Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories

( 7 )

Overview

Saloon-keepers and street preachers, gypsies and steel-walking Mohawks, a bearded lady and a 93-year-old “seafoodetarian” who believes his specialized diet will keep him alive for another two decades. These are among the people that Joseph Mitchell immortalized in his reportage for The New Yorker and in four books—McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Gould's Secret—that are still renowned for their precise, respectful observation, their ...
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Overview

Saloon-keepers and street preachers, gypsies and steel-walking Mohawks, a bearded lady and a 93-year-old “seafoodetarian” who believes his specialized diet will keep him alive for another two decades. These are among the people that Joseph Mitchell immortalized in his reportage for The New Yorker and in four books—McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Gould's Secret—that are still renowned for their precise, respectful observation, their graveyard humor, and their offhand perfection of style.

These masterpieces (along with several previously uncollected stories) are available in one volume, which presents an indelible collective portrait of an unsuspected New York and its odder citizens—as depicted by one of the great writers of this or any other time.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A legendary figure. . . . Mitchell's reportage is so vivid, so real, that it comes out like fiction of the highest order.”
Chicago Sun-Times

“A poetry of the actual, a song of the streets that casts a wide net and fearslessly embraces everything human. . . . This is reporting transformed into literature, news that stays news. . . . His work is so rich and generous and funny that it ought to stay in print forever.” —San Francisco Examiner

“Mitchell's darkly comic articles are models of big-city journalism. . . . His accounts are like what Joyce might have written had he gone into journalism.”
Newsweek

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Like a Coney Island sideshow barker who might have appeared in one of Mitchell's New Yorker profiles, this collection promises an uncommon world. And it delivers, in compassionate, wistful examinations of early-20th-century New Yorkers who share a common trait: they exist on the outskirts of society in either habit or mind. There is nine-year-old Philippa Duke Schuyler, who has an IQ of 185 and ``reads Plutarch on train trips, eats steaks raw, writes poems in honor of her dolls, plays poker, and is the composer of more than sixty pieces for the piano.'' Also compelling are profiles of New York places, as much characters as people are. Mitchell's writing on McSorley's Saloon, the Union League of the Deaf, Sloppy Louie's--all either gone or changed--captures the town in its days as a manufacturing center. If the four sections in this collection ( McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, Joe Gould's Secret ) evoked only a long-lost New York, they would still be worthwhile. But there is more. Mitchell speaks of facts that enlighten and redeem--the book's greatest gift. (Aug.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679746317
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/28/1993
  • Series: Vintage Series
  • Edition description: Revised
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 736
  • Sales rank: 25,477
  • Product dimensions: 5.17 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 1.22 (d)

Meet the Author

Joseph Mitchell was born near Iona, North Carolina, in 1908, and came to New York City in 1929, when he was twenty-one years old. He eventually found a job as an apprentice crime reporter for The World. He also worked as a reporter and features writer at The Herald Tribune and The World-Telegram before landing at The New Yorker in 1938, where he remained until his death in 1996.
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Read an Excerpt

I

The Old House at Home

MCSORLEY'S OCCUPIES the ground floor of a red-brick tenement at 15 Seventh Street, just off Cooper Square, where the Bowery ends. It was opened in 1854 and is the oldest saloon in New York City. In eighty-eight years it has had four owners--an Irish immigrant, his son, a retired policeman, and his daughter--and all of them have been opposed to change. It is equipped with electricity, but the bar is stubbornly illuminated with a pair of gas lamps, which flicker fitfully and throw shadows on the low, cobwebby ceiling each time someone opens the street door. There is no cash register. Coins are dropped in soup bowls--one for nickels, one for dimes, one for quarters, and one for halves--and bills are kept in a rosewood cashbox. It is a drowsy place; the bartenders never make a needless move, the customers nurse their mugs of ale, and the three clocks on the walls have not been in agreement for many years. The clientele is motley. It includes mechanics from the many garages in the neighborhood, salesmen from the restaurant-supply houses on Cooper Square, truck-drivers from Wanamaker's, internes from Bellevue, students from Cooper Union, and clerks from the row of second-hand bookshops just north of Astor Place. The backbone of the clientele, however, is a rapidly thinning group of crusty old men, predominantly Irish, who have been drinking there since they were youths and now have a proprietary feeling about the place. Some of them have tiny pensions, and are alone in the world; they sleep in Bowery hotels and spend practically all their waking hours in McSorley's. A few of these veterans clearly remember John McSorley, the founder, who died in 1910 at the age of eighty-seven. They refer to him as Old John, and they like to sit in rickety armchairs around the big belly stove which heats the place, gnaw on the stems of their pipes, and talk about him.

Old John was quirky. He was normally affable but was subject to spells of unaccountable surliness during which he would refuse to answer when spoken to. He went bald in early manhood and began wearing scraggly, patriarchal sideburns before he was forty. Many photographs of him are in existence, and it is obvious that he had a lot of unassumed dignity. He patterned his saloon after a public house he had known in his hometown in Ireland--Omagh, in County Tyrone--and originally called it the Old House at Home; around 1908 the signboard blew down, and when he ordered a new one he changed the name to McSorley's Old Ale House. That is still the official name; customers never have called it anything but McSorley's. Old John believed it impossible for men to drink with tranquillity in the presence of women; there is a fine back room in the saloon, but for many years a sign was nailed on the street door, saying, "NOTICE. NO BACK ROOM IN HERE FOR LADIES. "In McSorley's entire history, in fact, the only woman customer ever willingly admitted was an addled old peddler called Mother Fresh-Roasted, who claimed her husband died from the bite of a lizard in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and who went from saloon to saloon on the lower East Side for a couple of generations hawking peanuts, which she carried in her apron. On warm days, Old John would sell her an ale, and her esteem for him was such that she embroidered him a little American flag and gave it to him one Fourth of July; he had it framed and placed it on the wall above his brass-bound ale pump, and it is still there. When other women came in, Old John would hurry forward, make a bow, and say, "Madam, I'm sorry, but we don't serve ladies." If a woman insisted, Old John would take her by the elbow, head her toward the door, and say, "Madam, please don't provoke me. Make haste and get yourself off the premises, or I'll be obliged to forget you're a lady." This technique, pretty much word for word, is still in use.

In his time, Old John catered to the Irish and German workingmen--carpenters, tanners, bricklayers, slaughter-house butchers, teamsters, and brewers--who populated the Seventh Street neighborhood, selling ale in pewter mugs at five cents a mug and putting out a free lunch inflexibly consisting of soda crackers, raw onions, and cheese; present-day customers are wont to complain that some of the cheese Old John laid out on opening night in 1854 is still there. Adjacent to the free lunch he kept a quart crock of tobacco and a rack of clay and corncob pipes--the purchase of an ale entitled a man to a smoke on the house; the rack still holds a few of the communal pipes. Old John was thrifty and was able to buy the tenement--it is five stories high and holds eight families--about ten years after he opened the saloon in it. He distrusted banks and always kept his money in a cast-iron safe; it still stands in the back room, but its doors are loose on their hinges and there is nothing in it but an accumulation of expired saloon licenses and several McSorley heirlooms, including Old John's straight razor. He lived with his family in a flat directly over the saloon and got up every morning at five and took a long walk before breakfast, no matter what the weather. He unlocked the saloon at seven, swept it out himself, and spread sawdust on the floor. Until he became too feeble to manage a racing sulky, he always kept a horse and a nanny goat in a stable around the corner on St. Mark's Place. He kept both animals in the same stall, believing, like many horse-lovers, that horses should have company at night. During the lull in the afternoon a stablehand would lead the horse around to a hitching block in front of the saloon, and Old John, wearing his bar apron, would stand on the curb and groom the animal. A customer who wanted service would tap on the window and Old John would drop his currycomb, step inside, draw an ale, and return at once to the horse. On Sundays he entered sulky races on uptown highways.

From the time he was twenty until he was fifty-five, Old John drank steadily, but throughout the last thirty-two years of his life he did not take a drop, saying, "I've had my share." Except for a few experimental months in 1905 or 1906, no spirits ever have been sold in McSorley's; Old John maintained that the man never lived who needed a stronger drink than a mug of ale warmed on the hob of a stove. He was a big eater. Customarily, just before locking up for the night, he would grill himself a three-pound T-bone, placing it on a coal shovel and holding it over a bed of oak coals in the back-room fireplace. He liked to fit a whole onion into the hollowedout heel of a loaf of French bread and eat it as if it were an apple. He had an extraordinary appetite for onions, the stronger the better, and said that "Good ale, raw onions, and no ladies" was the motto of his saloon. About once a month during the winter he presided over an on-the-house beefsteak party in the back room, and late in life he was president of an organization of gluttons called the Honorable John McSorley Pickle, Beefsteak, Baseball Nine, and Chowder Club, which held hot-rock clambakes in a picnic grove on North Brother Island in the East River. On the walls are a number of photographs taken at outings of the club, and in most of them the members are squatting around kegs of ale; except for the president, they all have drunken, slack-mouthed grins and their eyes look dazed. Old John had a bull-frog bass and enjoyed harmonizing with a choir of drunks. His favorite songs were "Muldoon, the Solid Man," "Swim Out, You're Over Your Head," "Maggie Murphy's Home," and "Since the Soup House Moved Away." These songs were by Harrigan and Hart, who were then called "the Gilbert and Sullivan of the U.S.A." He had great respect for them and was pleased exceedingly when, in 882, they made his saloon the scene of one of their slum comedies; it was called "McSorley's Inflation."

Although by no means a handshaker, Old John knew many prominent men. One of his closest friends was Peter Cooper, president of the North American Telegraph Company and founder of Cooper Union, which is a half-block west of the saloon. Mr. Cooper, in his declining years, spent so many afternoons in the back room philosophizing with the workingmen that he was given a chair of his own; it was equipped with an inflated rubber cushion. (The chair is still there; each April 4th for a number of years after Mr. Cooper's death, on April 4, 1883, it was draped with black cloth.) Also, like other steadfast customers, Mr. Cooper had a pewter mug on which his name had been engraved with an icepick. He gave the saloon a life-sized portrait of himself, which hangs over the mantel in the back room. It is an appropriate decoration, because, since the beginning of prohibition, McSorley's has been the official saloon of Cooper Union students. Sometimes a sentimental student will stand beneath the portrait and drink a toast to Mr. Cooper.

Old John had a remarkable passion for memorabilia. For years he saved the wishbones of Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys and strung them on a rod connecting the pair of gas lamps over the bar; the dusty bones are invariably the first thing a new customer gets inquisitive about. Not long ago, a Johnny-come-lately annoyed one of the bartenders by remarking, "Maybe the old boy believed in voodoo." Old John decorated the partition between barroom and back room with banquet menus, autographs, starfish shells, theatre programs, political posters, and worn-down shoes taken off the hoofs of various race and brewery horses. Above the entrance to the back room he hung a shillelagh and a sign: "BE GOOD OR BEGONE." On one wall of the barroom he placed portraits of horses, steamboats, Tammany bosses, jockeys, actors, singers, and statesmen. Around 1902 he put up a heavy oak frame containing excellent portraits of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, and to the frame he attached a brass title tag reading, "THEY ASSASSINATED THESE GOOD MEN THE SKULKING DOGS." On the same wall he hung framed front pages of old newspapers; one, from the London Times for June 22, I 815, has in its lower right-hand comer a single paragraph on the beginning of the battle of Waterloo, and another, from the New York Herald of April 15, 1865, has a one-column story on the shooting of Lincoln. He blanketed another wall with lithographs and steel engravings. One depicts Garfield's deathbed. Another is entitled "The Great Fight." It was between Tom Hyer and Yankee Sullivan, both bareknuckled, at Still Pond Heights, Maryland, in 1849. It was won by Hyer in sixteen rounds, and the prize was $10,000. The judges wore top hats. The title tag on another engraving reads, "Rescue of Colonel Thomas J. Kelly and Captain Timothy Deacy by Members of the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood from the English Government at Manchester, England, September 18, 1867." A copy of the Emancipation Proclamation is on this wall; so, inevitably, is a facsimile of Lincoln's saloon license. An engraving of Washington and his generals hangs next to an engraving of a session of the Great Parliament of Ireland. Eventually Old John covered practically every square inch of wall space between wainscot and ceiling with pictures and souvenirs. They are still in good condition, although spiders have strung webs across many of them. New customers get up on chairs and spend hours studying them.

Although Old John did not consider himself retired until just a few years before he died, he gave up day-in-and-day-out duty back of the bar around 1890 and made his son, William, head bartender. Bill MeSorley was the kind of person who minds his own business vigorously. He inherited every bit of his father's surliness and not much of his affability. The father was by no means a lush, but the son carried temperance to an extreme; he drank nothing but tap water and tea, and bragged about it. He did dip a little snuff. He was so solemn that before he was thirty several customers had settled into the habit of calling him Old Bill. He worshipped his father, but no one was aware of the profundity of his worship until Old John died. After the funeral, Bill locked the saloon, went upstairs to the family flat, pulled the shutters to, and did not come out for almost a week. Finally, on a Sunday morning, gaunt and silent, he came downstairs with a hammer and a screwdriver and spent the day painstakingly securing his father's pictures and souvenirs to the walls; they had been hung hit or miss on wires, and customers had a habit of taking them down. Subsequently he commissioned a Cooper Union art teacher to make a small painting of Old John from a photograph. Bill placed it on the wall back of the bar and thereafter kept a hooded electric light burning above it, a pious custom that is still observed.

Throughout his life Bill's principal concern was to keep McSorley's exactly as it had been in his father's time. When anything had to be changed or repaired, it appeared to pain him physically. For twenty years the bar had a deepening sag. A carpenter warned him repeatedly that it was about to collapse; finally, in 1933, he told the carpenter to go ahead and prop it up. While the work was in progress he sat at a table in the back room with his head in his hands and got so upset he could not eat for several days. In the same year the smoke- and cobweb-encrusted paint on the ceiling began to flake off and float to the floor. After customers complained that they were afraid the flakes they found in their ale might strangle them to death, he grudgingly had the ceiling repainted. In 1925 he had to switch to earthenware mugs; most of the pewter ones had been stolen by souvenir hunters. In the same year a coin-box telephone, which he would never answer himself, was installed in the back room. These were about the only major changes he ever allowed. Occasionally one of the pictures his father had hung would fall off the wall and the glass would break, and he would fill in the gap. His contributions include a set of portraits of the wives of Presidents through the first Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, a poster of Barney Oldfield in a red racing car, and a poem called "The Man Behind the Bar." He knew this poem by heart and particularly liked the last verse:

When St. Peter sees him coming he will leave the gates ajar,
For he knows he's had his hell on earth, has the man behind the bar.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note
McSorley's Wonderful Saloon
The Old House at Home 3
Mazie 23
Hit on the Head with a Cow 40
Professor Sea Gull 52
A Spism and a Spasm 71
Lady Olga 89
Evening with a Gifted Child 106
A Sporting Man 118
The Cave Dwellers 137
King of the Gypsies 145
The Gypsy Women 164
The Deaf-Mutes Club 210
Santa Claus Smith 224
The Don't-Swear Man 232
Obituary of a Gin Mill 243
Houdini's Picnic 253
The Mohawks in High Steel 267
All You Can Hold for Five Bucks 291
A Mess of Clams 303
The Same as Monkey Glands 314
Goodbye, Shirley Temple 325
On the Wagon 330
The Kind Old Blonde 337
I Couldn't Dope It Out 340
The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County 346
Blame It All on Mamma 356
Uncle Dockery and the Independent Bull 364
Old Mr. Flood
Old Mr. Flood 375
The Black Clams 390
Mr. Flood's Party 411
The Bottom of the Harbor
Up in the Old Hotel 439
The Bottom of the Harbor 465
The Rats on the Waterfront 489
Mr. Hunter's Grave 504
Dragger Captain 537
The Rivermen 574
Joe Gould's Secret 623
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Introduction

“Mitchell may indeed be the best writer in America. . . . [His prose] is so vivid, so real, that it comes out like fiction of the highest order.” —Chicago Sun-Times

The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enliven your group's discussion of Up in the Old Hotel, a definitive collection of work by an essential and quintessentially American writer, one of the handful who can be said to have breached the divide between journalism and literature.

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Foreword

1. In his introductory note, Joseph Mitchell notes that his stories are characterized by something he calls “graveyard humor,” which, he goes on to say, “is an exemplification of the way I look at the world. It typifies my cast of mind.” [p. v] What do you think Mitchell means by graveyard humor, and how does it figure in his stories, both in those that deal directly with death, like “Mr. Hunter's Grave” or “The Mohawks in High Steel” and those that don't?

2. Mitchell is not so much a storyteller as a portraitist, which is to say that he seems less interested in narrating action than in revealing character. How does he go about this? Which of Mitchell's character studies are based on the slow accretion of detail and which hinge on his observation of a seemingly incidental habit, utterance, or gesture? One thinks of Mazie Gordon, whaling the tar out of a drunken heckler but then slipping her victim a dime so he can buy himself a drink, or Orvis Diabo's complicated feelings as he sits in the reservation graveyard listening to the Mohawk singing in the longhouse. Which of these details cements our earlier impression of a character? Which reverses or undermines it?

3. Many of Mitchell's characters are conservators of one sort or another. McSorley's new owners are proud of keeping the saloon exactly as it was under its original owners. In his Museum for Intelligent People, Captain Charley keeps everything from old pith helmets and Chinese coins to a bone purportedly hacked off a murdered Arab. How does Mitchell view these people and their undertakings? Are they noble or pathetic? What do their stories suggest about hisattitude toward the past? Toward time? What does it mean to be a conservator-of a place, craft, or a tradition-in a city that's in a constant process of renewal, usually heralded by signs saying, “Going Out of Business Sale” or “Demolition”?

4. Closely allied to the theme of preservation is the theme of collecting or accumulating. Many of Mitchell's characters are collectors of oddities, like Captain Charley, or seashells, like Hugh Flood. If they don't amass actual objects, they amass words that denote them. Note the frequency with which lists occur in these stories: the derelict Eddie's poetic list of Bowery flophouses, Captain Campion's detailed breakdown of gypsy tribes, families, and surnames, and Hugh Flood's recitation of varieties of clam. What role do collections and collectors, lists and catalogs play in Mitchell's writing? How do lists bulk up his otherwise lean sentences? Can someone who successfully collects objects or words or bits of information be said to defeat time, which scatters and disperses all things, and especially, memory?

5. Although Mazie Gordon dislikes the movies, she enjoys watching the daily promenade of drunks and eccentrics outside her ticket booth. With her four diamond rings, violently colored outfits, buzz-saw voice, she too is a kind of performer. “People walk past here just to give me the eye,” she tells Mitchell. “I got a public of my own, just like a god-damn movie-pitcher star [p. 27].” Discuss the theme of performance in Mitchell's writing. Which of his characters is putting on an act-whether for the reporter, a larger public, or simply for his or her own amusement? Is a performance necessarily false, or can it be an organic expression of one's true self? Does Mitchell make a distinction between self-conscious performers and unconscious ones?

6. Many of Mitchell's characters are not just individuals but representatives of a people, a community, or a way of life. Johnny Nikanov is both a disreputable old man and a gypsy king. Orvis Diabo is Mitchell's guide to the history and folkways of Mohawk construction workers. Houdini speaks-or sings-for an entire world of Calypsonians, as Hugh Flood, Misters Zimmer and Poole, and Captain Ellery Thompson speak for the worlds of the fish market, the harbor, and the waterways. How does Mitchell manage to turn a personal profile into a study of an entire culture? What sort of human groupings seem to interest him? Why, for instance, does he write about clamdiggers rather than stock brokers? Why might he have chosen a non-gypsy police detective as the mouthpiece in his story on gypsy women? What is it that keeps Mitchell's cultural studies from being anthropological or touristic?

7. Mitchell has often been compared to Dickens, but his character studies are much cooler than the earlier writer's, without Dickens's generous servings of heartache and indignation. Mitchell doesn't tell us what to feel about his people. But does that mean that he is dispassionate about them? How does this highly reticent writer convey feeling? What clues suggest his attitudes toward Joe Gould, Jane Barnell, or Peggy in “Goodbye, Shirley Temple,” for example? Which of these characters do you think he admires? Which ones does he despise? Which ones might he pity?

8. Among Mitchell's characters are many who lead less than exemplary lives. There are cadgers (Commodore Dutch, Joe Gould), lushes (Gould again, Johnny Nikanov), gluttons (the diners in “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks”), bigots (Mr. Giddy, Mr. Ransom), swindlers, and public nuisances. Does Mitchell judge these people? Which of them seem to arouse his affection and esteem? How would you judge a sensibility that values both lowlifes and upright folks like Mr. Hunter, Mr. Zimmer, and Captain Ellery? What traits do you think Mitchell most admires?

9. Most of Mitchell's subjects can be divided into working people and idle ones. The working people often have unusual jobs, a partial listing including proprietor of a museum of oddities, street preacher, sideshow attraction, and confidence squad detective. The jobless include a couple of pensioners, a soft-touch artist, a bohemian-that is, a bum with literary pretensions, and a gypsy king. It's notable that Mitchell never profiles one of the idle rich. How does he treat work? Which of his jobless characters seem paradoxically busy? You may want to consider the different meanings attached to work and idleness during the Great Depression, when a third of the non-farm workforce was unemployed.

10. The pieces in Up in the Old Hotel, especially those from McSorley's, defy the bounds of political correctness or, really, ignore them, since the notion of political correctness didn't exist when Mitchell was writing. It's doubtful that a national magazine today could get away with running a piece about a circus freak (which is what Jane Barnell calls herself) or larcenous gypsies (not without a sidebar that dismissed all imputations of larceny to Romany people as racist libels). Is Mitchell's writing offensive? Does it trade in ethnic stereotypes or make light of conditions that we now recognize as pathologies? And if not, why not? In this light, consider the implications of Jane Barnell's remark: “If the truth was known, we're all freaks together [p. 105].”

11. Another notable characteristic of the people Mitchell writes about is how many of them are engaged in grand endeavors, and how many of those endeavors are futile. Joe Gould immediately comes to mind, but also Daddy Hall, who is crusading to rid New York of sin, and Arthur Samuel Colborne, who wants it to stop cussing. Where else in these pieces do we find people who are trying to do the impossible? Does the futility of their undertakings seem comical or tragic? This raises the question of whether Mitchell is a comic or tragic writer or some combination of the two, and whether that combination is exactly what he means by graveyard humor.

12. Mitchell has a reputation as an urban writer, but some of his best writing explores rural settings, like the North Carolina of his childhood or Staten Island, which back when Mitchell was writing was an idyllic garden hanging off the southern end of the city. How do his “country” pieces differ from his “city” ones? In which environment does he seem most comfortable? And, considering that his longest pieces have rural settings, why do you think we remember Mitchell as a chronicler of the city?

13. In a short preface to Old Mr. Flood, the author reveals that the title character is really a composite of “several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past [p. 373].” Given that New Journalism was still more than a decade away, do you think that Mitchell is guilty of violating journalistic ethics? Where else in this collection may he be taking liberties with the facts? And what do you think of his declaration that “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual” [p. 373]?

14. Why do you think Mitchell felt drawn to write two different portraits of Joe Gould? Does the character who emerges in “Joe Gould's Secret” seem drastically different from the one in “Professor Sea Gull,” or are his alcoholism, narcissism, and mental paralysis already implicit in the earlier portrait? Is Mitchell's true subject Gould or his own confused and shifting reactions to him, the way his subject aroused first his curiosity and amusement, then his admiration, then his irritation and contempt, and at last his horror and pity?

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Reading Group Guide

1. In his introductory note, Joseph Mitchell notes that his stories are characterized by something he calls “graveyard humor,” which, he goes on to say, “is an exemplification of the way I look at the world. It typifies my cast of mind.” [p. v] What do you think Mitchell means by graveyard humor, and how does it figure in his stories, both in those that deal directly with death, like “Mr. Hunter's Grave” or “The Mohawks in High Steel” and those that don't?

2. Mitchell is not so much a storyteller as a portraitist, which is to say that he seems less interested in narrating action than in revealing character. How does he go about this? Which of Mitchell's character studies are based on the slow accretion of detail and which hinge on his observation of a seemingly incidental habit, utterance, or gesture? One thinks of Mazie Gordon, whaling the tar out of a drunken heckler but then slipping her victim a dime so he can buy himself a drink, or Orvis Diabo's complicated feelings as he sits in the reservation graveyard listening to the Mohawk singing in the longhouse. Which of these details cements our earlier impression of a character? Which reverses or undermines it?

3. Many of Mitchell's characters are conservators of one sort or another. McSorley's new owners are proud of keeping the saloon exactly as it was under its original owners. In his Museum for Intelligent People, Captain Charley keeps everything from old pith helmets and Chinese coins to a bone purportedly hacked off a murdered Arab. How does Mitchell view these people and their undertakings? Are they noble or pathetic? What do their stories suggest about his attitude toward the past? Toward time? What does it mean to be a conservator-of a place, craft, or a tradition-in a city that's in a constant process of renewal, usually heralded by signs saying, “Going Out of Business Sale” or “Demolition”?

4. Closely allied to the theme of preservation is the theme of collecting or accumulating. Many of Mitchell's characters are collectors of oddities, like Captain Charley, or seashells, like Hugh Flood. If they don't amass actual objects, they amass words that denote them. Note the frequency with which lists occur in these stories: the derelict Eddie's poetic list of Bowery flophouses, Captain Campion's detailed breakdown of gypsy tribes, families, and surnames, and Hugh Flood's recitation of varieties of clam. What role do collections and collectors, lists and catalogs play in Mitchell's writing? How do lists bulk up his otherwise lean sentences? Can someone who successfully collects objects or words or bits of information be said to defeat time, which scatters and disperses all things, and especially, memory?

5. Although Mazie Gordon dislikes the movies, she enjoys watching the daily promenade of drunks and eccentrics outside her ticket booth. With her four diamond rings, violently colored outfits, buzz-saw voice, she too is a kind of performer. “People walk past here just to give me the eye,” she tells Mitchell. “I got a public of my own, just like a god-damn movie-pitcher star [p. 27].” Discuss the theme of performance in Mitchell's writing. Which of his characters is putting on an act-whether for the reporter, a larger public, or simply for his or her own amusement? Is a performance necessarily false, or can it be an organic expression of one's true self? Does Mitchell make a distinction between self-conscious performers and unconscious ones?

6. Many of Mitchell's characters are not just individuals but representatives of a people, a community, or a way of life. Johnny Nikanov is both a disreputable old man and a gypsy king. Orvis Diabo is Mitchell's guide to the history and folkways of Mohawk construction workers. Houdini speaks-or sings-for an entire world of Calypsonians, as Hugh Flood, Misters Zimmer and Poole, and Captain Ellery Thompson speak for the worlds of the fish market, the harbor, and the waterways. How does Mitchell manage to turn a personal profile into a study of an entire culture? What sort of human groupings seem to interest him? Why, for instance, does he write about clamdiggers rather than stock brokers? Why might he have chosen a non-gypsy police detective as the mouthpiece in his story on gypsy women? What is it that keeps Mitchell's cultural studies from being anthropological or touristic?

7. Mitchell has often been compared to Dickens, but his character studies are much cooler than the earlier writer's, without Dickens's generous servings of heartache and indignation. Mitchell doesn't tell us what to feel about his people. But does that mean that he is dispassionate about them? How does this highly reticent writer convey feeling? What clues suggest his attitudes toward Joe Gould, Jane Barnell, or Peggy in “Goodbye, Shirley Temple,” for example? Which of these characters do you think he admires? Which ones does he despise? Which ones might he pity?

8. Among Mitchell's characters are many who lead less than exemplary lives. There are cadgers (Commodore Dutch, Joe Gould), lushes (Gould again, Johnny Nikanov), gluttons (the diners in “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks”), bigots (Mr. Giddy, Mr. Ransom), swindlers, and public nuisances. Does Mitchell judge these people? Which of them seem to arouse his affection and esteem? How would you judge a sensibility that values both lowlifes and upright folks like Mr. Hunter, Mr. Zimmer, and Captain Ellery? What traits do you think Mitchell most admires?

9. Most of Mitchell's subjects can be divided into working people and idle ones. The working people often have unusual jobs, a partial listing including proprietor of a museum of oddities, street preacher, sideshow attraction, and confidence squad detective. The jobless include a couple of pensioners, a soft-touch artist, a bohemian-that is, a bum with literary pretensions, and a gypsy king. It's notable that Mitchell never profiles one of the idle rich. How does he treat work? Which of his jobless characters seem paradoxically busy? You may want to consider the different meanings attached to work and idleness during the Great Depression, when a third of the non-farm workforce was unemployed.

10. The pieces in Up in the Old Hotel, especially those from McSorley's, defy the bounds of political correctness or, really, ignore them, since the notion of political correctness didn't exist when Mitchell was writing. It's doubtful that a national magazine today could get away with running a piece about a circus freak (which is what Jane Barnell calls herself) or larcenous gypsies (not without a sidebar that dismissed all imputations of larceny to Romany people as racist libels). Is Mitchell's writing offensive? Does it trade in ethnic stereotypes or make light of conditions that we now recognize as pathologies? And if not, why not? In this light, consider the implications of Jane Barnell's remark: “If the truth was known, we're all freaks together [p. 105].”

11. Another notable characteristic of the people Mitchell writes about is how many of them are engaged in grand endeavors, and how many of those endeavors are futile. Joe Gould immediately comes to mind, but also Daddy Hall, who is crusading to rid New York of sin, and Arthur Samuel Colborne, who wants it to stop cussing. Where else in these pieces do we find people who are trying to do the impossible? Does the futility of their undertakings seem comical or tragic? This raises the question of whether Mitchell is a comic or tragic writer or some combination of the two, and whether that combination is exactly what he means by graveyard humor.

12. Mitchell has a reputation as an urban writer, but some of his best writing explores rural settings, like the North Carolina of his childhood or Staten Island, which back when Mitchell was writing was an idyllic garden hanging off the southern end of the city. How do his “country” pieces differ from his “city” ones? In which environment does he seem most comfortable? And, considering that his longest pieces have rural settings, why do you think we remember Mitchell as a chronicler of the city?

13. In a short preface to Old Mr. Flood, the author reveals that the title character is really a composite of “several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past [p. 373].” Given that New Journalism was still more than a decade away, do you think that Mitchell is guilty of violating journalistic ethics? Where else in this collection may he be taking liberties with the facts? And what do you think of his declaration that “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual” [p. 373]?

14. Why do you think Mitchell felt drawn to write two different portraits of Joe Gould? Does the character who emerges in “Joe Gould's Secret” seem drastically different from the one in “Professor Sea Gull,” or are his alcoholism, narcissism, and mental paralysis already implicit in the earlier portrait? Is Mitchell's true subject Gould or his own confused and shifting reactions to him, the way his subject aroused first his curiosity and amusement, then his admiration, then his irritation and contempt, and at last his horror and pity?

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2012

    One of my all-time favorite books. Time for a re-read.

    One of my all-time favorite books. Time for a re-read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 13, 2006

    ENCHANTING!

    A truly enchanting book written by a great author for the New Yorker magazine. If you like O. Henry and stories concerning the underlife that makes New York unique, you'll lve this work.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2004

    A hidden jem of literature!

    This book is a collection of short stories that captures the essence of life in New York City's Bowery. It speaks volumes about life's intruging charaters and the people you pass on the street. A must read!

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    Posted June 15, 2010

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    Posted August 29, 2009

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    Posted October 27, 2008

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    Posted November 30, 2008

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