Wednesday, September 02, 2009

`Reporter as Human Being'

The moral and emotional climax of Joe Gould’s Secret (1964), Joseph Mitchell’s book-length profile of the once notorious Greenwich Village bohemian, is not when Mitchell realizes Gould is a fraud of colossal (if pathetic) proportions and his much-publicized 7-million-word An Oral History of Our Time never existed, as a less subtle and interesting writer would surely have made it. Rather, the protracted climax occurs in the weeks, months and ultimately years after the disclosure, when Mitchell comes to terms with the information and debates including it in a profile of Gould he is writing for The New Yorker:

“I have always deeply disliked seeing anyone shown up or found out or caught in a lie or caught red-handed doing anything, and now, with time to think things over, I began to feel ashamed of myself for the way I had lost my temper and pounced on Gould. My anger began to die down, and I began to feel depressed.”

Much of the rest of the book (this passage occurs on pages 143-144 in the Modern Library edition) details Mitchell’s mood swings and conscience-wrestling. All of this gives the lie to Janet Malcolm’s famously fatuous opening sentences in The Journalist and the Murderer:

“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse…”

These lines originally appeared in The New Yorker in 1989, seven years before Mitchell’s death. One wonders what he thought of their provocative obtuseness. Malcolm’s failure lies in the sweeping, no-exceptions nature of her generality. Do reporters lie to sources? Some do, of course. Do reporters manipulate, curry favor and flatter to secure the information they want, in ways that don’t rise to the level of unambiguous lying? Did I, in my years as a newspaper reporter? Certainly, but I never came to rely on it, no one was hurt and my conscience is placid, while Malcolm’s J’accuse reads as smug and free of nuance as a bumper sticker.

This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve read Joe Gould’s Secret, as I’ve read all Mitchell’s books except for The Bottom of the Harbor, which I’ve read even more often. I admire his prose and the thoroughness of his reporting but most of all I admire Mitchell’s humility before his subjects. When a reporter feels superior to the people he writes about, even if he claims to be championing their plight (perhaps especially then), it shows. The condescension leaks through the syntax and punctuation.

In contrast, Mitchell in some ways identifies with Gould. Mitchell gives us a five-page digression about a novel he had planned to write – or rather, to have written – modeled on Ulysses. He never wrote a word of it – how many of us have done that? – and yet it came to seem as real to him, Mitchell speculates, as Gould’s Oral History was to him. Mitchell understands, as Malcolm does not, that the human mind is a deviously complicated place. In his introduction to the Modern Library edition, Mitchell’s fellow New Yorker writer William Maxwell articulates a thought that might be titled Joe Mitchell’s Secret:

“[Joe Gould’s Secret] has so much about Mitchell – his habits and scruples, what he hoped to accomplish and what he was afraid might happen – that it seems at times to be as much about him as it is about Gould, and could almost be taken for a double Profile. To the best of my knowledge this had never been done before and constitutes a breakthrough: the Reporter as Human Being.”

Try to read the final page of Joe Gould’s Secret without being moved. Mitchell published it in two issues of The New Yorker and as a book in 1964, seven years after Gould’s death. He regularly reported to his office at the magazine for the next 32 years, until his death at age 87 in 1996, and never published another story or book of new material.

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