Fairmont couldn’t compete with ‘New York’s siren song’

A link posted by the indefatigable Jim Romenesko reminded me to check in with author Thomas Kunkel, who discovered Joseph Mitchell’s unfinished memoir while researching a biography of the uniquely esteemed New Yorker writer.
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.”

Joe Mitchell’s homesick struggle to belong

“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).


New Yorker rediscovers South according to W. J. Cash

“For a century after losing the Civil War, the South was America’s own colonial backwater — ‘not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it,’ W.J. Cash wrote in his classic 1941 study, ‘The Mind of the South’….

“Cash has this description of ‘the South at its best’: ‘proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal.’ These remain qualities that the rest of the country needs and often  calls on. The South’s vices — ‘violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas’ — grow particularly acute during periods when it it is marginalized and left behind. An estrangement between the South and the rest of the country would bring out the worst in both — dangerous insularity in the first, smug self-deception in the second.”

— From “Southern Discomfort” by George Packer in The New Yorker (Jan. 21, 2013)


Chapel Hill nightclub takes turn in literary spotlight

“It was maybe an hour before midnight at the Avalon Nightclub in Chapel Hill, and the Miz [a player on the MTV reality show “The Real World”] was feeling nervous. I didn’t pick up on this at the time — I mean, I couldn’t tell. To me he looked like he’s always looked, like he’s looked since his debut season, back when I first fell in love with his antics: all bright-eyed and symmetrical-faced, fed on genetically modified corn, with the swollen, hairless torso of the aspiring professional wrestler he happened to be and a smile you could spot as Midwestern American in a blimp shot of a soccer stadium.”

— From “Pulphead” (2011), a collection of essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan reviewed in The New Yorker (December 19)


Thomas Wolfe, a ‘great, obnoxious beast’?

“Thomas Wolfe, the novelist, has just taken an apartment at 865 First Avenue….Going down in the elevator the other morning, he was joined by a lady with a big police dog. The dog took an immediate liking to Mr. Wolfe, and began jumping up on him, and kissing him. Mr. Wolfe, who is only moderately fond of dogs, pushed this one away, whereat the lady spoke up sharply. ‘Wolfe!’  she said. ‘You great, obnoxious beast!’

“Being a gentleman, Mr. Wolfe made no reply, but he was terribly hurt. He spent the rest of the day wandering along the waterfront in the rain, bumping into warehouses and brooding, like a character in one of his own novels. However, the matter was cleared up when he returned home that evening. The elevator man explained that the police dog is named Wolf …. The lady… was bawling out the dog and not the novelist, whom, as a matter of fact,  she rather admires.”

—  The New Yorker, March 6, 1937

I’d be surprised if this Talk of the Town amusement wasn’t apocryphal. In fact, it almost predicts the Reggie Jackson (Eddie Murphy, et al.) urban legend of half a century later


N.C. was never Eustace Tilley’s kind of place

“Slowly the conviction deepens that not even Mr. Sinclair Lewis was able to do full justice to the Babbitt type….

“In a North Carolinian city, the local committees, Rotarians, Chamber of Commerce and the like, met to decide upon a form of welcome for the visiting [New York Symphony] which would sustain the South’s reputation for cordiality. At last they hit upon the ideal plan.

“When the tired members of the orchestra tumbled from their [railroad] car, they were met by the blare of fourteen wind instruments, tortured in the dissonances of the Shriners’ Brass Band.”

— Talk of the Town item in  The New Yorker, Sept. 26, 1925

The fledgling weekly took seven months to make its first mention of North Carolina, and a rave it wasn’t.

How Catfish Hunter paved way for Supermodels

Lauren [Hutton]: ‘We modeled by the hour before 1974 or 1975…. When the Revlon thing came, suddenly it was no longer about $60 an hour. I was getting $25,000 a day, and that was shocking.’

Paulina [Porizkova]: ‘How did that happen?’

Lauren: “I read an article about a sports guy named Catfish Hunter on the bottom right-hand corner of the New York Times front page one day. It said he was going to get a million-dollar contract….

” ‘It took six months to work out a contract [for me] that had never been worked out before, and basically all contracts [after that] were based on that.’

Paulina: ‘Lauren, I salute you….’ ”

— From an interview in Vogue magazine, cited by Malcolm Gladwell in “Talent Grab” (The New Yorker, Oct. 11, 2010)

It took more than Tweets to challenge segregation

“One crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter — David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil — was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room….
“It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, ‘Are you guys chicken or not?’ Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.”
— Malcolm Gladwell, arguing in The New Yorker (Oct. 4) that the tight bonds typical of the civil rights movement are far more effective at bringing about change than  “the kind of activism associated with social media” such as Twitter and Facebook.

Phone-book collectors without borders

“…The luminaries of phone-book collecting [include] Gwillim Law, a computational linguist in [Chapel Hill,] North Carolina, who at one point possessed more than 3,500 outdated volumes. (He has since started selling them off.)

“Law was inspired to begin his collection by an interest in cover art…. He continued collecting because ‘I just enjoyed the possibilities for looking things up…..At one point, I did a study of what fast-food chains there were in Connecticut by looking at all of the Yellow Pages.’ ”

— From a Talk of the Town item in The New Yorker, September 13, 2010

Phone-book collecting actually ranks among the more conventional of Gwillim Law’s many pursuits. He is, for instance, the father of statoids — that is, “major administrative divisions of countries.”

This entry from Law’s “Infrequently Asked Questions” page suggests his preoccupation with the concept:

Q. Are there any statoids whose names are palindromes?

A. Yes, there are eight…. Hajjah, Yemen; Karak, Jordan; Matam, Senegal (the latest addition); Nan, Thailand; Neuquén, Argentina; Oio, Guinea-Bissau; Oruro, Bolivia; and Oyo, Nigeria.