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.”

Mitchell did so in a plainspoken, deliberately unfussy prose style. Kunkel accurately describes it as “the kind of prose that non-writers might have assumed was easy but that professionals knew was anything but.” Mitchell’s long, carefully constructed, fact-laden sentences often culminated in lists, which he used for both their musical effect and the authority they conveyed, whether he was describing New York Harbor’s sea life (“clams on the sludgy bottom, and mussels and mud shrimp and conchs and crabs and sea worms and sea plants”) or the gravestone carvings in a Staten Island cemetery (“death’s-heads, angels, hourglasses, hands pointing upward, recumbent lambs, anchors, lilies, weeping willows, and roses on broken stems”). “Setting these objects side by side in a row has an effect that is both as plain as Shaker furniture and as expansive as a cinematic tracking shot,” writes Luc Sante, one of the many contemporary writers influenced by Mitchell’s prose and outlook. Kunkel notes that “Mitchell stories may not have much plot, as such; the ‘action’ more typically involves human beings revealing themselves to us, bit by bit, usually in their own words, until we become privy to their innermost feelings and impulses.” Mitchell lays down sentences the way a master brick-layer builds a wall: deliberately, one increment at a time, allowing each row sufficient time to set. “I do believe that the most commonplace words are the ones that in the end have the most power,” he writes in an unpublished journal. “I’ll search endlessly for the right small words of a few syllables that hold something up. A foundation.”

* * *

The New Yorker was America’s first urban magazine. It was founded by Harold Ross (the subject of Kunkel’s previous book), the son of a Colorado silver miner and a schoolteacher. Ross was a high-school dropout who became a reporter in New York, where he had an idea for a magazine directed at novice metropolitans like himself. It would be a “reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life,” according to the 1924 prospectus. His insight was less demographic than aspirational. “You cannot keep The New Yorker out of the hands of New York–minded people, wherever they are,” announced a promotion for the magazine. “New York is not a tack on a map, not a city, not an island nor an evening at ’21.’ The New Yorker is a mood, a point of view.” And like The New Yorker‘s readers, most of its writers and editors came from elsewhere. “That very ‘otherness’ was key to The New Yorker‘s freshness and inventiveness, in that all those creative people were exploring their curiosity about New York within the magazine itself,” Kunkel writes.

Few were more curious about New York City than Joseph Quincy Mitchell, born in Fairmont, North Carolina, in 1908, to a family with roots going back to the Revolutionary War veteran Nazareth Mitchell. Generations of Mitchells farmed cotton, tobacco, timber, soybeans, and corn, and, while not wealthy, they were more comfortable than most in Robeson County, one of the poorest in the South. Joseph was the oldest son, and it was assumed he would eventually take over the family business, regardless of his inability to master the mathematics necessary to navigate the agricultural-commodity markets. He attended the University of North Carolina, where he became a devoted student of Stephen Crane, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, and Joyce, whose novel Ulysses, then banned, Mitchell was able to read because a friend smuggled a copy into the country for him. Mitchell became a Joyce devotee, a lifelong member of the James Joyce Society, who named his daughter, Nora, after the novelist’s wife. Ulysses was not the sole object of Mitchell’s interest in Joyce. “The novel that I get down most often is Finnegans Wake,” he wrote in his journal. “I read it over and over, just as one of my grandmothers used to read the Bible. I am now reading it for the seventh time.”

While at college, Mitchell composed fictional versions of the “field sketches” for which he would later become famous. When an article he wrote about tobacco farming was published in the New York Herald Tribune, he decided to go to New York and try his hand at journalism. He received no encouragement from his father, who asked him, “Son, is that the best you can do, sticking your nose into other people’s business?” Mitchell would spend the rest of his life shuttling between New York and Fairmont, a self-described “exile,” consumed by guilt for leaving home and disappointing his father.

Mitchell arrived in New York in time for the 1929 crash, an experience that added to his psychological baggage. “Looking back on it, I think I got scared during the Depression and never got unscared,” he wrote in an unpublished memoir. New York had more than a dozen daily newspapers at the time, and Mitchell got a copyboy job at The World, soon working his way up to a reporter’s position at the Herald Tribune and, finally, the World-Telegram, writing dozens of celebrity profiles of people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Kitty Carlisle, Jimmy Durante, and Tallulah Bankhead. It wasn’t long before Mitchell had become a marquee name, his stories regularly published on the front page, his picture featured on World-Telegram delivery trucks.

Mitchell’s literary journalism grew out of the work by late-19th-century muckrakers and novelists like Crane, Jacob Riis, and Lincoln Steffens. Crane, for one, thought nothing of chronicling the same incident in different genres, as he did when he wrote about being shipwrecked in a newspaper article, a short story, and a magazine piece. Crane used his novelist’s sensibility to render New York as a “mosaic of little worlds.” The historian Alan Trachtenberg wrote that while crusading journalists sought to convert “the reader to social sympathy,” Crane strove to turn “the sheer data into experience.” Taking his cue from Crane, Mitchell became a gifted listener who rendered the people in his stories with novelistic detail. “Mitchell coaxed his subjects with a great and animated enthusiasm, as if the secret to happiness or the meaning of life could be found in their sometimes-dreary monologues,” Kunkel writes.

Mitchell thrived at the World-Telegram, but his work wasn’t dramatically different from his colleagues’. That changed in November 1937, when he was assigned a six-part series on Franz Boas, the German-born Columbia professor of anthropology. The encounter was a “graduate-level seminar in anthropology that caused him to rethink, as a reporter, why people are who they are and do what they do,” notes Kunkel. As the interview proceeded, Mitchell realized that Boas was studying him, “a newspaper reporter,” much as an anthropologist might observe a member of a newly discovered tribe.

Boas was the father of what has come to be known as “cultural relativism”: the belief that societies can’t be ranked objectively, as was the pseudoscientific fashion of the time. He argued that differences between societies were explained by culture, not biology, and that as groups migrated, their traits merged and overlapped with those whom they encountered, resulting in what is today referred to as “hybridity.” Boas approached the societies he studied as subjects in their own right, possessing creativity and will. The anthropologist concluded the interview by giving Mitchell a copy of his book Anthropology and Modern Life. “Don’t take anything for granted, don’t take yourself for granted, or your father,” he advised the reporter. Mitchell left the encounter “feeling born again.”

Harold Ross hired Mitchell in 1938, assuming he’d get stories similar to those that had been appearing in the World-Telegram. In a sense, he was right, in that several of the people Mitchell had written about for the newspaper appeared in his early New Yorker stories as well. However, the encounter with Boas had altered his view of the world. “I began to see that I had written a lot of things that were highly dubious,” he recalled.

Here is his 1938 World-Telegram description of Mazie Gordon, the owner-operator of a seedy Bowery movie theater that provided a respite for men down on their luck:

She is known as “Miss Mazie” by the blighted men who exist in the walk-up hotels along the Bowery. Her real name is Mazie Gordon, and she is a blonde with a heart of gold. Her clothing is flamboyant, and she uses cosmetics with abandon.

Here is Mazie, two years later, in The New Yorker:

Sitting majestically in her cage like a raffish queen, Mazie is one of the few pleasant sights of the Bowery. She is a short, bosomy woman in her middle forties. Some people believe she has a blurry resemblance to Mae West. Her hair is the color of sulphur. Her face is dead white, and she wears a smudge of rouge the size of a silver dollar on each cheek…. “I got a public of my own, just like a god-damn movie-pitcher star.”

In the hands of Mitchell the anthropologist, Mazie becomes a willful, multidimensional character, not a stereotyped “blonde with a heart of gold.” Combining the tenacity of a fine reporter with the ethnographic insight of a social scientist, Mitchell discovered a perspective that wasn’t condescending or ingratiating, portraying his characters as neither victims nor heroes. “If the truth was known,” concludes Jane Barnell, the bearded lady whom Mitchell profiled in 1940, “we’re all freaks together.”

This is the Mitchell who inspired generations of writers by showing us how to observe something or someone without preconceptions, as if for the first time. In his hands, the intrepid urban reporter, simply by describing the scene with an air of sincere wonder, provides an oasis of ingenuousness in an all-too-knowing culture.

* * *

Getting hired by The New Yorker was both the best and the worst thing that happened to Mitchell. In order to provide its writers with something akin to a steady salary, the magazine had an unorthodox compensation plan according to which writers would draw money against future earnings, a system that left many of them working as indentured servants for years. The idea of being in debt so terrified Mitchell that he became the sole staff writer with a conventional salary, starting at $100 per week. At first, Mitchell maintained his World-Telegram level of productivity, publishing 13 pieces in 1939, half of which were fiction. Three of the pieces that made his reputation—”Lady Olga,” “Mazie,” and “The Old House at Home”—appeared in 1940.

He began to slow down in the 1950s, publishing only five stories. With his newfound sense of vocation, Mitchell spent more time reporting each of his stories. He began to suffer from depression, and with his small but regular New Yorker salary and revenue from the farm, there was little external pressure on him to produce. Everyone acknowledged that his work was getting even better, and some of his most probing, profound pieces appeared between 1950 and 1964, introducing the world to such memorable characters as Louis Morino, the owner of Mitchell’s favorite seafood restaurant, Sloppy Louie’s; Old Mr. Flood, the 95-year-old retired house wrecker who lived on a diet of fresh seafood, harbor air, and the occasional Scotch; George Henry Hunter, the chairman of the board of trustees of the African Methodist Church in Sandy Ground, Staten Island.

As the New York that Mitchell knew in the ’30s and ’40s began to slip away, a note of belatedness crept into his work, which had always possessed a healthy sense of nostalgia for the world he had come to know as a young man. His published work remained austere, but his private world grew more overwrought. “I collapsed inside with shame and with pure, unadulterated gazing-down-into-the-open-grave-as-the-coffin-is-lowered bitter choked-up scalding grief,” he writes when a mechanic informs him his car is beyond repair. The sections of Mitchell’s unpublished memoir that have appeared recently in The New Yorker are similarly fraught (“almost everybody has come to seem strange to me, including myself”), displaying the writer’s dark side with little of his humor. The self-doubt that dogged him has become crippling, and he fears that even his most famous painstakingly drawn characters are little more than “stereotypes.”

* * *

Today, the two most commonly asked questions about Mitchell are whether he made things up and why he stopped publishing. In his 1948 collection, Mitchell himself admitted that one of his most famous characters, Mr. Flood, was a composite. Kunkel reviews each of his stories with the thoroughness of a forensic detective, discovers a few more composites, but is unable to explain why Mitchell used them. A number of his early New Yorker pieces had been published as “fiction” rather than “fact,” so it was public knowledge that he was comfortable with both. That was clearly the case when he wrote about Mr. Flood, whom Mitchell explained was “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. I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts.”

The last sentence was probably unnecessary. No one doubted Mitchell’s reporting acumen, but when book publishers and admirers were unable to find some of his characters, it raised questions about the existence of the rest. Part of the magic of Mitchell’s writings had always been the way that he inhabited his characters (he assigned Mr. Flood his own birthday, July 27; both ate little other than seafood), imbuing them with the wisdom, perspective, and knowledge that he possessed. But after he confessed to having created some of his characters, the long, seductive quotes attributed to others seemed suspicious. The New Yorker had published composite characters before, especially in its early days, when Ross thought of the magazine as more humorous than serious. Kunkel discovers that, according to Mitchell, it was Ross who suggested that he bring his beloved Fulton Fish Market characters to life in a composite—so, unlike more recent fabulists, such as Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, the writer had the boss’s permission. And Mitchell feared that readers would conclude that all his characters were composites, which is why he added the note to the Mr. Flood collection. Today, composites are forbidden in all respectable publications, and there are journalism professors who won’t teach Mitchell. I think it makes more sense to think of Mitchell as an heir to Crane—a 19th-century man living in a 20th-century world.

As to why Mitchell stopped writing, Kunkel is less enlightening. Mitchell had been aware of Joe Gould since 1932, and in 1942 he pitched a profile of Gould as “a perfect example of a type of eccentric widespread in New York City, the solitary nocturnal wanderer,” adding that “that was the aspect of him that interested me most, that and his oral history.” When Gould learned that Mitchell wanted to profile him, he telephoned to greet him “at the beginning of a great endeavor.”

Little did Mitchell know that Gould would contribute to his undoing. As Kunkel writes: “In Gould, Mitchell found a near-doppelgänger. Like Mitchell, Gould had left behind his home and a disappointed father. Like Mitchell, Gould was a practiced listener.” It wasn’t until 1957, when Gould died, that Mitchell felt he could reveal the truth about his nonexistent oral history. “Joe Gould’s Secret,” the sequel to the 1942 profile, ran several times longer than the original and has a darker, more confessional tone than Mitchell’s previous work. In a long, melancholy passage, he describes the sprawling New York novel he had wanted to write when he was a young newspaper reporter. Mitchell’s mother died while he was in the middle of writing the second Gould piece, and his exhaustion is apparent in a letter to a North Carolina friend, in which he mentioned “a New Yorker Profile that I’ve been working on for what seems like the last three hundred years.”

* * *

The family business required that Mitchell spend more time in Fairmont in the 1970s and ’80s, but he continued to show up at his New Yorker office every morning when he was in town. Staffers would hear him typing away in his office, and their fascination reached the point where some would rummage through Mitchell’s trash can at the end of the day, in search of manuscript pages. Oddly, the standard answer to the question of why Mitchell stopped writing—that he was Joe Gould—was suggested by Stanley Edgar Hyman way back in 1965: “We realize that Gould has been Mitchell all along, a misfit in a community of traditional occupations, statuses, and roles, come to New York to express his special identity.” And Mitchell spoke freely about his relationship to Gould in a 1988 interview with the scholar Norman Sims. “To me a very tragic thing [about the Joe Gould profiles] is the story of so many people who bit off more than they could chew—and I’m one of them, you know…. Because he is me.” The difference between Mitchell and Gould, of course, is that the former died with a substantial body of work in which the latter exists only as a character.

One learns more about why Mitchell was unable to write from Janet Groth, a professor of English who became Mitchell’s confidante while a receptionist at The New Yorker in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Each week the two would take a long lunch at what remained of Mitchell’s favorite restaurants, discussing the writers they admired, like Joyce and Kafka. As they became closer, Mitchell told her more about the big book. “He told me…he had been trying to write for years—weaving into a seamless whole the passing of the old South, symbolized in the death of his father, and the passing of the old port-and-market New York.” Kunkel tells us that Mitchell decided to make himself the book’s protagonist, but Groth makes it clear that he was, finally, too much the self-effacing reporter to adopt the first-person voice that the New Journalists were experimenting with (and which he loathed), much less the confessional, first-person voice that publications like The Village Voice would give legitimacy in the ’70s. But if he didn’t use himself as a literary character, who, then, would carry such a sprawling, ambitious story? “Oh, Joe, what a cross you constructed for yourself, and how you crucified yourself upon it!” Groth writes. “It was as if Joyce had tried to write a day in Dublin and a day in Trieste.”