The City Alive

mcsorleys'Up in the Old Hotel

The New York Times just reported some truly exciting and unexpected news. The New Yorker‘s next issue will feature a new essay by the legendary author Joseph Mitchell. The newly discovered “Street Life” is the first published work by Mitchell since 1964.

Joseph Mitchell, who died in 1996, was the great wandering and listening soul of New York City. True, you won’t find any of his titles at local Nature Centers, but his sketches of the urban scene shows us a writer immersed in his home landscape. From Fulton Fish Market to McSorley’s Saloon, Joseph Mitchell observed his given plot of land keenly and compassionately, like the ideal naturalist that he was. Back in 1992, his work, long out of print, was resurrected in a wonderful anthology, Up in the Old Hotel.

There are too many to choose from, but here’s one of our favorite passages from that collection:

The Rivermen, from Joseph Mitchell’s The Bottom of the Harbor

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, all the way from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, 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.

The success of Up in the Old Hotel led many publishers to reprint Mitchell’s earlier books:

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My Ears Are Bent, a collection of Joseph Mitchell’s earliest (pre-New Yorker) pieces, mostly from the 1930’s. Old Mr. Flood, a slim volume centered on the comings and goings of Manhattan’s Fulton Fish Market.

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And two of his all-time classic collections: The Bottom of the Harbor, and McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon.

The Rocky Mountain Land Library will always have these books on our shelves, for the simple fact that Joseph Mitchell is one of the greatest writers of people and place that we know!

In the last few days, New Yorker editor David Remnick commented on the exciting find of new writings from Mitchell’s pen: “What’s so poignant about [the excerpts] is the sadness of the incompletion but the brilliance of the voice. There’s an ambition in the voice; the voice is becoming more Joycean. He’s looking outward, but all of these pieces are very interior. He’s at the center of it.

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When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.” the opening passage of the classic Mr. Hunter’s Grave, from The Bottom of the Harbor.

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