Staff Pick: Up in the Old Hotel

by Joseph Mitchell

(Random House)

Have you ever wondered what the bearded lady drinks at a cocktail party? Or what motivates a street preacher? Or about the morality of gypsies?

Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) addressed these issues and other features of New York City's underbelly. He profiled members of the city's eclectic citizenry, described the city's venerable tavern, and examined the secret life of harbor rats in the richest detail as a staff writer for The New Yorker from 1938 until his death at age 87. At least he kept an office at The New Yorker during that time. Legend has it that one of the colorful personalities that populate Mitchell's tales gave him the severest documented case of writer's block.

The final entry in the Mitchell anthology Up in the Old Hotel was originally published in 1964, not quite 30 years after Mitchell joined The New Yorker staff, and just over 30 years before he departed this world. Of the latter period, Mitchell's colleague Roger Ansell observed: "Each morning he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office . . . . Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything except paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home." And on it continued.

So who done it? Which of Mitchell's ensemble cast of eccentrics possessed the power to break his finely tuned brain? Did Lady Olga frighten Mitchell into silence with her naturally fuzzy chin and cheeks? Did Reverend James Jefferson Davis Hall convince Mitchell that elegantly crafted essays are the work of the devil, and coerce Mitchell to repent? Did he drink his gift away at the bar of McSorley's wonderful saloon?

Up in the Old Hotel contains Mitchell's corpus, essays anthologized in five smaller collections after running originally in The New Yorker. After reading these 718 pages, you realize that the world was fortunate to have Mitchell describe it for as long as he did. His Rip van Winkle act matters not. The essays are keenly detailed, apparently the product of years of sensitive observation and numerous interviews. Mitchell's delivery is unhurried, though he never obsesses. He strolls along leisurely, but purposefully. To excerpt his prose in this format would be about like spray-painting a Mona Lisa in hot pink on a freeway overpass.

Mitchell's tales eschew plot in favor of density of detail. The stories entertain as narrative does, but involve the reader at a great depth. Reading Mitchell, one feels like a witness. Mitchell so comfortably, so faithfully renders the stories of his motley crew, that the reader begins, after a while, to believe Mitchell is one of them. This empathy that distinguishes Mitchell's art proved to be his undoing as an artist. A Harvard-educated Bowery bohemian named Joe Gould, star of Mitchell's 1942 essay "Professor Sea Gull," fascinated Mitchell with the process of his life's work, a massive tome Gould called The Oral History of Our Time. Following Gould's death, Mitchell sought a copy of The Oral History. He learned that the book existed only in Gould's mind. Mitchell never published another word. Whether he continued to compose stories in his mind for those last 30 years remains a matter of speculation and fantasy. The first 30 years of his career can all be found Up in the Old Hotel.

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