In the winter of 1988, I arrived in New York with more enthusiasm than good sense—and no journalism experience—hoping to become a writer. Although only an intern at The Nation, I was casting around for people I might eventually profile. One such character was a brilliant autodidact, who happened to live in the apartment one floor below mine.
“That sounds like Joe Mitchell’s pieces about Joe Gould,” a friend of mine commented when I mentioned the idea. The blank look on my face betrayed the fact that I hadn’t heard of either. “You want to be a writer and you don’t even know who Joseph Mitchell is?” he said, voice dripping with scorn.
Humiliated, I did some research and discovered that Mitchell’s last published article, “Joe Gould’s Secret”—about the Village eccentric also known as Professor Seagull, who claimed to be the author of the longest book ever written, the (entirely imaginary) Oral History of Our Time—had appeared in The New Yorker in 1964, a year after I was born. There were no paperback editions of Mitchell’s four collections, and the hardcovers were long out of print, fetching steep prices in secondhand bookstores, if you could find them at all. I also discovered an old photograph of Mitchell, and learned that he lived with his wife and daughters in a modest apartment building on West 10th Street. It wasn’t long before I spotted him strolling down lower Fifth Avenue, wearing his signature three-piece Brooks Brothers suit, freshly polished shoes, and a fedora. I still hadn’t read anything by him, but at least I knew who he was.
According to Thomas Kunkel’s biography, Man in Profile, I wasn’t alone. By the late ’80s, Mitchell “had come to grasp the dreadful irony: If he was known by a modern audience at all, it was for not writing.” A Mitchell renaissance began in 1992, when Pantheon Books published Up in the Old Hotel, his collected New Yorker nonfiction, which spent several weeks on the bestseller list and still sells steadily in paperback. A new generation of readers discovered Mitchell (Born Again was the title he suggested for the collection), and interest in his work continued to grow after he died from lung cancer in 1996, at the age of 87, the year Joe Gould’s Secret was reissued as a stand-alone volume. A charming movie version of it, starring Stanley Tucci as Mitchell and Hope Davis as his wife Therese, appeared in 2000.
Why all the fuss about a New Yorker writer who published virtually nothing during his final 32 years? Mitchell had received an unusual degree of attention since 1943, when the literary critic Malcolm Cowley deemed him “the best reporter in the country,” at least at “depicting curious characters,” in The New Republic. Comparing his characters to those of Dickens, Cowley explained Mitchell’s basic method: He “likes to start with an unimportant hero, but he collects all the facts about him, arranges them to give the desired effects, and usually ends by describing the customs of a whole community.” In 1965, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman wondered whether the claims made on Mitchell’s behalf by Cowley and others were too modest. He argued that Mitchell was no ordinary magazine writer, “a reporter only in the sense that Defoe is a reporter, a humorist only in the sense that Faulkner is a humorist.” According to Hyman, Mitchell was involved in a more ambitious philosophical project: exploring existential imponderables like “human dignity,” “fertility and resurrection,” and “the depths of the unconscious.”