Thursday, April 30, 2015

`Relevant Obscenity and All'

A friend sent me a link to “Execution,” a piece of reportage Joseph Mitchell wrote for the New York World-Telegram in 1934. Four years later, Mitchell joined The New Yorker and quickly left his apprenticeship and entered his prime. “Execution” was collected in Mitchell’s first book, My Ears Are Bent (1938). By his later standards, the newspaper work is callow. Even “Execution” – splendidly paced, elegantly plain in style – betrays lapses of tone not imaginable by the time he was writing the pieces that make up The Bottom of the Harbor (1959). When he describes Robert Elliott as “the precise little executioner,” the sarcasm is adolescent and jarring. The story’s best effects are achieved through rigorous neutrality. The story leaves me wanting to learn more not about the punks who are executed but about their executioner. 

The pleasures of My Ears Are Bent are less writerly than historical or journalistic. Mitchell was blessed with acute outsider eyes and ears.  He was born and educated in North Carolina and came to New York City in 1929. As he says in the first chapter (“My Ears Are Bent”), he had never before “lived in a town with a population of more than 2,699.” New York became his permanent home and it never stopped being simultaneously exotic and domestic. Like his closest friend, A.J. Liebling, Mitchell was a gifted listener and loved good talk. In his first reference to the phrase that serves as the source of his title, Mitchell says “. . . I have been tortured by some of the fanciest ear-benders in the world.” Then he gives us a paragraph I often contemplated during my years as a newspaper reporter: 

“Do not get the idea, however, that I am outraged by ear-benders. The only people I do not care to listen to are society women, industrial leaders, distinguished authors, ministers, explorers, moving picture actors (except W.C. Fields and Stepin Fetchit), and any actress under the age of thirty-five. I believe the most interesting human beings, so far as talk is concerned, are anthropologists, farmers, prostitutes, psychiatrists, and an occasional bartender. The best talk is artless, the talk of people trying to reassure or comfort themselves, women in the sun grouped around baby carriages, talking about their weeks in the hospital or the way meat has gone up, or men in saloons, talking to combat the loneliness everyone feels.” 

My only dissent is with Mitchell’s inclusion of psychiatrists in his list of interesting people. That hasn’t been my experience. The unlikeliest people can be artful talkers, which is not the same as bullshit artists. For three years back in the nineteen-nineties I wrote a weekly newspaper column that was little more than talk. Sometimes I felt like the guy who puts a coin in a slot machine and waits for the bells to chime. Apart from looking and listening, it didn’t take a lot of effort, a fact Mitchell understood:

“I admire the imagery in vulgar conversation. I wish newspaper had courage enough to print conversation just as it issues forth, relevant obscenity and all.” 

I look forward to reading Thomas Kunkel’s new biography, Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker (Random House, 2015), though the mystery of Mitchell’s long publishing silence at the end of his life is of little interest. A writer’s only obligation is to write well. If he does that even once in his life, he earns our gratitude. Mitchell did it many times.

1 comment:

Don said...

I am certainly curious to see if Kunkel gets at a plausible explanation for why Mitchell stopped publishing. How does a writer just stop -- especially when he hasn't consciously decided to?