A Tarheel in the Big Apple

Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996)

Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996)

In America, fiction writers get all the love. Because I know I can never write good fiction, I have a particular appreciation of nonfiction writers, particularly essayists. And one of my favorites was Joseph Mitchell, who came up from North Carolina to become a writer for The New Yorker, and stayed for most of his life.

Today, while I was munching on some curried vegetables at lunchtime, I read an unfinished article by Mitchell in the February 11 and 18 issue of The New Yorker about the author’s peregrinations through the five boroughs of the big city looking for architectural oddities. Entitled “Street Life,” it begins with interesting architectural features and ends up looking at church services at Catholic and other Christian churches (including various Eastern Orthodox), synagogues, and mosques:

I used to feel very much at home in New York City. I wasn’t born here, I wasn’t a native, but I might have well have been: I belonged here. Several years ago, however, I began to be oppressed by a feeling that New York City had gone past me and that I didn’t belong here anymore. I sometimes went on from that to a feeling that I had never belonged here, and that could be especially painful. At first, these feelings were vague and sporadic, but they gradually became more definite and quite frequent. Ever since I came to New York City, I have been going back to North Carolina for a visit once or twice a year, and now I began going back more often and staying longer. At one point, after a visit of a month and a half, I had about made up my mind to stay down there for good, and then I began to be oppressed by a feeling that things had gone past me in North Carolina also, and that I didn’t belong down there anymore, either. I began to feel painfully out of place wherever I was. When I was in New York City, I was often homesick for North Carolina; when I was in North Carolina, I was often homesick for New York City.

I know that feeling. Things have gone past me in Los Angeles, too, but I suspect that the reason is that my age cohort has passed into a gray area (referring mostly to the color of our facial hair). In no way am homesick for Cleveland, the land of my youth. All that remains of Cleveland for me is buried in several scattered cemeteries in Cleveland and in Pembroke Pines, Florida. My great-grandmother, my mother, my father, my uncle and my aunt. I have been away from there now for more than forty years.

The last time I was there was for my mother’s funeral in 1998. My brother Dan and I drove around the areas where we played as children. What surprised us the most was that our barren post World War Two suburban development in the Lee-Harvard area was now covered with large, stately trees. Even my old High School, St. Peter Chanel in Bedford, is shuttering its doors this year.

Getting back to Joseph Mitchell, I find, reading him, that I become nostalgic for places I have never seen, experiences I have never lived through. That is the mark of a great writer: He can make you feel that you are experiencing these places and events through his eyes.

Some day, if you want a good read, you might want to try one of his books:

  • My Ears Are Bent (1938)
  • McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon (1943)
  • Old Mr. Flood (1948)
  • The Bottom of the Harbor (1959)—My favorite.
  • Joe Gould’s Secret (1965)

I hope that The New Yorker can dig up some more of his old stories. His complete oeuvre is rather small, but it is choice.

The drawing of Joseph Mitchell shown here is by Nick Sung.