Tuesday, May 03, 2005

The art of Joseph Mitchell

Yesterday, over at India Uncut, Amit and I made some remarks about a report in the Telegraph of Kolkata, and I made a brief reference to how journalism can sometimes aspire to the qualities of literature. In my opinion an example of such journalism is the work of the late New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996), whose essays on the life of New York city, now collected in several books, shimmer with intelligence, grace, curiosity, and a close observation and a flair for detail that could be said to be novelistic.

Mitchell came to New York at the age of 21 in 1929, spent a few years working as a reporter for a number of newspapers, and then joined the New Yorker, itself one of the city’s great institutions, towards the end of the next decade. He wrote scores of pieces about the city for the magazine, but it is only late in his life that his best work has been republished in book form, and his posthumous reputation has been deservedly on the rise.

Mitchell took many years to perfect his style, but what resulted from his labours was something authentic and mightily impressive. Consider the perfect opening sentence of one of his most unusual essays, 'The Rats on the Waterfront' (1944), and the details that then trip off one by one:

In New York City, as in all great seaports, rats abound. One is occasionally in their presence without being aware of it. In the whole city relatively few blocks are entirely free of them. They have diminished greatly in the last twenty-five years, but there are still millions here; some authorities believe that in the five boroughs there is a rat for every human being.

And a little later:

As a rule, New York rats are nocturnal. They rove in the streets in many neighbourhoods, but only after the sun has set. They steal along as quietly as spooks in the shadows close to the building line, or in the gutters, peering this way and that, sniffing, quivering, conscious every moment of all that is
going on around them. They are least cautious in the two or three hours before dawn, and they are encounted most often by milkmen, night watchmen, scrubwomen, policemen, and other people who are regularly abroad in those hours. The average person rarely sees one. When he does, it is a disquieting experience. […] Veteran exterminators say that even they are unable to be calm around rats. "I've been in this business thirty-one years and I must have seen fifty thousand rats, but I've never got accustomed to the look of them," one elderly exterminator said recently. "Every time I see one my heart sinks and my belly flutters." In alcoholic wards the rat is the animal that most frequently appears in the visual hallucinations of patients with delirium tremens. In these wards, in fact, the D.T.'s are often referred to as "seeing the rat."

This is work that leaves the mind teeming with possibilities. Could a long contemplative essay on these lines, full of details that require journalistic legwork but also speaking in a rich personal voice rather than the generic tone of most reportage, be done on the subject of the stray dogs of Mumbai city? Could one be done on the ice-cream sellers who stand all day in the sun, ubiquitous and unnoticed, on every nook and corner of our cities - what the volume of the trade is, what kinds of flavours are most popular, how demand goes up and down across seasons, and so on. Could one be done on the auto-rickshaw drivers of Delhi and their attitudes towards meters, containing the opinions, whether candid or defensive, of drivers themselves, of government sources, law enforcement agencies, and men who tweak meters for a living?

Here are some samples of Mitchell's work: chapter one of his book My Ears Are Bent, in which he describes his early years as a beat reporter, and some excerpts from two essays about skyscraper-building and the oyster trade.

And in this essay Russell Baker offers an assessment of Mitchell's achievement, arguing - and here again we see a reference to the porous boundaries of journalism and literature - that "through the middle third of the twentieth century he had created a tapestry of New York lives comparable to Charles Dickens's astonishing assortment of Victorian Londoners. To be sure, Dickens's most memorable people were fictional while Mitchell's had all actually lived and breathed, but just as Dickens's fictional Londoners seem more real than life, Mitchell's real New Yorkers seem born to live in novels."

Two Indian journalists whose essays I like very much are the late Behram Contractor ("Busybee"), whose pieces on Bombay's restaurants are classics of food writing and are full of his distinctive presence, and Sankarshan Thakur, who writes splendid essays on politics and politicians for the weekly Tehelka.

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