A radical who became the voice of the voiceless

Years ago, when I was with students nearly every day of the week, I often enough encountered a soul who said he wanted to be a writer, and I was thrilled.

For each of these tyros, I had a set of questions, made a recommendation, and then gave a small assignment to test their resolve.

The first thing I asked was: Did you write today? And (almost) always the answer came back no.

Then I’d ask: Well, did you write this week? Again (almost) always a no.

And finally I’d say: Is there something you’re deeply passionate about that you’d like to explore and share your findings with the rest of the world via pen and pad?

The response was, as some stand-up comics say, crickets.

The recommendation I made — and still do when the occasion arises — was that the aspirant read the first three sentences of James Joyce’s “Araby,” one of 15 stories in his beloved “Dubliners” collection.

“Araby” starts: “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”

In 61 words, Joyce paints the backdrop for a movie set. In three sentences he presents an endless flood of questions. Why was the street quiet? Did the boys from the Christian Brothers’ school live on the street or were they passing through? Were they loud and noisy and disturbing of the “decent lives?” Why was a house empty and what were the personalities of those living in “brown imperturbable faces?”

The assignment I gave to my tyro was to survey the space that extends from the period of each sentence to the first word of the next, and then to wade into that space the way he might wade into a pool. And once there, to listen.

When the tyros heard that, their faces twisted as if they had just taken a shot of vinegar.

But I’m here today not to praise Joyce — he has his legions — but to call attention to Joseph Mitchell, an American writer, a New York writer, an ethnographer, and lover of Joyce, whose stories, though different from his, are quite their equal. And Joyce is considered tops.

Early on Mitchell wrote for The New York Herald Tribune and then The New York World-Telegram. A collection of the stories that appeared in those papers comprise “My Ears are Bent,” which Sheridan House came out with in 1938. Mitchell’s ears were always bent to listen.

Readers know Mitchell of course, and collectors keep their eyes peeled for special editions of his work. A first edition cloth copy with dust jacket in near fine condition of “My Ears are Bent” is listed on AbeBooks for $4,500 ($10 first class shipping), The publication price was $2.50.

But the biggest change in Mitchell’s life came when Harold Ross, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The New Yorker took him on in 1938 to produce art with pen and pad. Though the magazine’s prospectus said it would not cater to “the old lady in Dubuque,” Ross wanted people who wrote chatty, informal, contemporary (hip) pieces.

When Mitchell’s work started appearing, people in every quarter of the country took to him — his picture was on the side of delivery trucks — they loved the way he told stories. And he had such a penchant for the lost and lonely of the world, those whose soul you have to look deep down into to find out who they are.

Some writers referred to them as “little people,” which set Mitchell on fire. In the intro to his 1943 “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” collection, he says: “Many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to [those people] as the ‘little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”

And he lived that way, a radical who became the voice of the voiceless — which people say contributed to his persistent sadness.

They also say “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” which appeared in September 1956, is his best work. Mitchell tells how, while visiting a cemetery on the south shore of Staten Island, he met a Mr. George Hunter, an 87-year-old trustee of an African-American church on the island’s Sandy Ground community. Hunter was the last of a breed of black oystermen who worked the island’s shoals at the end of the 19th Century.

As the pair walked past the cemetery’s stones, they came upon the graves of Mr. Hunter’s two wives, and then Mr. Hunter pointed to where he would rest. Mitchell paints him with such immediacy and fine strokes that we’re led to another world.

But there are two things you need to know about Mitchell. The first is that some of the people he wrote about were creations or composites of people he met, which his editor knew about and even allowed with other writers on the staff — but Mitchell still catches the brunt of critical scorn.

The other thing you need to know about Mitchell is that, once he finished his famed “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, he produced nothing else for the magazine. For 31 years and six months, he showed up at work every day, closed the door to his office until lunchtime; back from lunch, he closed the door until it was time to go home — nada. He died in 1996.

He told a reporter, “I can't seem to get anything finished anymore. The hideous state the world is in just defeats the kind of writing I used to do.”

“The Rivermen,” which appeared in March 1959, is one of Mitchell’s meditations on the gift of life.

It begins, “I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me. I like to look at it in midsummer, when it is warm and dirty and drowsy, and I like to look at it in January, when it is carrying ice.

“I like to look at it when it is stirred up, when a northeast wind is blowing and a strong tide is running — a new-moon tide or a full-moon tide — and I like to look at it when it is slack. It is exciting to me on weekdays, when it is crowded with ocean craft, harbor craft, and river craft, but it is the river itself that draws me, and not the shipping, and I guess I like it best on Sundays, when there are lulls as long as a half an hour, during which ... nothing moves upon it, not even a ferry, not even a tug, and it becomes as hushed and dark and secret and remote and unreal as a river in a dream.”

All the stories that appeared in The New Yorker can be found in “Up in the Old Hotel,” a 718-page omnibus of endless treasure that’s still in print and affordable.

His colleague at the magazine, Roger Angell, used to say Mitchell’s stories stand “firmly and cleanly in your mind, like Shaker furniture.”

That’s because he was a Shaker, he was a man who heard the voice of God in everyone he met.