“Up in the Old Hotel,” by Joseph Mitchell (Vintage, $16.95)

December 1, 2008 at 5:42 pm Leave a comment

Joseph Mitchell, along with A.J. Liebling and one or two others, was a New Journalist 25 years before New Journalism was “invented” in the 1960s by sassy writers such as Tom Wolfe. So now, I suppose, it’s Old Journalism.

Old, perhaps, but by no means outdated, as Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel”- reissued by Vintage to mark his centenary (born July 27, 1908, in Fairmont, N.C.) – bears witness. Two other paperback collections are being reissued at the same time: “My Ears Are Bent,” also from Vintage, and “The Bottom of the Harbor,” from Pantheon.

(“Up in the Old Hotel” gives you the most bang for your buck. It incorporates “The Bottom of the Harbor” as well as three other, earlier collections: “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,” “Old Mr. Flood” and “Joe Gould’s Secret.”)

Mitchell died in 1996 at age 87, Liebling in 1963 at 59. As writers for The New Yorker, they staked out the same, or at least adjoining, turf: New York City bohemians, eccentrics, con men (and women), megalomaniacs, the offbeat and the unusual.

Every one of the three-dozen-plus pieces in “Up in the Old Hotel” immensely rewards your reading it. Mitchell writes about such people as “The Don’t-Swear Man,” who thinks even “gee whiz” puts you on the slippery slope to the real hard stuff. And about the Rev. James Jefferson Davis Hall, Episcopal priest and fire-breathing street preacher. (“The gutter is my pulpit, and the roaring traffic is my pipe organ. Hallelujah!”)

What is most intriguing, however, is Joe Gould, about whom Mitchell first wrote in 1942 in “Professor Sea Gull” and then again in 1964 in “Joe Gould’s Secret.” Gould was an articulate bohemian-cum-deadbeat who fascinated writers and artists in New York in the 1930s and ’40s.

He claimed to have translated Longfellow into sea gull language. He also reputedly was writing an “Oral History of the World” in school notebooks, which had reached 8 million words but of which no one had seen more than a few notebooks.

Mitchell began to suspect there was no “Oral History,” and he said so 22 years later in “Joe Gould’s Secret,” which proved to be Mitchell’s last appearance in print. By then, Gould had been dead seven years. Mitchell wasn’t angry at Gould; indeed, he sort of respected Gould for not having burdened the world with yet another not-so-good book.

Why? Because Mitchell had long been planning a novel but could never bring himself to burden the world with it. There is a lot of Joe Mitchell in Joe Gould, as well as in others of his subjects, particularly “Old Mr. Flood.”

By Roger K. Miller, author of the novel “Invisible Hero,” writes the blog graustark.blogspot.com.

Tampa Tribune

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