Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker by Thomas Kunkel

mitchell(Random House, 2015)

A non-fiction choice by Jean-Louis

Years ago I was listening to an afternoon show on CBC Radio (perhaps while driving a tractor) and the story mentioned this fantastic book called Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. It took me several years of having this title in the back of my mind and I finally acquired a copy of the book at a used book shop. Mitchell was a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine from the 1930’s until the early 1990’s when Up in the Old Hotel was published.

Thomas Kunkel has written a detailed biography of Mitchell, tracing his career as a newspaper man and on through his distinguished career with The New Yorker. Mitchell was known for his “profiles” of New Yorkers–usually the high-class low lifes who ran the taverns, captained the fishing boats, and even those who wandered the streets as bums. Mitchell was a southerner who had come to New York to write and he never quite lost his outsider viewpoint. His sympathy for his subjects is evident and his love for the city of New York is legendary.

In Man in Profile, Kunkel follows Mitchell as he publishes his major articles in the magazine and ultimately also publishes in book form. What is as remarkable as Mitchell’s writing is a decades long drought of publication. For decades Joseph Mitchell worked at The New Yorker without publishing a word. How did this come about, who allowed this to happen, and what was Mitchell doing are all issues Kunkel explores in his book. Along the way we also meet the famous editors who have helmed the magazine over the years and learn about their relationship with their star writer (and non-publishing) Mitchell.

Do yourself a favour if you are interested in Mitchell–and you should be if you want to discover a fine writer–also check out his book Up in the Old Hotel as it contains most of the writing Kunkel comments on his book. “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,” “Joe Gould’s Secret”, and his piece on Mohawk steel workers are all there to be enjoyed.

old hotel


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