece. Not just about Joe but about the author as well. Speculation about why, although he continued to turn up for work for the next thirty one years, he never submitted another piece, is ultimately pointless. My personal view is that the Joe Gould experience, gave him a crisis of faith. Not in his writing, that was assured – and he did continue to write. But in the nature, significance and relevance of truth and whether it needs to be told.
I could be wrong. Maybe he just saw the old world shifting and didn't connect so well with the new.
Either way, I'm enriched for the writing he did leave behind.
Credit too, to the designers at Vintage. The black and white picture of a porter at Fulton Fish Market with the elegant early skyscrapers in the background, men in hats, is every bit as eloquent as Mitchell's words.
The writers who compare best with Mitchell are those he himself loved, Orwell and Twain. If you haven't read any Mark Twain: how? why not? If you haven't read Orwell beyond Animal Farm, start with Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell and then check out his newspaper contributions.
You can read more book reviews or buy Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Up In The Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell at Amazon.com.
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