“Thomas Kunkel’s biography adds some telling details to what [Joseph] Mitchell’s readers already know about his childhood as the eldest son of a prosperous cotton and tobacco grower in North Carolina. Perhaps the most striking of these is Mitchell’s trouble with arithmetic—he couldn’t add, subtract, or multiply to save his soul—to which handicap we may owe the fact that he became a writer rather than a farmer. As Mitchell recalled late in life:
You know you have to be extremely good at arithmetic. You have to be able to figure, as my father said, to deal with cotton futures, and to buy cotton. You’re in competition with a group of men who will cut your throat at any moment, if they can see the value of a bale of cotton closer than you. I couldn’t do it, so I had to leave.
“Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina [1925-29] without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one….”
— From “The Master Writer of the City” by Janet Malcolm in the New York Review of Books (April 23)
But the reddest meat in Kunkel’s “Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker” is the revelation of how much fiction Mitchell infused into such classic works as “Joe Gould’s Secret” and “Up in the Old Hotel.” (“Does It Matter?” some ask.)
Earlier: Kunkel on Mitchell’s Fairmont roots.
“In one of his more notable generosities back in Washington [as editor of the City Paper], he purchased copies of Joseph Mitchell’s ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ for the entire staff. He signed mine, ‘To Jelani, This will show you the way.’ Not quite. That was a distinction that belonged largely to him.”
— From “Postscript: David Carr (1956-2015)” by Jelani Cobb at The New Yorker (Feb. 13)
I was pleased — if momentarily surprised, given their generational divide — to see that Joe Mitchell’s admirers included David Carr, the irreplaceable, too-soon-gone New York Times media writer.
Coincidentally, the New Yorker this week published the last fragment of Mitchell’s never-finished memoir, in which he reflects on “a hodgepodge of pasts,” including “the past of a small farming town geographically misnamed Fairmont down in the cypress swamps and black gum bottoms and wild magnolia bays of southeastern North Carolina, a town in which I grew up and from which I fled as soon as I could but which I go back to as often as I can and have for years and for which even at this late date I am now and then all of a sudden and for no conscious reason at all heart-wrenchingly homesick….”
“There is a newspaper published in Lumberton, which is the largest town in Robeson County and the county seat, named the Robesonian. It is an old paper — it was a hundred years old several years ago — that prints news from all over the county. Shortly after I came to New York City, I subscribed to the Robesonian, out of homesickness, and I still subscribe to it; it is as necessary to me and as much a part of my life as the New York Times….”
— From “Days in the Branch: Remembering the South in the city” by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker (Dec. 1)
In this second and apparently final chapter of Mitchell’s unfinished memoir, he happens onto the 1790 census and finds countless names he still sees on trips back to Robeson County — “on the fronts of stores and filling stations and sawmills and cotton gins and tobacco warehouses and on the sides of trucks and on roadside mailboxes and on miscellaneous roadside signs.”
His deep dive into the minutiae-packed pages of the Robesonian will stir nostalgia in anyone who has ever subscribed to a small-town paper.
Here’s an excerpt from a previous chapter in The New Yorker.
Kunkel took a break from his duties as president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis., to recall via email his impressions of Mitchell’s native Fairmont:
“I have been to Fairmont several times, but those visits were very early in my research and I am almost embarrassed to say how long ago that was.
“The place did not leave a huge impression on me, I have to say, but that was in part because I was focusing more intently on the people I was there to see — Joe’s youngest brother, Harry, for instance, and his nephew Jack, whom he was very close to.
“I come from southern Indiana, which has many similar small towns and is a big farming area, so that backdrop all felt very familiar. It was a friendly place but the sort of small town that you see today and wonder how on earth people make it. And certainly I got the sense why a creative young fellow in 1929, no matter how much he loved the place, might have been tempted by New York’s siren song. But for outsiders like Joe Mitchell gravitating to New York, there never would have been a New Yorker magazine!”
“To be honest, I regret that I hadn’t found Joe’s memoir-in-progress recollections of Fairmont before I spent time there. His memories are so vivid that I would have looked the place over again in a new light — as I may yet do.”
“Several years ago… I began to be oppressed by a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn’t belong here anymore. I sometimes went on from that to a feeling that I never had belonged here, and that could be especially painful. At first, these feelings were vague and sporadic, but they gradually become more definite and quite frequent. Ever since I came to New York City, I have been going back to North Carolina for a visit once or twice a year, and now I began going back more often and staying longer. At one point, after a visit of a month and a half, I had about made up my mind to stay down there for good, and then I began to be oppressed by a feeling that things had gone past me in North Carolina also, and that I didn’t belong down there anymore, either. I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was. When I was in New York City, I was often homesick for North Carolina; when I was in North Carolina, I was often homesick for New York City. Then, one Saturday afternoon, while I was walking around the ruins of Washington Market, something happened to me that led me, step by step, out of my depression. A change took place in me. And that is what I want to tell about.”
— From the last paragraph of “Street Life” by Joseph Mitchell in The New Yorker (Feb. 11 and 18, 2013)
Something new from the late and legendarily blocked Joe Mitchell?
The editors explain: “Thomas Kunkel, while researching a forthcoming biography of Mitchell, learned of several chapters of an unfinished memoir that Mitchell started in the late sixties and early seventies.”
So more chapters are queued up at 4 Times Square? Fans of the Fairmont native may have cause for anticipation (although only in the New Yorker would “And that is what I want to tell about” qualify as a cliffhanger).