Whilst in California, I ran short of reading material, and happened upon a paperback edition of the celebrated Joseph Mitchell omnibus, “Up in the Old Hotel“, beloved to many. I anticipated reading it with glee.
Encountering Mitchell’s extended elegy for the coots, crannies, crooks, and coke cellars of Old New York was lovely, as enjoyable as I’d expected. What surprised me was his insistent focus on the waterways of the greater region itself. This grew more powerful with the passage of time, as though Mitchell pursued the event horizon of pre-industrial New York. The watermen of the metropolitan area or the failing villages of near-in rural counties, their cemeteries overgrown with wildflowers within sight of the booming heart of Manhattan, increasingly occupy center stage.
His interest in the water and the men who live and die upon it is in keeping with my summer reading theme, leading up to the great Tall Ship Bout of ’02 to be held upon Lake Union in August.
Mitchell is a standard bearer of that standby of American general interest reportage, podunk journalism, whereby the urbane voice of mainstream American News brings us the true and half forgotten voices of our fantastically surreal nation. In turn, he handed off to Charles Kuralt and others; and as has been quite thouroughly discussed, quit writing in the middle of his career apparently in response to having deveopled a long piece concering the writings and life (or lack thereof) of one Joe Gould.
After I read the book, I of course became curious about Gould; making anyone’s task in researching it on the net considerably harder is the digital detritus of the marketing for the Stanley Tucci – Ian Holm film, “Joe Gould’s Secret”, which overwhelms any search request results. Despite that I’ve located several resources of interest to the curious:
Donna Kossy, of “Kooks” fame, hosts the Professor Seagull Exhibit. The Village Voice covers the discovery of undiscovered Gould diaries in April 2000. Not least, I found a portrait by e e cummings (to the right) and also the 1933 Alice Neel portrait (warning: genitalia) Mitchell describes somewhat inaccurately.
So why did Mitchell quit writing in response to covering Gould’s secret? It seems very much as though he lost faith in the future and the past at the same time, seeing Gould no longer as a charming rapscallion of an artist but as a fool and tragic failure; by extension, then Mitchell’s work was as much a scam, and as pointless, as Gould’s.
I think there’s another aspect of Gould as a persona that should be considered. During the time that Mitchell was covering Gould (in the forties) the butt-ends of a thousand cigarettes and joints coalesced to provide the worldview and modus operandi of the Beats, of Burroughs, Kerouac et al. Now, it’s clear that they produced something; it’s also clear that they attempted to build their creative lives upon the same practices that Gould had. Where he may have failed, they succeeded.
I have to wonder, is it possible that Mitchell wasn’t stumped by Gould’s lack of production; but more by Kerouac and Ginsberg’s profusion? In Mitchell’s role as interpreter to the bourgeoisie, the comforting lesson to the audience is that the boho scamster dies penniless and alone; Mitchell’s abandonment of his pen troubles even contemporary reviewers because it rebukes both their lives as also penniless and alone.
ADDENDUM: A parting thought: the beatster who I was most reminded of in reading Mitchell’s descriptions of Gould is Harry Smith, the man responsible for the Folkways/Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music. Smith came to New York in the forties, about the time that Mitchell was first writing about Gould, and began his pursuit of a life of eccentricity and scmming poverty as colorful as that of Gould. It’s intereting to note that Gould’s time on an Indian reservation paralells Smith’s teenage ethnography, recording songs and ceremonies on Washington State’s Lummi indian reservation.
He is best remembered for the Anthology, a work which was in point of fact similar in concept to Gould’s oft-described “Oral History of our Time”; the music in Smith’s collection was arranged by him into four sets, one for each of the medieval humors and was visualzed by him as a magic incantation though which the same qualities that fascinated Mitchell – regionalisms, cussedness, peculiar customs, unutterable horrors, legends, and so forth – might be transmitted in to the developing post industrial state. Smith, of course, suceeded beyond his wildest imagination, and his Anthology is probably the most influential recording ever released.
But Smith was just as crazy a coot, and just as peripatetic, as Joe Gould. It simply appears that Smith, a generation younger than Gould, was able to conceptualize his great work of bohemian history in the media of his period, where Gould was wedded to the preceding technologies and was unable to master them.