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Joseph Mitchell and the case for making young journalists write a lot

🕐 6 min read

Journalism, despite the profession’s supposed commitment to rigor, can get sloppy about the details of the past when its practitioners are indulging in nostalgia. And in our current moment, there’s a lot of nostalgia about the pace of work, the sheer volume of it young writers are asked to do for comparatively low salaries, and the speed at which they’re asked to turn it out.

Having done time in newsier positions than the one I currently occupy, I wouldn’t say these concerns are wholly misplaced. But “Man in Profile,” Thomas Kunkel’s new biography of Joseph Mitchell, one of the greatest nonfiction writers to ply the trade, serves as a useful reminder that dreams of the good old days are, in this case, ahistorical. And in his portrait of Mitchell’s writer’s block and the institutional practices that enabled it, Kunkel provides a valuable illustration of the maxim that the perfect can be the deadly enemy of getting anything done, much less making it good.

From reading “Man in Profile,” it’s clear that asking young journalists to do a lot of work and to do it fast isn’t necessarily the problem. At issue is the kind of work they’re being asked to do. At the New York World-Telegram, Mitchell “was writing literally every day, sometimes several stories per day,” as many young journalists do now. And like many contemporary young writers, he was covering a huge range of topics, more than he could possibly be a real expert on.

Of course, Mitchell was reporting, not aggregating or writing commentary. As Kunkel explains of Mitchell’s World-Telegram work:

“Besides celebrity profiles, Mitchell made a specialty of in-depth series. These typically appeared over four to six days, with all the pieces exploring a single subject in exhaustive detail. They covered a remarkably idiosyncratic range: the history of vaudeville, real estate auctions, the New York waterfront, Prohibition, and the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair (which Mitchell was sent to cover). Sometimes the topics came from deskbound editors; others were Mitchell’s own suggestions. Their significance in terms of a developing young writer far transcended the diverse subject matter, however. They show that Mitchell was turning out an astounding amount of copy in this first phase of his career. Each story in one of these series, for instance, typically ran to several thousand words, and the sheer amount of time invested in the interviewing and basic research was considerable. And it’s not as though Mitchell would disappear from the paper for months before one of these series was published; he was pulling them together in the ‘spare’ time between the daily features and the profiles he was writing as a matter of course.”

That pace continued at the New Yorker: He had 13 stories published in the magazine in 1939, and these weren’t warmup acts, but early classics: “Four of the pieces he would eventually include in his 1943 book-length collection ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,’ appeared in the magazine within the first three months of his arrival there.”

But Mitchell’s pace started to slacken, for what Kunkel describes as good reasons and bad ones. “The stories Mitchell was turning out now were considerably longer, more shaded and complex in tone, more creatively ambitious, and more detailed in structure than those at the beginning of his career; they were, in other words, more technically demanding and simply harder to write,” Kunkel argues. “Mitchell was further burdened by a strain of perfectionism as compulsive as any other aspect of his personality … At the New Yorker, given leave to work at his own pace and with no real deadlines pressing in on him, Mitchell was free to indulge an obsession for his writing to be just so, and this self-imposed pressure only mounted with age and growing acclaim.” He published his last piece in the New Yorker in 1964, though he remained on staff until he died in 1996.

What’s striking about the story of declining pace and worsening writer’s block that Kunkel tells in “Man in Profile” is the extraordinary deference accorded to Mitchell in his later years at the New Yorker. When Robert Gottlieb succeeded William Shawn as editor of the magazine in 1987 (Shawn was pushed out), he inquired after what Mitchell was working on but didn’t push. ” ‘I liked him, liked his work, and I wanted to be respectful without being demanding,’ the editor said,” in a retrospective on the New Yorker’s history, Kunkel reports. ” ‘I just showed, I hoped, a continued affectionate interest without being exigent. It quickly became apparent to me that we were going through some ritual.'”

Gottlieb’s successor, Tina Brown, tried giving Mitchell specific assignments but doesn’t seem to have pushed when he turned them down. “She prevailed on him to weigh in when there was a major fire at the Fulton Fish Market. On the occasion of the New Yorker’s seventieth anniversary, in February of 1995, she asked if he might write a short memoir,” Kunkel writes. “When Shawn died in December of 1992, and the magazine was preparing a tribute to him, she solicited a contribution from Mitchell, who had worked for Shawn for about as long as anyone on the premises. But each time approached, Mitchell said that he couldn’t oblige, much as he might wish to … creatively he seemed spent.”

The one person who did manage to get work out of Mitchell was Dan Frank, the editor who eventually convinced Mitchell to let him publish the collection “Up in the Old Hotel.” Some of his success seems to be due to the fact that Frank was willing to push Mitchell in a way his editors were not, writing a letter to him in which he stated bluntly, “Joe, I don’t know how to persuade you to allow your work back into print …Those fortunate to read your books, today or years hence, will recognize it and be enriched by it.”

Kunkel’s not wrong when he concludes that we were blessed to get as much Joseph Mitchell writing as we got. “Would it have been wonderful to have some fresh Mitchell in the final trimester of his life? Without question,” he sums up. “But ‘Up in the Old Hotel’ alone comprises thirty-seven stories and almost three hundred thousand words, and that reckoning doesn’t take into account Mitchell’s grinding decade of newspaper work, which produced at least several million more. By any fair measure he was not only productive, but, in his day, prolific.”

But the choice isn’t between no Joseph Mitchell and more of Joseph Mitchell. It might have been better for us, and for him, had there been an editor at the New Yorker willing to breach Mitchell’s perfectionism and give him a deadline and an assignment.

The nostalgic dream of journalists with all the time and latitude they like to provide important stories has some strong foundations. But as “Man in Profile” suggests, that dream can lead to serious disappointments and wasted potential, too.

Rosenberg writes The Post’s Act Four blog, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/

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