by Janet Malcolm on Joseph Mitchell, a New Yorker
writer who helped establish the magazine's style of the long, meandering profiles of New York eccentrics, is an example of an ideal match between critic and subject. Mitchell famously allowed his subjects, a homeless would-be author of a great work of history in Greenwich Village, a shad fisherman on the Hudson, a mystic in Harlem, to go on for pages, so he could catch the sly music of their talk. Here Malcolm describes his methodology in a piece called "Up in the Old Hotel," about a restaurateur, Louie Morino, in the old Fulton Fish Market:
Almost imperceptibly Mitchell turns over the narration of the story to Louie, sliding into the lengthy monologue that was once a commonplace of New Yorker
nonfiction and is a signature of Mitchell's mature work. Occasionally the author breaks in to speak in his own voice, which is slightly different from Louie's but in the same register, giving the effect of arias sung by alternating soloists in an oratorio.
Malcolm does something similar in this piece, submerging her critical insights in summaries of Mitchell's greatest works, allowing his charm, his melancholy, his searching, restless nature to come to the fore, even as she builds a case for him as one of the great American writers. She chooses the best images or moments, those full of force and humanity and humor, and puts them at the center of her analysis. Her writing is so limpid that you accept the rightness of her judgments (the only flourishes she allows herself are aphoristic phrases, little pins that prick the reader with mischievous delight). This becomes important at the end of the piece, where she discusses the problem of Mitchell's flights of invention in his supposedly journalistic pieces.
Malcolm doesn't let him off the hook, exactly. From a journalistic point of view, she says, what he did -- invent characters and scenes so as to lure the reader into the story he wanted to tell -- was simply wrong. But from a human point of view, Malcolm thinks Mitchell is one of the greatest souls -- up there with Twain, Melville, Joyce, Turgenev -- and that he wrote in a genre of his own, "some kind of hybrid, yet to be named."