‘I wish this guy hadn’t written this book’

About halfway through Thomas Kunkel’s remarkable new biography of Joseph Mitchell a feeling of dread swept over me. I called a friend and said, “I wish this guy hadn’t written this book.”

Any writer with aspirations in literary journalism — or creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction, whatever phrase suits you — has to reckon with Mitchell, the late New Yorker reporter who wrote portraits of oystermen, bearded ladies, saloon keepers, gypsies, and other assorted characters sometimes described as New York City’s little people, a construction of words Mitchell detested. “They are as big as you are,” Mitchell would say, “whoever you are.”

Mitchell’s work inspired a couple generations of nonfiction writers. In graduate school, having no life, no girlfriend, and no premium cable TV channels, I often wandered over to the library late at night to read Mitchell stories in old bound copies of the magazine, preferring the original type, set next to Aqua Velva ads, to the anthologies on my bookshelves.

What did I love? His characters, of course, the way Mitchell used them to explore a disappearing time and place — post-Depression New York — that he preserved in prose. Mitchell drew those characters in simple, direct sentences, quietly dazzling me. “Commodore Dutch,” he wrote in one of my favorite pieces, “is a brassy little man who has made a living for the last forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself.”

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His “naturalistic, unforced, and elegant style,” Kunkel writes, was “the kind of prose that non-writers might have assumed was easy but that professionals knew was anything but.” Mitchell would recast sentences dozens of times, then use scissors to cut and arrange them. The assembled whole, Kunkel writes, would unspool “novelistically, often ending up in places a reader scarcely could have predicted at the outset.”

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When he died in 1996, the New York Times obituary said Mitchell’s “nonfiction had grace and was rich with the sort of people a reader could find in Joyce or Gogol.” But he was not a particularly famous writer, the obit noted, because he had spent the last 30 years of his life showing up to work every day at The New Yorker without publishing a single word, one of journalism’s most intriguing mysteries. His last story, in 1964, was “Joe Gould’s Secret,” a two-part profile of a street character compiling an oral history of the world, which it turns out existed mostly in his head. (I own the issues with this profile and would protect them against theft with my fists.)

The mystery of what Mitchell was doing in his office was so beguiling that other New Yorker writers sometimes foraged through his trash. When I heard that Kunkel, whose previous book is a well received biography of New Yorker founder Harold Ross, was working on a Mitchell bio I hoped we would finally get some answers. We did, of a sort. Kunkel turned up three memoiristic fragments that Mitchell apparently intended for an opus on New York City and his early life in North Carolina that he never quite made headway on, suffering, it seems, from depression, distraction, an inability to find the right characters, and a crippling bout of perfectionism. In some ways, he became Joe Gould.

But that’s not the real news. About halfway through the book Kunkel reveals evidence of Mitchell relying on techniques that might have been quietly accepted as his pieces were published back then but are first-degree felonies now: composite characters, rewriting quotes to enliven the language, altering narrative details, and moving dialogue from one day to another. There is evidence that Mitchell conspired with Ross to keep some of these tactics secret, suggesting Mitchell knew what he was doing was wrong.

For me, learning these things was like a kid discovering his favorite baseball player whacked long home runs while juicing on steroids. I called Kunkel and told him how I felt, that I came to wish he hadn’t written the book. He replied, “I think there is probably going to be some of that out there.” And sadness, too. Gay Talese, my mentor and friend, told me he was dismayed by the news. “To hear that one of the guys I grew up admiring did things I don’t think I’d want to be accused of doing, it’s troubling and sad,” he said. John McPhee, the current dean of New Yorker writers, told me, “If you were setting up the criteria for nonfiction you wouldn’t want those types of practices.”

All journalism is a kind of fiction. The writer gets to choose what to put in and what to leave out, shaping the story in different ways than another writer would, even after witnessing the same events. The transaction between the writer and reader consists of an implicit trust that the writer will deliver a reasonable facsimile of people and events as they appeared when the reporter saw them.

Mitchell, it turns out, did not always think of nonfiction that way, particularly when it came to his character’s actual existence. In 1942, in a piece labeled as a profile, Mitchell introduced readers to a gypsy named Cockeye Johnny Nikanov. “His face is round and swarthy and sprinkled with smallpox scars,” Mitchell wrote. “He has high cheekbones and a flattened nose. Because of a cast in his left eye, there is always an alert, skeptical expression on his face; he looks as if he does not believe a word he hears.”

The skeptical expression would have looked better on the reader’s face. Kunkel turns up a peculiar letter Mitchell sent the magazine’s lawyer two decades after his story appeared. A director inquired about making a musical of the gypsie’s life, but Mitchell protested, saying Cockeye Johnny wasn’t in the public domain. “He is a fictional character, and I invented him,” Mitchell wrote the lawyer. His attempt to write a definitive profile of a gypsy king wasn’t coming together, he told the lawyer, “because of wartime conditions not a single one of the gypsy kings in the city at that time was really a representative one.” With Ross’s consent, Kunkel reveals Mitchell made up Cockeye Johnny based on other gypsies he knew. (Mitchell knew a lot of gypsies.)

Mitchell served up another fictional character — Hugh G. Flood, a seafoodetarian— a couple years later in a series of stories about the Fulton Fish Market labeled as a “Profile” or “Reporter at Large.” Mitchell made up Flood, again with Ross’s consent, after a key character at the market wouldn’t cooperate. Flood, who said things like, “If the cook is a drunk, so much the better,” became so famous that reporters and readers sought him out. A publisher wrote Mitchell asking whether Flood would be interested in writing an autobiography. Mitchell replied, “I’m sorry, but I don’t think Mr. Flood would be interested.”

Mitchell said he was working on his own biography of Flood, which was somewhat sincere. In 1948, he released a collection of the three pieces, and in an author’s note he copped to the truth: “Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in the Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past.” And then he got to his justification: “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts.” This is the first time Mitchell publicly acknowledged presenting fiction as fact.

In the Flood stories, the main character and most of the secondary characters were fictional, Kunkel writes, but the settings and some specifics, including how clammers landed their clams, were real. Mitchell used the Flood character, Kunkel writes, to say and think things about “the march of mortality, the serendipity of life, the fickle humor of our condition, the power of good food and drink” — all themes that consumed Mitchell. In an interview late in life, Mitchell further explained the ruse: “Sometimes facts don’t tell the truth, you know.” The shaping of facts, he said, is subjective. While I think this is true, it’s also true that Mitchell invented new facts to shape.

Kunkel argues — and I know others at The New Yorker agree — that Mitchell deserves some dispensation because standards were different back then, other New Yorker writers engaged in the same behavior, there was less transparency in reporting, and unlike modern embellishers like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Brian Williams, his boss and other editors knew what he was up to. I think that’s a bit too generous; there is circumstantial evidence showing Mitchell had misgivings about his fictional characters and that he and Ross knew they were crossing a line.

Kunkel reports that only a few editors “were let in on the truth” about Mr. Flood. When Ross suggested another Mr. Flood piece, one that would end with him disappearing, Kunkel says Mitchell was “appalled,” worrying about potential damage to his career. Also, Mitchell never revealed the truth about Cockeye Johnny. He didn’t have to: It would be suspicious if Mr. Flood was never found, but gypsies by nature are almost impossible to track down. It’s worth noting that Mitchell was also publishing short fiction in the magazine; he clearly knew the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

While Mitchell seemed apprehensive about his fictional characters, Kunkel turns up no second guessing about other tricks he played. He strung together disparate quotes into long monologues, a somewhat common practice of New Yorker writers. But in the notes for “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” Mitchell’s masterpiece, Kunkel finds quotes from the main character that were reworded in the story. Kunkel also finds that Mitchell set conversations in different places from where they actually happened, as he apparently did in other pieces. “Mitchell certainly didn’t think there was anything malign or unprofessional about what he was doing,” Kunkel writes. Mitchell “believed the latitude taken with a character’s speech and certain surroundings were in the service of a greater good. The core ‘truth’ of the story was important; its interior factuality was not.”

When it comes to literary criticism, I am a nobody. I am not a journalism historian. I am clearly biased in favor of The New Yorker, a magazine I’ve written for several times, and of Mitchell, a writer I revere. So it gives me some heartburn to type the following question: Knowing he fabricated and embellished, how should we view his legacy? Short answer: I’m not sure and I’m sure.

I called Ian Frazier, a New Yorker writer who hung out with Mitchell in his silent days. He said the way to deal with things we now know about Mitchell is for the reader not to worry about it. “Trust the guy,” Frazier said. “He’s not trying to pull the wool over your eyes.” If you read a story and sense something doesn’t ring true, Frazier told me, then that’s a problem. But to Frazier, Mitchell’s stories never did that. (Frazier also made clear that he doesn’t pull any of Mitchell’s tricks.)

I’m not sure about that argument.

I called New Yorker editor David Remnick for his take on things. “He really was an astonishing writer,” Remnick told me. “I don’t think we have to eliminate him from our minds because he was working in a different atmosphere and set of rules.” I’m less sympathetic to the atmosphere of the times argument — again, there were signs Mitchell knew he was crossing a line. But I’d bolster Remnick’s position with something McPhee said: “The writing is the writing.”

I’m sure about that argument.

Will my kids and grandkids read Mitchell in English literature class? I think so. Whether his work stands up to the sort of scrutiny Brian Williams is enduring these days is an important question, but one that will fade. What will endure are the stories. Joseph Mitchell both described and conjured the dazzling world of New York when it was really New York — the characters, the grit, the language. Maybe it was nonfiction then. Maybe it isn’t now. While we shouldn’t tolerate what he did — a whole new generation of literary journalists show that bending or inventing facts, while easier, isn’t necessary for artful nonfiction — there is no reason to destroy Joseph Mitchell. He was a genius, a complicated and flawed one.

“Gould looked like a bum and lived like a bum,” Mitchell wrote. “He wore castoff clothes, and he slept in flophouses or in the cheapest rooms in cheap hotels. Sometimes he slept in doorways. He spent most of his time hanging out in diners and cafeterias and barrooms in the Village or wandering around the streets or looking up friends and acquaintances all over town or sitting in public libraries scribbling in dime-store composition books. He was generally pretty dirty.”

The writing is the writing.

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Michael Rosenwald is a reporter at the Washington Post. He has also written for The New Yorker, Esquire, and The Economist. Follow him on Twitter @mikerosenwald.