Although in many ways the quintessential New Yorker, nonfiction writer Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) always remained close to his North Carolina roots and credited his Robeson County upbringing as the nurturing ground of his passion for storytelling. He was born on a tobacco and cotton farm near Fairmont and continued to own and farm a piece of land on the edge of Ashpole Swamp until his last years. Mitchell attended the University of North Carolina for four years but left for a reporting job in Durham before attaining his degree. In 1929, a feature story he wrote about a tobacco auction caught the attention of a New York editor, and he moved to the city that would remain his home for the rest of his life.
For his first nine years in New York, he worked as a reporter and feature writer for the Morning World, the Herald Tribune, and the World-Telegram, developing his spare, elegant style with beautifully crafted stories about the city’s streets and the quirky characters who peopled them. In 1938, he went to The New Yorker as a feature writer and spent the next fifty-eight years there, writing “Talk of the Town” and profiles of the denizens of the streets, the waterfront and the saloons. He kept an office at the magazine until his death at 87. His keen powers of observation combined with his humor, sympathy, wit and style helped set a standard for writers of nonfiction. Most of Joseph Mitchell’s stories were centered on New York, but some, including “Hit Over the Head with a Cow” and “The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County,” came straight out of his Robeson County upbringing. A devoted birder, he once spent more than an hour in North Carolina’s Ashpole Swamp watching a pileated woodpecker tear the bark off a dead black-gum tree and said he considered it the most spectacular event he had ever witnessed.
In 1931, Joseph Mitchell married photographer Therese Dagny Engelstead Jacobsen, who died in 1980. The couple had two daughters, Nora and Elizabeth. Mitchell’s first book, My Ears Are Bent, published in 1938, is a collection of his best newspaper stories. His book McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon has been called New York’s Dubliners. Other collections of his work are Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor and Joe Gould’s Secret, and he also collaborated with Edmund Wilson on Apologies to the Iroquois. He received an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1965 and the North Carolina Award for Literature in 1984. In 1992, most of his New Yorker pieces were collected in a single volume titled Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories, introducing his masterful craftsmanship and storytelling technique to a whole new generation of readers.
Joseph Mitchell has been called “the paragon of reporters.” Calvin Trillin called him “the New Yorker reporter who set the standard.” He was such a perfectionist about his work that he would not let even his close friends and associates see what he was working on until it was in print. In 1983, critic Noel Perrin called Joe Mitchell one of “the dozen North Carolinians who belong to American literature, [along with O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe, and Charles Chesnutt].” Perrin went on to say that Joe Mitchell was “in some ways the least known . . . and in some ways the most remarkable.”
Up in the Old Hotel (Random House, 2008):
Read “Journeys with Joseph Mitchell” by William Zinsser, which appeared in The American Scholar in 1992.