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Up in the Old Hotel

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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.

716 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1992

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About the author

Joseph Mitchell

39 books161 followers
There is more than one author with this name

Joseph Mitchell was an American writer who wrote for The New Yorker. He is known for his carefully written portraits of eccentrics and people on the fringes of society, especially in and around New York City.
-Wikipedia

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 368 reviews
Profile Image for William2.
729 reviews2,825 followers
August 28, 2019
Luc Sante's wonderful Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York is in some ways a pendant piece to Up in the Old Hotel. Though Sante's vision is darker, and he has a keener eye for the con, it's as if both he and Mitchell were coming at the material from different angles. Sante is a cultural historian; Mitchell's focus by contrast is more on the individual. But both have a special forcus on the gritty demimonde of the Bowery in the late 19th century and, after its decline, marked by the death of Big Tim Sullivan in 1913 (See "A Sporting Man"), its move to new digs on lower Broadway. Here for instance is a quote that might be right out of Sante's Low Life:
At that time, in 1894, the Bowery was just beginning to go to seed; it was declining as a theatrical street, but its saloons, dance halls, dime museums, gambling rooms, and brothels were still thriving. In that year, in fact, according to a police census, there were eighty-nine drinking establishments on the street, and it is only a mile long." p. 128


The stories -- perhaps profiles is the better term -- are brilliantly written in a straightforward expository style, and often laugh-out-loud funny. "Lady Olga," for instance, is a profile of circus sideshow bearded lady Jane Barnell in her sixty-ninth year. "Professor Sea Gull" is about the inimitable Joe Gould, that woebegone lecturer of the streets and coffee houses (when someone else was paying), about whom Mitchell would later write a longer piece, "Joe Gould's Secret," also included here. Mitchell's summary of Gould's nine-million word treatise "An Oral History of Our Time" (unpublished) is fascinating and alone worth reading, yet the essay offers so much more.

In many essays, it's as if Mitchell is simply taking testimony. "The Gypsy Women" is mostly a verbatim talk that was given to the author and two novice NYPD detectives by the longtime Commander of the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad. In "The Deaf-Mute Club" he relates a visit to that self-same club where he exchanged long handwritten notes with the club's president, which are transcribed without interruption. In one essay we learn of the penniless drifter who wrote improvised checks on paper bags for many thousands of dollars to kind people who'd helped him; and the man who couldn't abide swearing and so started the Anti-Profanity League in 1901.

Mitchell, like Whitman, celebrates the individual, and like the great poet he has a penchant for the catalog, which he uses to brilliant effect. His rhythms, moreover, his prosody, can be downright sonorous. He has a fantastic ear for colloquial speech and the writing is jam-packed with vivid description, yet never overly freighted.

What's tremendously cool for me as a New Yorker is the sense of place I get from the essays. All the streets I've walked for so many years -- past McSorley's Ale House off Cooper Square, the old Police Headquarters on Centre St. and so on -- take on rich historical depth. I can see now how Mitchell's book will serve as a nice stepping stone to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Burrows and Wallace, a doorstop that's been unread on my shelf for too long.
Profile Image for Tom.
392 reviews36 followers
September 25, 2008
One of those rare treasures that just gets better with age. A one-man lesson in the cleanest yet most lyrical non-fiction you're likely to find anywhere. Whenever I need to clear my head and cleanse my soul, I pull out this book and reread any one of dozens of favorite passages. A kind of poetry of the streets -- Whitman would've loved Mitchell, I'm convinced of it!
I'd match "Joe Gould's Secret" with any famous novella in American Literature.
So many favorite lines ...
"Done by aproned, middle-aged people ponderous with beefsteak and beer, the waltz is an appalling spectacle." All You Can Hold for Five Bucks

"He had a habit of remarking to bartenders that he didn't see any sense in mixing whiskey with water since the whiskey was already wet." Mr Flood's Party

"The sturgeon rose twice, and cleared the water both times, and I plainly saw its bristly snout and its shiny little eyes and its white belly and its glistening, greenish-yellow, bony-plated, crocodilian back and sides, and it was a spooky sight."
The Rivermen

Mitchell often said that Joyce's Finnegan's Wake was one of his favorite books, one he read over and over. At first, this would seem an unlikely choice, but once you immerse yourself in his prose, you begin to hear some of the same cadences and gallow's humor in Mitchell's words.
I can't recommend this book highly enough.
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,651 reviews1,485 followers
September 21, 2015
OK, this is an anthology. Some of the essays are clearly better than others. I certainly didn't love them all! I have put my star rating for each essay on the content list provided below. When I look back on this book my overall feeling is that if these stories had never been written so very much would be lost. In this respect, for the sake of the best stories/essays, the book is in my mind worth five stars even if some are not that good. As a whole I am giving it four stars. I really did like the whole reading experience. I am really glad I read this book.

How can I describe it? Who will enjoy this? It is not going to fit everybody. I am going to speak about the best stories / essays. As stated below, some are fact some are fiction ,but all are based on the author's interviews with real people - fishermen, gypsies, colored folk, denizens of the Bowery. The characters are those who are ‘down and out’. Are you able to look with compassion on such people? Are you curious about New York and its environs at the turn of the 20th Century and through the Depression? Do you want to get under the surface, to really comprehend people who are not like YOU?

New York City is so diverse; you cannot capture the whole city in one book. If I have to pick one group on which the book focuses it would be the fishing folk. I knew very little about fishing .......baits and nets and barges, culinary tricks, the fishermen's life on New York's waterfront. Not today, but back then. How was life there in the harbor back then. (I am dying to know how much of this world remains.) You leave the book with an understanding not only of the factual details, which I will surely forget, but also about a whole other way of living. This I will not forget. When you read the book use Wiki. Look at maps of the harbor and images of the fish and the boats and the people there. It is pretty amazing how people’s life trajectories can be so varied. What the author does is start with the facts and then he goes deeper and deeper by looking at people who everyday live with those details, those things just described. Mitchell goes from things and numbers to soul. From the outer to the inner. The facts become utterly fascinating because they are tied to flesh and blood people.

It is important to read this book with Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker. Mitchell used shorthand to record what people said. He had a knack for listening. You may wonder otherwise how Mitchell was he able to capture such long soliloquies and dialogs?!

What makes a book really good? Along with facts you must be lead to care for the people, so much so that you need to understand their circumstances. Then the details and facts have meaning. Yet you can bend the truth with facts. A talented author can make a message more meaningful and sometimes more truthful through additional fictional elements and composite characters. My favorite section was Old Mr. Flood, a mixture of fact and fiction. Here the author starts with the facts and real people. He has listened to them, and that is an art in itself. Our words, ordinary people's words are history, just as much as dry facts, and they are so much more interesting. Mitchell captures the spirit of a group of people. The following are some of the lines that I loved, all taken from the stories in the The Old Mr. Flood section:
-(He) “didn’t see any reason mixing whiskey with water since it is already wet.”
-“It’s not what I did I regret; it’s what I didn’t do.”
-“It’s easier to have to do with a cranky man, than one that always has a smile on his face.”
-“It takes almost a lifetime to learn how to do something simply.“

I very highly recommend listening to the audiobook. I absolutely adored the narration by Grover Gardiner. He reads slowly. He captures with his intonations the character of the people talking. Absolutely wonderful. Could not be improved upon. You do not need the paper book, but sit by your computer and look at maps of the city. Look at the fish and the fishermen and the barges. It is all there on internet and easy to see. Rarely can a book's maps be as informative as what you can find on the net. I don't even know if the paper book has maps or pictures.

At the end of my review is a list of the stories/essays and how they are arranged in the book. I have indicated how I reacted emotionally to each one.
1 star means bad, boring
2 stars means it was OK
3 stars means it was good, interesting, but not emotionally captivating
4 stars means I liked it A LOT
5 stars – these are utterly amazing!

I have for clarity indicated which are fictional and which are factual, also which stories were added by the author and thus not to be found in previous collections.

Joe Gould's Secret can be classified as a novella, but it concludes the set of stories found in The Bottom of the Harbor. It is a perfect ending to the anthology. It was the last of Mitchell’s writing, published in 1964. Joe Gould and Joseph Mitchell, they share an understanding about writing, about what should be written and why sometimes you just cannot write any more. The two men are not the same. There is a lot to think about here.


*********************************


Still in the book's first section:

Some sketches are marvelous because they capture an individual or the feel of a place. Some you read for the interest of the topic covered - Calypso music, gypsies, the Bowery, the New York waterfront or the Fulton Fish Market. The setting is New York City, the early 1900s and the Depression years.

Up in the Old Hotel is split into three sections: "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon", "Old Mr. Flood" and "The Bottom of the Harbor". Each section is composed of different character sketches/essays. Some sketches are factual, some fictional. All in "The Bottom of the Harbor" are factual. The stories/sketches in "Old Mr. Flood" are fictional. The stories/sketches in "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon" are factual OR fictional.

Does it really matter if a fictional composite figure is created by Mitchell? He based even his fictional characters on real people he has rubbed shoulders with. Sometimes you can say more, get closer to the essence of a being through fictional characters. Facts can misrepresent the truth. (Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker, where all the sketches were originally published, was fully cognizant of the situation.)

When I have finished the book I will add a complete list of the names of the separate stories. The book starts with an introduction by David Remnick and then an author's note which explains how Mitchell organized this, his last anthology. Seven additional sketches were added: The Gypsy Women, The Spism and the Spasm, The Deaf-Mutes Club, Santa Claus Smith, The Mohawks in High Steel, The Kind Old Blonde and I Couldn't Dope It Out. The Mohawks in High Steel was used as an introduction to Edmund Wilson's Apologies to the Iroquois with A Study of the Mohawks in High Steel. None of the other additions had been reprinted. All sketches from his previously published collections McSorley's Wonderful Saloon (1943), Old Mr. Flood (1948), The Bottom of the Harbor (1960*) and Joe Gould’s Secret (1965) are in this anthology, but reorganized.

*According to the author's words in Up in the Old Hotel. Other sources set the publication date for 1959!


*****************************

Audiobook Contents:
Introduction, by David Remnick
Author's Note

McSorley's Wonderful Saloon

Section 1 (factual)
--The Old House at Home (4 stars)
--Mazie (3 stars)
--Hit on the Head with a Cow (2 stars)
--Professor Sea Gull (2 stars)
--A Spism and a Spasm (added) (3 stars)
--Lady Olga (3 stars)
--Evening with a Gifted Child (2 stars)
--A Sporting Man (3 stars)
--The Cave Dwellers (4 stars)
--King of the Gypsies (3 stars)
--The Gypsy Women (added) (2 stars)
--The Deaf-Mutes Club (added) (2stars)
--Santa Claus Smith (added) (2stars)
--The Don't-Swear Man (2stars)
--Obituary of a Gin Mill (5 stars)
--Houdini's Picnic (2stars)
--The Mohawks in High Steel (added) (3 stars)
--All You Can Hold for Five Bucks (3 stars)
--A Mess of Clams (3 stars)
--The Same as Monkey Glands (3 stars)

Section 2 (fictional)
--Goodbye, Shirley Temple (2 stars)
--On the Wagon (3 stars)
--The Kind Old Blonde (added) (1 star)
--I Couldn't Dope It Out (added) (2 stars)

Section 3 (fictional)
--The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County (2 stars)
--I Blame It All on Mamma (2 stars)
--Uncle Dockery and the Independent Bull (2 stars)

Old Mr. Flood - (fictional)

--Old Mr. Flood (5 stars)
--The Black Clams (5 stars)
--Mr. Flood's Party (4 stars)

The Bottom of the Harbor – (factual)

--Up in the Old Hotel (4 stars)
--The Bottom of the Harbor (3 stars)
--The Rats on the Waterfront (3 stars)
--Mr. Hunter's Grave (5 stars)
--Dragger Captain (3 stars)
--The Riverman (4 stars)

--Joe Gould's Secret (3 stars)







Profile Image for E. G..
1,112 reviews668 followers
September 14, 2019
Introduction, by William Fiennes
Author's Note


McSorley's Wonderful Saloon

I
--The Old House at Home
--Mazie
--Hit on the Head with a Cow
--Professor Sea Gull
--A Spism and a Spasm
--Lady Olga
--Evening with a Gifted Child
--A Sporting Man
--The Cave Dwellers
--King of the Gypsies
--The Gypsy Women
--The Deaf-Mutes Club
--Santa Claus Smith
--The Don't-Swear Man
--Obituary of a Gin Mill
--Houdini's Picnic
--The Mohawks in High Steel
--All You Can Hold for Five Bucks
--A Mess of Clams
--The Same as Monkey Glands

II
--Goodbye, Shirley Temple
--On the Wagon
--The Kind Old Blonde
--I Couldn't Dope It Out

III
--The Downfall of Fascism in Black Ankle County
--I Blame It All on Mamma
--Uncle Dockery and the Independent Bull

Old Mr Flood

--Old Mr Flood
--The Black Clams
--Mr Flood's Party

The Bottom of the Harbor

--Up in the Old Hotel
--The Bottom of the Harbor
--The Rats on the Waterfront
--Mr Hunter's Grave
--Dragger Captain
--The Riverman

--Joe Gould's Secret
Profile Image for Steve Turtell.
Author 3 books37 followers
June 18, 2012
This is one of the books I had to ration because I never wanted it to end. Of all the writers who have taken New York City as their subject, none is better than Joseph Mitchell. I once referred to "the Joseph Mitchell tradition" to Fran Lebowitz in conversation and she shot back: "That's not a tradition, that's a talent." Amen to that. One of a kind. I have read some of the essays repeatedly: "Mazie" about the saintly ticket taker in a Bowery movie theater, "The Mohawks in High Steel," and "Up in the Old Hotel," among the most frequent. The book is a constant delight and a guide to good writing--I try to steal from it, and Mitchell, all the time.
Profile Image for Quo.
276 reviews
January 14, 2022
Up in the old Hotel is an anthology of exceedingly well-crafted profiles by Joseph Mitchell, who wrote for The New Yorker for many years. I suspect that this anthology might have a rather limited appeal, for like many profiles in the magazine, they are long, meandering pieces. Beyond that, the stories detail people who in most every case are not & never were held in any sort of limelight.

Rather, the profiles illuminate those who lived on the margins of New York society 60 or 70 years ago but who were of interest to Mr. Mitchell, someone who traveled the city with a detective's zeal for detail, an attribute merged with a very compassionate attitude about those who were "visionaries, obsessives, impostors, fanatics, lost souls, the-end-is-near street preachers, old Gypsy kings & queens and out & out freak show freaks".



In reading these profiles, one thinks of the subjects painted by the Ashcan School, artists such as George Luks, John Sloan & George Bellows, among others. In fact Sloan inhabited & painted McSorley's Old Ale House on 7th Street near the Cooper Union Building (where Abraham Lincoln made a pivotal speech in 1860 several years after McSorley's opened its doors), the saloon that Joseph Mitchell profiles in "The Old House at Home", part of this anthology. The Ashcan School wanted "art to be akin to journalism" & sought to paint the underside of life.

Among the many profiles in this 700+ page anthology are those dealing with Mazie, manager of a Bowery movie theater, a Jewish woman who frequents Roman-Catholic churches, regularly doles out alms to the poor & bereft and who is a keen observer of all that moves within her orbit.

There is also the Rev. Daddy Hall, an Episcopal priest who believes in the literal nature of the Bible, patrols the Bowery on foot (often waving banners), warning against all manner of "distilled damnation", tobacco, vaccinations, bingo & church suppers. He carries on a spartan and lonely crusade for 15+ years, until the bombing of Pearl Harbor causes a renewal of interest in his apocalyptic message, at which point, the Rev. Hall is suddenly swamped with parishioners who flood his phone line.

Then, there is "Commodore Dutch", a hardscrabble fellow of limited education and even less ambition but someone who concocted an association catering to his own preservation by putting the touch on everyone he shared some sort of connection with, mostly fellow gamblers, grifters and Tammany Hall politicians, engendered to pay dues to his "association" in exchange for small favors, with the self-styled commodore the only registered member.

Among his sales pitches are: "I hate to bother you but I'm flat & I wonder if you could see your way to pay some dues", said to those of a higher status in the social order and to others, "Get yourself in good standing with the association or I'll excommunicate you." Such unlikely though colorful characters as Commodore Dutch may not seem the sort to arouse general interest but Damon Runyon also did stories on him.

While Up in the Old Hotel begins with the tale of McSorley's Old Ale House, it concludes with "Joe Gould's Secret", the longest piece but one for which early on in the anthology, "Prof. Sea Gull" serves as a kind of introduction to perhaps the most memorable character in the series of Mitchell profiles. Joe Gould, alias Prof. Sea Gull, is an itinerant pigeon feeder, fluent in the language of seagulls & a denizen of Bowery flophouses, bars & all-night diners who battles the 3Hs--homelessness, hunger & hangovers. His lure for a polished, urbane writer like Mitchell is Gould's promise of an "Oral History for our Time" that is ultimately to be as long as the Bible and an informal story of "the shirt-sleeve multitudes, laced with palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle & malarkey".

Gould lives in a world of pipe dreams but boasts a considerable imagination and hails from a long line of Boston gentry, as both his father & grandfather were Harvard M.D.s and Joe Gould was himself a graduate of Harvard, Class of 1911.

The mystery is of course just what caused Gould to dissipate a life that otherwise offered considerable opportunity but the prospect of his work-in-progress, an "x-ray of the soul of the bourgeoisie" allows this bohemian to capture the imagination of many, E.E. Cummings (who dedicated a poem to Gould), Joe Mitchell and several potential publishers of his work among them. Mitchell invests a considerable amount of time in pursuit of Gould's manuscript and in turn, Joe Gould begins to increasingly inhabit the world of Joe Mitchell.



Eventually, and in an odd sort of way, Joe Gould's fantasy world parallels some aspects of Joe Mitchell's, with the esteemed writer himself having been a kind of exile from his father's North Carolina tobacco business and with Mitchell having envisioned himself as the author of a response to James Joyce's Ulysses that was to have been set in Manhattan, a novel that represented a long-standing dream that never came to fruition.

Ultimately, it is revealed that Gould's projected magnum opus is a sham, causing Mitchell to lament, "My God, it doesn't exist". Gould can offer only that "it is not a question of laziness." Beyond that, the life-lie or pipe-dream of Joe Gould seemed to be the only thing that kept him going. In the end, one is reminded of a one act play by Eugene O'Neill, where the main character in Hughie laments that "if every man who walked down Broadway & liked to kid himself were to drop dead, there wouldn't be nobody left."

In some ways, the concept of an oral history caused me to think of Chicago's Studs Terkel, author of so many well-developed books such as Working and Division Street, America, that captured the thoughts & feelings of plain-speaking folks, people who appealed to that author's populist sensibility. Joseph Mitchell was a masterful writer who had an ability to encapsulate the particular spirit that animated so many otherwise ordinary people. For whatever reason, the revelation following so many encounters with Joe Gould seemed a major stumbling block for Mitchell, who continued to come to his office daily for another 30 years but who never completed another story.



There is a very atmospheric film version of Joe Gould's Secret, featuring British actor Ian Holm as Joe Gould and Stanley Tucci as Joseph Mitchell.

*The first photo image within review is of McSorley's Old Ale House in NYC, profiled by Mitchell in a long essay in The New Yorker, while the second photo is of Joe Gould and the last of Joseph Mitchell & the owner of one of Mitchell's favorite haunts, "Sloppy Louie's" on Manhattan's waterfront area.
Profile Image for Tim.
493 reviews21 followers
April 15, 2017
In this collection of pieces that he wrote for the New Yorker, mostly in the 1940s and 50s, Mitchell takes us to an older and stranger New York. This journalist had an affinity for the oddballs, the eccentrics, the solitary men who despite their flaws had important things to share with the rest of us. It is primarily a collection of profiles of such individuals: the head of a small anti-profanity organization, a crusty fishing captain and Sunday painter, a retired fish market worker, a compassionate but tough woman who gives the drunks on the Bowery a helping hand, a retired gentleman who is a leading citizen in a small African-American community on Staten Island, and most famously, a Harvard-educated crackpot and Greenwich Village street character named Joe Gould.

Mitchell was a small town North Carolinian who made his way to New York and worked as a newspaper reporter before landing a position at the New Yorker, where he became one of the 20th century's most beloved and influential journalists. His personal and meticulous style of non-fiction writing is given credit for being an influence on the 1960s New Journalism movement, and on many other writers as well, such as John McPhee. For him, New York must have been an exciting and exotic place, althou he never makes himself the subject of his pieces, so it is hard to know for sure. But follow him around in the pages of this book and you see a man who was drawn to outsiders and oddballs, and who portrayed them in a full and sympathetic manner. The streets of New York City that he wrote about are long gone now. One could still see glimpses of them in the 1980s, e.g. I recall meeting a character in a bar back then (that served 50 cent beers, something unimaginable today) who had fought in the Hungarian uprising, and following political asylum, became an alcoholic in the bars on 14th Street. That character could have made an appearance in a Mitchell piece. But the rents are now too high and the people too suspicious and unforgiving for the likes of Commodore Dutch to thrive today, a man who got along by making people laugh and selling tickets to an annual ball in his honor. But thank goodness we still have Mitchell's accounts to remind us.

Pretty much every piece is fascinating, but here are a few that really stayed with me. There is a long description of McSorley's, one of the oldest Irish saloons in America (and still going strong today), and the men who fraternized there. In "The Gypsy Women", an experienced policeman shares with us his extensive knowledge of the bands of gypsies in New York, their origins, and most interestingly, the con games that their women run, usually on emotionally disturbed women who bumble into their fortune telling parlors. There are number of pieces on the maritime life of the city - the old sailors, the fish mongers, and others in the seafood trade. There are pieces that enlighten us about sturgeon fishing and the lives of seamen in Edgewater, NJ (things of the past now), as well as a discussion of the waterfront's rat population. In the title piece, Mitchell joins restauranteur Louis Morino, proprietor of Sloppy Louie's, as he explores the previously unknown regions of the building above his restaurant, where they find much that has not changed since its days as an active harborside hotel.

Best known of all his characters however was Joe Gould, a highly intelligent Bohemian, drunkard, and beggar who was always scribbling in notebooks and was supposedly working on an oral history of the Greenwich Village scene. Gould, who almost certainly suffered from some sort of mental illness, was the offspring of a well-to-do Yankee family in Massachusetts, the son and grandson of doctors. His relationship with Mitchell is gone over in great detail, and I came to feel an affection for him, as many did, as well as a sense of relief that he is not coming around and ringing my doorbell.

Mitchell himself mostly remains behind the curtain and lets his colorful subjects get the attention. I was surprised to find out some things about him (from Wikipedia). Apparently he suffered from serious writer's block, and barely wrote a thing in the last few decades of his life, despite coming to his office at the New Yorker day after day. Also, some of the characters included in this collection were composites, or perhaps even made up - a serious charge to level at any journalist. In the introduction, Mitchell does concede that some of the pieces qualify as fiction, even thou they are based on real people and incidents. But whether they are 100% truthful or just in the spirit of trying to relate the truth, these are wonderful pieces that one can read and savor, and that bring the reader back to a very different time.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
80 reviews10 followers
January 30, 2012
What is it about me and the old guys these days? I can't seem to get enough of them. Mitchell, a prolific staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, chronicled daily life in hidden corners of New York City in the 1930s and 1940s, from McSorley's Saloon, a men's only bar in the Village, to Gypsy neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. When my brain is abuzz from too much screen time and ringing cell phones, I like nothing more than taking a step back into old time New York City with Joseph Mitchell.
Profile Image for Alan.
Author 10 books159 followers
November 16, 2017
read about half of this (it's over 700 pages), and will get back to it, but it's a library book and had to go back. Fantastic articles about eccentrics and 'tribes' in New York, including tales of bar fights and grumpy landlords, gypsy kings, a couple who lived in a cave in Central Park. All around 1930-50.
Again the book came to life for me because I was in the streets mentioned, particularly Mott Street, Mulberry St. etc. - visiting my daughter who lives nearby. Of course they have now been largely gentrified, but still got a feel for it, especially when I visited the police station in Elizabeth St., deep in Chinatown, to report my wife's purse being stolen on the subway.
Profile Image for Marti.
351 reviews10 followers
January 3, 2018
Where has this been all my life? This has quickly shot up to my "Top Ten of All Time." It's actually more a compendium of non-fiction New Yorker magazine stories from 1932 to approximately 1957. It would make a good companion piece to Jacob Riis, except that these portraits are much more lengthy and personal, and the author does not look down on his subjects. He actually enjoys the company of the various beggars, saloon keepers, carnival performers, gypsies, street preachers and hoarders he writes about.

Perhaps the most famous of these was "Mohawks on High Steel" which told a story I was somewhat familiar with about Native Americans from a single reservation in Canada who found a niche as steel workers. They worked on almost all the skyscrapers in New York and elsewhere from the 1920s onward and formed an expatriate community in Brooklyn. He also spends a great deal of time on the city's nautical culture and remnants of the once huge oyster industry. The portrait of the Fulton Street Fish Market, though told via a composite character named "Old Mr. Flood," a crusty habitue of the area, captures the ambiance and customs of a system that remained largely unchanged since the market opened in about 1830.

Perhaps most affecting (and they are all "un-put-downable") is his portrait of "Professor Seagull" and the follow up piece written 25 years later called "Joe Gould's Secret." It is a lengthy saga about a homeless "Bohemian" with literary pretensions in Greenwich Village. He claimed to speak "Sea Gull" and had translated Longfellow and other poets into their language. Though he lived on handouts from acquaintances who kept him at arm's length (including the likes of ee cummings), his erudition on various subjects and "instant-recall" memory, got everyone, including the author, curious about his "Oral History." Though nobody had ever seen it, it was reputed to be a one million-word plus opus comprised of overheard conversations of a cross section of the demi-monde such as: orderlies at Bellevue "talking shop" and snatches of conversation overheard in bars and parties where the artists and writers hung out. Everyone thought it would either be fascinating or a self indulgent bore. Either way, Gould insisted that scholars of the future would want to study it to find out what people really thought. After all, his constant boast about his privileged Brahmin upbringing -- "The Goulds were the Goulds when the Cabots and the Lodges were clam diggers" -- turned out to be true. Therefore, anything was possible.

Like Tom Wolfe's "New Journalism," Mitchell has a way of making you intensely interested in people and places in which you thought you had no interest (and he has an uncanny ability to record lengthy diatribes in the subject's own words). His portrait of a community of Shad Fishermen in Edgewater, NJ circa 1950 -- many of whose ancestors went back to the 1630s in that location -- made me want to go there and see it for myself (except of course that it has been obliterated recently by condos and high rises). The same thing happened to Sandy Hill in southern Staten Island, where Free Black Oyster fishermen and their descendants lived since the 1630s, until about 20 years ago when it fell victim to aggressive developers.

Fans of William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe and Truman Capote really do need to read this. Leave it to a transplanted southerner to create such an indelible portrait of a New York City which seems to be long gone.
Profile Image for Jake Goretzki.
706 reviews104 followers
November 4, 2013
Glorious. Probably the best non-fiction I have ever read and probably the best anything I have read in a decade. Not that this is surprising - that line about ‘Hemingway for fiction; Joe Mitchell for non-fiction’ makes the point.

This is where the normal arguments for fiction (that it brings a place and a time more vividly to life than non-fiction / history / social history) go rather out of the window. This reads like the best fiction, with the powerful feeling that these places exist / existed and that these people lived and breathed and died. You’re in the company of a very respectful, humble raconteur with an ear for conversation and a nose for character - and he’s pretty interesting himself, by the way (he’s into wild flowers, c’mon). It’s what I once hoped that I would get, in my ignorance, from writers like Ian Sinclair (before I realised that ‘psychogeography’ meant ‘wittering incoherence and navel-gazing bearing little relation to the people or place it purports to evoke’).

It’s a box of ghosts or a vivid HD documentary about a small number of lives in precise streets and buildings and restaurants. And it becomes all the more moving precisely because they existed. The profile of Phillipa Duke Schuyler is unbelievably endearing; then I went onto Wikipedia and read what became of her and, well, bloody hell.

It’s given me a month’s worth of places and street corners and locations in that city that I could not but want to go and see. Even if there’s just a Starbucks there now or a faux blue collar neighbourhood with some ghost advertising and its own tote bag, it’s where that happened. If such a book existed for London or another city, it’d work just as well of course, but for me it acquires greater poignance by happening at the epicentre of the greatest nation that ever existed (spot the Americanophile), at what then was approaching its high water mark. NB It’s long, so if I had to priortise any of the books-within-books, go for ‘McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon’.

I normally react to the line “I didn’t want it to end!” in book reviews a bit like I do to “A hidden gem!!!!” on Tripadvisor (you want to get to the end of books so you can read other books, right). But I found myself taking longer with it, as it’s so damn pleasurable.
Enjoy.
Profile Image for Jack Silbert.
Author 13 books14 followers
August 20, 2011
I wanted to read this collection since 1992, when it first came out. Finally, last November, my friend Fiona loaned me her well-worn copy. It had been to Alaska and back with her, and who knows where else. At some point early in the new year, I began to read the book, first reinforcing the cover with clear packing tape.

Fiona, you know me too well. The book was a revelation, one of the best I've ever read. Even if I took my sweet time with it. Its 700+ pages hold 37 of Mitchell's New Yorker essays, including a few short stories, ranging from 1940 to 1964. The first covers McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, and I was immediately hooked. McSorley's survives—I first visited in the summer of 1990—but for the most part the book chronicles a forgotten New York. And it's the rough-and-tumble side, the Bowery, the Seaport, after hours at the police station, the bars, diners, cemeteries, and everywhere in between. And oh the characters he meets, poets and preachers, iron workers and movie-house managers, schemers and dreamers.

Along the way we watch Mitchell grow as a writer. His earliest pieces often end abruptly. He becomes a more nuanced storyteller. He takes some stabs at fiction but I think soon realizes that real life is where the action is. I can see a strong influence on a later New Yorker writer (and another favorite) John McPhee, especially in Mitchell's later work. They both become so enmeshed in their topic that they want to convey every detail, and just when it seems too much, a character is introduced to put a human face on the story. (Interestingly, the two men provide the only two pieces I've ever read about shad.) But Mitchell gets the nod, because he's much more willing to get down and dirty, and at the end of the day, his topics are just more fun.

And so for months, I carried the book with me wherever I went, bus stations and train stations, snowstorms and heat waves, and yes, even to Alaska and back. I treasured every essay. To first-time readers of Mitchell's work, I suggest skipping the 2008 introduction by David Remnick till you're finished. (There's a bit of a spoiler. Why do introduction writers for old reprinted books assume we've read them before?) The book ends beautifully. Mitchell, who's accompanied us through a quarter century journey, meeting countless friends along the way, finally reveals himself, and it all comes together. This is just about perfection.
Profile Image for Melinda.
540 reviews15 followers
June 15, 2016
Earlier this year I read and loved a book called Saint Mazie by Jamie Attenberg. In the flyleaf the author said that the book was based on a Joseph Mitchell article published in the New Yorker. So after some research I purchased Mitchell's book and there on page 23 was Mazie's story originally published in 1938. But "Up in the Old Hotel" is much, much more. I loved Mitchell's readable writing style; it's as though he's sharing a cup of coffee with you at the kitchen table recounting the eccentric yet lovable characters that inhabited the fringes of Manhattan and its environs: the gypsy fortune tellers, Olga the bearded lady, the gifted child, Philippa Duke Schuyler and the denizens of McSorley's Ale House to name a few. If you enjoy anthologies and beautiful prose, this is the book for you.
Profile Image for Jigar Brahmbhatt.
295 reviews125 followers
July 24, 2017
I have no real context with the city or the milieu, and yet the pieces worked for me. Like old wine, Mitchell's work keeps growing on me. And I see a close cousin of him back home in R K Narayan, who must have walked among the city folks with open eyes and ears, to draw inspiration for his many characters who populate Malgudi.

How far, I wonder, is Narayan's Selvi from Mitchell's Mazie (one fictional and other non-fictional); and though separated by a vast geographical gap, I see that their (and many other) lives must have meant a great deal to the writers, who in writing about these curious characters and their immediate reality struck something of a lasting value, something humane, something outside of time and culture.
583 reviews4 followers
May 8, 2020
I've been working through this one for god knows how many years, but that only added to the pleasure - it was like I was reading Mitchell's work as it first appeared in print: sporadically, episodically, always wondering when the next story would arrive and what it would be about.

I first discovered Mitchell when I was interviewing for a job with the Parks Department back in 2001 - the role was to write the descriptions for the historical/landmark signage across the city parks. I was still less than two years into my life as a city dweller, so I figured it was time to bone up on my New York history. Two books that caught my eye at the Mid-Manhattan Library (where I killed countless hours during those early temping-and-interviewing days - the early 21st-century version of A.J. Liebling's Telephone Booth Indian, I suppose): Meyer Berger's New York (a collection of mid-century color columns for the Times, still a treasure) and Joseph Mitchell's The Bottom of the Harbor. I didn't know quite what to expect, but I was instantly mesmerized by Mitchell's homely yet crystalline prose, and his rooted sense of nostalgia for the city's earlier days, which was the sort of nostalgia that I was hoping to develop, for the earlier days and for Mitchell's own time, which had already passed over into the realm of myth (as has, in turn, the pre-9/11 New York during which I discovered him). I devoured the book, astonished all over again at how big and mysterious and beautiful the city was - I still look back on it as one of the first moments when I was like, "I'm here, I made it. I live in New York now." (Coda to the Parks Dept. story: When I arrived at the interview they told me it for a front-line PR job answering phones and dodging reporter queries - a sort of anti-Joseph Mitchell - and I was too sheepish to voice my confusion; they offered me this job, but I'd already accepted a different job by that point, sending my life careening in a different direction. Months later, I found out a friend of a friend had taken the job I was originally interested in, and he was completely miserable.)

I read a few more pieces in reprints here and there over the years - I was especially drawn to Professor Sea Gull, the original Joe Gould piece - but it took another decade or more before I finally picked up this collected edition of his work - I couldn't even tell you exactly when. Since then, picking up this book has provided a regular and bracing reminder that New York is a series of cozy islands nestled against a vast, raging, monotonous and life-giving ocean; that the most unassuming people have the most amazing stories to tell; that every block, building and object in this city has a deeper history than you can imagine; that the ability to listen is one of the most powerful gifts in the human repertoire.

Closing the final page, at the end Mitchell's sly yet sympathetic, paradoxical yet poignant portrait of the bohemian enigma Joe Gould, was a particularly moving milestone of the middle of this pandemic. The ease of access and casual openness of Mitchell's New York has been gone since long before I arrived, but I'm always finding shards of it glimmering in the dirt here and there, and I'm more desperate for those glimpses now than I've ever been. I have no idea what this beautiful, terrifying city will evolve into next - I only wish that Mitchell were here to write about it.
Profile Image for Simon Hollway.
154 reviews9 followers
September 13, 2021
Joseph Mitchell arrived in New York in 1929 aged 21, the day after the stock market crash and stayed there for the rest of his life. Originally from a small farming town in North Carolina, he soaked up the city and celebrated it as a feature writer for the New Yorker. This collection of features largely memorialises the New York dive bars, saloons and chancers in the city’s ‘Skid Row’, the Bowery, during the 1930s and 40s.

It was a time when men were men, drunks were drunks and eccentrics wore cashmere pea coats, pupils dilated as large as marrowfat peas, Harvard PhD’s tucked up grimy sleeves, quoting Kierkegaard and kipping in doorways nursing bottles of Morgans like proxy teddy bear comforters.

A New York where first and second generation barflies congregated in the spit and sawdust. Where customer service consisted of ‘sit down, shut up - you’ll get what you’re given.’ Where a violent, drink-fuelled bar brawl was the moment of one day and, the following evening, forgotten as the miscreants tottered in, already tanked up, chatting like the best buddies they were without having to convene a healing circle.

An era when dropping out meant you fell a long way down but were intermittently supported by the slender threads of brutal camaraderie and anonymous charity. A world before bureaucracy and health and safety. A period typified by those stomach-churning black and white photos of steel girder gangs, 300 feet up atop the emerging Chrysler building, balancing upon thin planks of wood without harnesses or safety nets. Mitchell’s stories are about the streets below at that time: hard-drinking communities also operating without a safety net, without social welfare, pity or anyone sober enough to follow their fictional past glories aside from the other barflies and their equally eccentric saviours - local personalities who dispensed tough love on the sly.

Structurally, Mitchell was a new wave documentary maker, crafting a reverse-engineered narration. He deposits his central character in the foreground at the start of each piece, in all their faded glory, seams falling apart, and then he backfills in their potted résumés in incremental, draftsmanlike detail. As an architect with a blueprint, he traces the inherited schematics animating these immigrants. The care and compassion of his portraits make their dislocated cultures vibrate off the page.

The effect is subtle and cumulative - painstakingly attentive to all his subjects’ tics and anecdotes. Mitchell thereby gives them room to breathe, affording them oxygen and respect which re-endows them with dignity even in some of their darkest days. Observations so focused, the author duly earns any sentimentality that happens to spill over. Most fascinating is the reservation of his highest validation for the alien communities who rudely carved out an unapologetic niche in the New York melting pot. Elbows out and knees raised, they fiercely retained their homeland customs, accents and tribal fractiousness. No concessions are given or taken.

Bums, derelicts, outcasts, street preachers, fallen women and unrisen men, silent angels and brazen hussies, those with little more than their voices and their past, are all touched by his egalitarian, enervating prose. Fundamentally, Mitchell is Hogarth with a heart, chronicling personalities that most would turn away from in the street.

A cast best summarised by his description of the flea-bitten yet beautiful gypsy children that flock around the periphery of the Bowery: ‘They are not particularly healthy, but they have the splendid gutter hardihood of English sparrows.’ We’d probably say pigeons but you get the idea.

But this is no Angela’s Ashes. Mitchell’s crippled characters come alive in the bar, their spiritual home rather than the cold, empty bedsits they crawl back to. Limping along with their ‘bar-rail feet’, feet that had become twisted by resting on the bar rail so much, all fighters and survivors whose only shouted and defiant confession is their loss of the battle with the booze - they revel in it, accept it, blustering and soldiering on. The flotsam survives by virtue of astonishing and hilariously transparent scams and self-delusions.. Mitchell finds their original spark and documents their gradual decline but not without etching in their tenuous rise. Mitchell matches people who live off their wits with equal wit. His (and their) fervent desire to believe their vainglorious white lies resonates through every cameo. It’s the lifeline threaded throughout the book.

Mesmeric characters with Messiah complexes from another time harking back to a yet more distant generation enhance these narratives with historical depth. It’s not all Irish bruisers though. We also bump into Sarsaparilla Reilly, Commodore Dutch and Professor Pretzel Wolf’s East Side Society Orchestra. A young and precocious Trinidadian girl saunters past half-drunk at the peak of her blossoming sexuality and is immediately yet proudly called out by her mother as ‘Miss Wriggle-Tail’.

My favourite person is the inimitable Joe Gould. This now elderly Harvard graduate wanders the streets, despising money, penning his magnum opus, ‘The Oral History’, already weighing in at over nine million words, on underground trains, in libraries and wherever he can rest his grubby portfolio on his knees.

At one point this eloquent scourge of capitalism, who pathologically rejects the depravity of public acclaim, appears to play against type. Desperate to join a newly minted New York poetry club, the committee chairman finally relents after years of Gould badgering him, reluctantly inviting the derelict author of possibly the longest (unpublished and unpublishable) novel in history, to a recitation spot at a public meeting.

Mitchell artfully braces us for an epic outpouring as Gould steps into the spotlight, pompously announcing to the pompous poetry club the title of his great poem – ‘MY RELIGION’. And thus Gould declaims:

‘In winter I’m a Buddhist,
And in summer I’m a nudist.’

- The End -

Gould scuttles off stage left and loses all interest in poetry. Victory sealed.

This is such an uplifting collection of stories because Joseph Mitchell reclaims humanity from its homogeneity. He restores faith in the human spirit and our species' resourceful variety. Whether Mitchell has embellished or been artfully selective does not matter: he writes with such authenticity and respect that we’re immediately engaged and on his side and the side of his subjects. He drills deep into our essential humanity, our sublimated anti-hero worship, of wanting the underdog to win.

And just as love and generosity are found in the most unlikely places, so is profound wisdom. At one point, Mitchell turns his attention to a nine-year-old piano prodigy, coached and showboated by her middle class mother in a swankier part of New York.

The girl recalls a piano piece she composed aged only four. In an inadvertent metaphor Sartre would be proud of, the little girl encapsulates the transient triumph and permanent tragedy of everyone in this book. When Mitchell presses her on what her infant piano composition, entitled ‘The Goldfish’, was all about, the girl replies:

“A little goldfish thinks the sky is water. He tried to jump into it, only to fall upon the floor and die.”
Profile Image for Bob Schnell.
480 reviews11 followers
July 29, 2016
I don't recall ever having heard of of Joseph Mitchell or "Up in the Old Hotel" until it was recommended to me. This seems odd considering how many books I've read and loved of a similar nature. It is a collection of journalistic writings (mainly from the New Yorker magazine) about people and things in and around New York City from the 1930's to the early 1960's. Mr. Mitchell's focus is on the characters and establishments that gave New York a flavor that, sadly, doesn't exist much anymore.

We get to peer inside of McSorley's Old Ale House before it became a tourist trap, visit the Fulton Fish Market in its heyday and wander the Village in all its bohemian glory. From flophouses to high society, Joseph Mitchell introduces us to many interesting people and lets us experience the city from their points of view. And he does this in prose so clean and elegant that even the most mundane observation is elevated to fine literature. To be sure, my interest began to wane when reading about various fishing methods or descriptions of landscapes, but that's because I've always been more interested in people. If the life and observations of a bearded lady, a street preacher or an eccentric who can speak seagull and is writing the world's longest book make you even a bit curious, I highly recommend "Up in the Old Hotel".
Profile Image for Kyelee Fitts.
156 reviews5 followers
April 13, 2021
Really so good. A collection of essays by Joseph Mitchell, many of which are profiles of wacky characters in post-depression era New York (especially Manhattan, the Bowery, Greenwich Village, East Village). These characters— the gypsy king, Joe Gould, Bill from McSorley’s— they come to life so imaginatively one could imagine them fiction.

He draws New York in all of its post-war grittiness— I feel like I understand its heritage, its old culture and character, more than I ever have before.

Some of the later essays refer to the earlier profiles, notably, Joe Gould’s Secret, which I thought was very sad.

Read this book! Especially if you have lived/ currently live in New York.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 8 books3 followers
May 12, 2016
Snapshots of a New York long gone - especially poignant because he describes the New York that my mother and grandmother grew up in. Sloppy Louie's restaurant was owned by a relative of mine; Louie Morino and his brother Amil (who ran the restaurant after Louie retired) were my great-uncles. This book of essays is laugh-out-loud funny in places, tragic in other places, and never less than fascinating.
Profile Image for Kristie.
21 reviews
September 10, 2012
These stories are much better presented one at a time as intended since they aren't actually stories, rather a series of descriptions. Although these descriptions are written so masterfully they are a pleasure to read, it's hard to wade through 700+ pages of descriptions and characters without plot.
Profile Image for Megan.
57 reviews4 followers
July 3, 2007
Collected works of arguably the greatest nonfiction writer ever. You will find out more about NYC history here than in any other book on the subject.
Profile Image for Dan.
1,059 reviews52 followers
October 26, 2021
Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

A gypsy gets to be a king by calling himself one .... The position of gypsy king pays off not in money but in prestige

This remarkable book about New York City and its residents is a collection of stories. The first stories were published in 1938. Mitchell was an award winning journalist for the New Yorker. The book is also unique in that some stories are fictionalized, others are historical and the rest are journalistic. Mitchell's favorite method seemed to be finding old timers and interviewing them to get their stories, many of them stretched back to the 1800s. Many of the stories are quite poignant and in all cases the writing is quite detailed.

Here are some of my favorites.

Up in the Old Hotel - a wonderful true story about a seafood restaurant and its owner. It's about his reluctance over the years to explore the upper most boarded up floors of the building he owns which forty years earlier had been a hotel.

The Bottom of the Harbor - New York Harbor is polluted. Oyster harvesting in the harbor is no longer allowed because of the untreated sewage that killed off most of the oyster beds and left the rest inedible.

The Rats on the Waterfront - The three species of rats that have infested New York City are old world rats, descendants of those that came over on ships beginning in the 17th century. They include grey, brown and black rats and they are all prodigious breeders. The black rat species first came from India to Europe.

Mr. Hunter's Grave - Mr Hunter is the unofficial caretaker of the old Negro cemetery in the neighborhood of Sandy Ground on Staten Island. He tells the stories of this the oldest African American settlement in the United States that began as an oyster fishing village. Mr Hunter also discusses his mother who was born a slave and escaped to New York via the Underground Railroad.

Dragger Captain - the fishing fleet, and its sea haggard captain Ellery who has rheumatism, operate out of Connecticut and navigate waters of the Sound where there are unexploded six hundred pound bombs dropped by the Air Force. They are draggers bringing up lobsters, dozens of invertebrates , bottom feeding fish and man made objects such as the aforementioned ordnance. The old captain is single and a prodigious painter in his spare time when not dragging or piloting the boat for the oceanographers from Yale. One old tale the captain told involved the Block islanders who would try and cause shipwrecks and then murder the crew.

The Rivermen - the narrative follows the men of Edgewater who live along the Hudson River.

Joe Gould's Secret - when Joe dies his oral history diary is nowhere to be found.

McSorley's Wonderful Saloon - many vignettes. King of the Gypsies was my favorite.

Obituary of a Gin Mill - the author, a regular, bemoans a bar owner's purchase of a new bigger and fancier bar but it is a sterile place when compared to the old dive.

The Mohawks in High Steel - follows the Caughnawagas of Brooklyn and Montreal and there role in building skyscrapers and bridges. Highly educational.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Ensiform.
1,337 reviews134 followers
July 27, 2014
A collection of pieces, mostly factual but with a few fiction stories thrown in, that originally appeared in the New Yorker during the 1940s and ‘50s. Most of these stories focus on the strange and larger than life characters who populated New York in the Depression and afterwards – eccentric barmen, street preachers, Bohemians, gypsies, fishermen, a bearded lady, a Calypso singer, and more. Mitchell’s beat is the Bowery, the Fulton Fish Market, and the Hudson River. He talks about the poverty, the beefsteaks (vast all-you-can-eat parties), the rats, the drinking, the law, the speakeasies, the rise of automobiles and cheap junk, the beginning of water pollution, and the steady march of time. It’s really an amazing book – 720 pages of time capsule, a long and convoluted essay on how life was for the men and women who grew up in new York during the Depression. He caps it all off with a book called “Joe Gould’s Secret,” a piece of the titular Bohemian who went to Harvard, became a panhandler in the Village, and spent all his life convincing other people that he was working on a monumental “Oral History of Our Time.”

It’s in pieces like this last, where Mitchell’s getting to the heart of unusual characters, that his writing really shines. At other times, Mitchell can be unbearably boring: he quotes people in five-page-long blocks, in page-long paragraphs – fastidiously detailed monologues that couldn’t possibly be accurate quotes in the strict sense. And his passion for precision exhausted my patience at times: in many places, he’d write something like: “some of them come from the west, some from the north, some from the south, and some from the east.” Or, “some are old, some are young, and most are middle-aged.” In other words, technically true but meaningless details. Still and all, the work as a whole stands as a great testament to some of the oddballs and curmudgeons in New York three generations or so ago.
Profile Image for Eric.
886 reviews10 followers
November 24, 2009
A disclaimer: I only read about 2/3rd's of this book. It's around 750 pages, but some of the stories were either too antiquated to read or were of a topic too sensitive for me to read (ex. the raising of terrapins for future consumption - couldn't handle that. Although, it did remind me of the magical Terrapin Station!). Otherwise, Mitchell's book is fantastic. He was a reporter for the New Yorker from the 1930's to the 1990's. These stories are all profiles he made of the common man and, specifically, Depression-era New York . If you're even remotely a fan of history and the forgotten people of America this book is a must read.

The subjects are nobodies: bums, gypsies (very politically incorrect story), scam artists, clam fisherman, and seedy bar owners among others. Mitchell really digs into these misfit's lives and exposes a kind of lost America. I couldn't help thinking of these people as characters in a Tom Waits song. In particular the story Joe Gould's Secret, which is apparently Mitchell's crowing achievement, is fascinating. This guy was compiling a book called the Oral History of the World. Basically, he was just an eccentric drunk, but Mitchell's ability to flesh out such a unique character and turn him into a kind of hero is very impressive.

His talent was his ability to turn the common into the exceptional. The sad fact is that after Joe Gould's Secret (1964) was published he spent the next 30 years until his death unable to write. His writer's block was so severe that he would check into his office at the New Yorker every day with a pen and paper, work a full day, and leave having written not a single word - for 30 years. However, Up In the Old House verifies his life's work in stunning fashion and I recommend this book to anyone who appreciates the misfit and his unappreciated role in society.
30 reviews1 follower
January 24, 2013
This is a book that I come back to again and again. Stunning, otherwordly! It is a series of short stories by Joseph Mitchell who worked at the New Yorker. All of the stories are about real people who lived in NYC during the 30's and 40's. You are treated the the world of Mc Sorley's Wonderful Saloon, a bar that came into existence in the late 1800's. A bar with a potbellied stove for heat, various cats running around, a crusty owner from Ireland who collected strange memorabilia and hung it on every wall space available. I enjoyed the story of Mazie. The woman who owned and ran a Bowery 'moving picture house' She would give drunken bums a dime so they could spend the night in a flophouse instead of the cold Manhattan streets. she would give them a bar of soap and a washrag so they could clean themselves up. The there was the'bearded lady' who actually did have a beard. She worked in carnivals her whole life and now worked at 'Freak Show Museums' in NYC. Then you will read about the Alabama Baptist preacher who took up residence in the city to condemn all the vice he saw there...Hilarious!! This book is brilliant, evokes a world long, long gone..from the flophouses, oyster houses, free lunchtime food at the bars (cheese & raw onions)etc....A true compilation of America during that time period. This book really is a classic.
Profile Image for Katrice.
211 reviews25 followers
January 15, 2015
I knew nothing about Joseph Mitchell before I picked this book up and out of a sale bin. Am I ever happy that I did because now I know just how well he wrote.

Apparently he never wrote a thing again after the last bit in this collection "Joe Gould's Secret". Thirtyish years going to his offices in the New Yorker everyday but never writing anything again. Part of me feels, sayang, but the other part of me thinks, its okay because what he did produce before those dry years was astonishing.

Mitchell gained a reputation on his ability to find and portray the eccentrics of New York and he does it in a way that combines a good reporters detached attention to detail, an astonishing ear and memory for dialogue and a bit of dry, sometimes black humor. His portraits bring his subjects to stark life - some are a little less then flattering - softened with just a touch of understanding fondness.

It's very rare to find this sort of writing in the features section nowadays. Essays that actually TELL you about a person, place or event so that you actually feel like you LEARNED something about it while still being entertained and engaged. Mitchell's New York and the eccentrics that populated them might be long gone but, in his work, he captured and immortalized them. Not a bad legacy, and I can understand the respect people had for him that no one questioned his dry spell.
Profile Image for Dennis.
Author 7 books41 followers
April 1, 2008
I re-read this book every couple of years. It's both a way to time travel to the New York of the earlier twentieth city and an immersion in that compelling yet somehow effortless prose that drives me to pick up the New Yorker every time I see it. I want to visit the New York Mitchell describes, and I feel deeply cheated that it's gone.
This isn't just New York, the center of the civilized world, it's New York as a place that grew up out of a Dutch settlement surrounded by long grass at the confluence of two rivers. Mitchell somehow evokes the ground under the city, the water all around it, as well as the eccentric characters who wandered through it in the twentieth century.
Gypsies, rats, oyster boat captains, a couple living in a cave in Central Park, all capture Mitchell's attention, and he presents them in a way that makes you wonder why you never thought about them before.
There's an alchemy here. Somehow, in telling these small and seemingly trivial stories, Mitchell illuminates why New York is at the center of American consciousness so much of the time. Read it. Re-read it.
Profile Image for Poiema.
449 reviews64 followers
August 29, 2018
This is a quirky collection of stories about New Yorkers: musical prodigies, gypsies, fishermen, preachers, gluttons, collectors, and eccentrics of all varieties. It was amazing to me how Mr. Mitchell ( a reporter) could win the trust of such a diverse circle. He seemed right at home with all if them, settled down with them in their favorite haunts, won their confidence, and then penned the experience so vividly that you feel you really understand these folks. The last story, "Joe Gould's Secret," crackled with life. The author's emotional investment in a brilliant, homeless writer was palpable and set this chapter apart from the others. My post-reading research revealed the reason. Joseph Mitchell identified with the man Joe Gould, who has been dubbed a "Greenwich Village bohemian," almost to the point of making him his alter ego.

This is a great collection to leave at your bedside and dip into on occasion. Truth can be stranger than fiction, and the award winning Mitchell is a reporter that manages to breathe life into his subjects and make them memorable.
Profile Image for Charles.
90 reviews10 followers
December 24, 2011
True New York stories circa 1930 to 1950 or thereabouts. Truly amazing writing that brings the nooks and crannies of the city to life. The author tends to leave himself almost entirely out of these essays and lets the characters (and these are some SERIOUSLY INTERESTING characters) speak and act for themselves. Drunks. Geniuses. Bartenders. Fishermen. Religous zealots. Gypsies. Best of all, these essays are excellent sources of history, as they capture a time and place that is gone forever. Each one is a mini-masterpiece. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jesse Field.
739 reviews36 followers
March 26, 2022
Underneath the famously unvarnished reportage prose, Joseph Mitchell's voice contains a great deal of joy, as he explores human voices, and the history of various nooks and crannies they occupy in New York and the surrounding region. I just loved "Mr. Hunter's Grave," with its revelation of a flourishing community of Black Americans on Staten Island in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this rambling and sentimental piece, we trace the rise and fall of a whole way of life, of working together and helping each other, and spreading out, finding employment elsewhere, and growing old, keeping to themselves.
People looked after things in those days. They patched and mended and made do, and they kept their yards clean, and they burned their trash. And they taught their children how to conduct themselves. And they held their heads up; they were as good as anybody, and better than some. And they got along with each other; they knew each other’s peculiarities and took them into consideration.

That kind of flourishing seems to represent Mitchell's ideal, and perhaps explains why he's constantly drawn back to the fishermen and the fish markets, which back then were bursting with shad, and cod, and oysters and clams. Though the local oysters were the first thing to go, and it was Mitchell's generation that first really started to notice environmental damage.

Similarly, the Bowery, once the first of the major urban zones of Manhattan, gradually "went to seed," and became a place of cheap theaters, 'gin mills,' and 'flop houses.' But Mitchell wanders up and down the streets anyway, interviewing people like Mazie, who works at the ticket cage of the Venice theater and is a saint who takes care of bums and drunks in her own way, the best she can. People like Mazie live outside their homes ten, twelve hours a day. They spend their time in the city; they like the action. It's a very interesting vision of a community.

"Professor Sea Gull" is another exquisite example of the "profile" form which the New Yorker pioneered, partly thanks to Mitchell. Joe Gould is an eccentric Bohemian who wanders the streets and says he's writing a massive book, an oral history of his world. The visual writing on Gould leaves a deep impression:
Gould is toothless, and his lower jaw swivels from side to side when he talks. He is bald on top, but the hair at the back of his head is long and frizzly, and he has a bushy, cinnamon-colored beard. He wears a pair of spectacles that are loose and lopsided and that slip down to the end of his nose a moment after he puts them on. He doesn’t always wear them on the street and without them he has the wild, unfocussed stare of an old scholar who has strained his eyes on small print. Even in the Village many people turn and look at him. He is stooped and he moves rapidly, grumbling to himself, with his head thrust forward and held to one side. Under his left arm he usually carries a bulging, greasy, brown pasteboard portfolio, and he swings his right arm aggressively.

But the more intense magic is in the dialogue:
‘What we used to think was history – kings and queens, treaties, inventions, big battles, beheadings, Caesar, Napoleon, Pontius Pilate, Columbus, William Jennings Bryan – is only formal history and largely false. I’ll put down the informal history of the shirt-sleeved multitude – what they had to say about their jobs, love affairs, vittles, sprees, scrapes, and sorrows – or I’ll perish in the attempt.’ The Oral History is a great hodgepodge and kitchen midden of hearsay, a repository of jabber, an omnium-gatherum of bushwa, gab, palaver, hogwash, flapdoodle, and malarkey, the fruit, according to Gould’s estimate, of more than twenty thousand conversations.

Mitchell's ability to record, and remember, or at least creatively reconstruct, huge monologues by his interviewees is stunning. Another bravura performance is the profile of a street preacher, in "A Spism and a Spasm," who calls himself "Daddy Hall," and whose haranguing polemics have all the rhythm and improvisational art of good jazz:
He is profoundly discursive. This particular evening, in the course of one block, the block between Fiftieth and Forty-ninth, he made the following remarks: “A lost city, hungry for destruction, aching for destruction, the entire population in a fuss and a fret, a twit and a twitter, a squit and a squat, a hip and a hop, a snig and a snaggle, a spism and a spasm, a sweat and a swivet. Can’t wait for night to fall, can’t wait for day to break. Even the church bells sound jangly in New York City; they ring them too fast. And the women! Into everything! Free livers! They’ve gone hog-proud and hog-wild. Wearing britches, wearing uniforms, straining their joints for generations to come with high-heel shoes. They’re turning into Indians. Their mouths smeared and smiddled and smoodled with paint, and their cheeks, and their fingernails. And what color do they pick? Old Scratch’s favorite. The mark of the beast, that’s what it is. And they’ve taken to painting their toenails! Why don’t they get a bucket of paint and turn it over on themselves, top to bottom, like a whooping red Indian, and be done with it? Save time and trouble. Oh, my! Tell you what I saw last Sunday! I visited St Bartholomew’s, and there was an old sister in the pew in front of me with her hair dyed blue, and I mean blue! Call the doctor!…


I wasn't surprised to go back and find that the Owen Wilson character in The French Dispatch is actually based in part on Mitchell, and his habit of interviewing the low-down, and feeling out the full map of the city. This book is huge, with many more classic profiles, and a two sets of fictional stories, one with views of his past in the south, in North Carolina ("I Blame It All On Mama" is hilarious and touching, with a portrait of a dignified lady that reminds me of my Grandma Field). A final look at Joe Gould, which builds to an extraordinary climax in the book-length Joe Gould's Secret, really captures the autobiographical layers of this journalist-writer's vision.

In the Audible.com version, a new preface by David Remnick notes that after the Joe Gould saga was all over and done, Mitchell would continue coming in every day to his office at the New Yorker, but never finished another piece, not for nearly 30 years. There is something quite sad about that, but on the other hand, maybe it's consoling for all of us than any given chapter of our lives can be creative ones. This volume is a solid offering of American English, ready to go for any curious reader, for generations to come.
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