I feel an enthusiasm that comes with the Christmas season. The snow and time off and away from my job, which I love as deeply as I have loved anything non-human, feeds this enthusiasm for writing and reading, and holding a book in my hand, especially a really nicely designed and published paperback, brings me joy.
I’ve begun studying for a course in profile journalism I’m taking this spring, online, through the Harvard Extension School. I’m fifty pages into a well-written nonfiction book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I’ve started a monster of a 600-page collection of profiles called Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker. The first piece is called “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” by Joseph Mitchell, a longtime writer for many publications in New York, who died in 1996. His New York Times obituary says that
He wrote during a time when New Yorkers were mostly convinced that they were of good heart and that they had the best of intentions, whatever the rest of the world thought of their abrasiveness and contentiousness. Mr. Mitchell’s articles offered evidence that they were right.
Let me tell you something: New Yorkers are still mostly convinced of this. My father’s generation taught mine well. It’s difficult to be this kind of person and live outside of New York, though, especially when you’re not trying to convince anyone else that you have a good heart. My thinking is Who the Hell are you? which is also very New York.
I connected with Mr. Mitchell more in his obituary than in his writing. Mitchell was a well-respected writer and could even be considered an early practitioner of the New Journalism. His approach was to eschew famous subjects in favor of those outside the public periphery (ex-convicts, drunks, circus side-shows, and bartenders). In my very early assessment, and limited knowledge of these writers, he strikes me as the New York version of Chicago’s Studs Terkel.
I love Terkel’s work. In his collection of profiles, American Dreams: Lost and Found, Terkel (I occasionally have to remind students not to refer to authors by their first names, but I can think of nothing more appropriate than to call him ‘Studs’ here.) writes the profiles in the first person, taking on the persona of his subjects, filtering them through his sensibilities as a literary craftsman.
Mitchell doesn’t do this, though, at least not in “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” He begins the piece in an essayistic style (“When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island…”) reminiscent of the straightforward personal prose of Whitman or Kerouac – a style I was born to love, but when he communicates the words of his subjects, he resorts to remembered dialogue that lasts for 300-400 words without a break. I don’t have a problem with remembered dialogue in a profile, but Mitchell’s intention seems to be to communicate information more than develop character. The long stretches of dialogue from his subjects seem to come from the same person. Mitchell makes me interested in the people, but fails to deliver their voices.
Instead, I connected most with Mitchell’s struggles as a writer. His Times obituary notes
If his name is not as widely known as it might have been, that is mostly because for the last three decades of his life, he wrote nary a word that anybody got to see. For years, he would show up at his tiny office at The New Yorker every day and assure his colleagues that he was working on something, but that it was not quite ready.
In devoting his life and craft to telling the stories of others, he seems to have rendered himself invisible.