Thursday 28 May 2015

'Sometimes I heard him emit a small sigh...'

I must admit I've never read the New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell (despite his being a favourite of Patrick Kurp's), but I heard his name mentioned on the radio this morning, a propos a biography - and a propos writer's block. For Mitchell was known not only for his writings but for his non-writing, a phase of his literary career that began in 1964 and lasted until his death in 1996.
 Mitchell built his reputation through the Thirties (the New Yorker hired him in 1938), Forties and Fifties as a chronicler of city life in New York, of its street characters, bohemians and others living more or less on the margins. One of these was Joe Gould, aka Profesor Seagull, who claimed to be writing a vast, encyclopaedic Oral History of the Contemporary World (or Oral History of Our Time), for which he was constantly taking notes and collecting material. In fact, this book did not exist; Gould was disguising an extreme case of writer's block.
 Mitchell wrote two profiles of Gould, then fictionalised his plight in a novel, Joe Gould's Secret. The novel was published in 1964, and that same year Mitchell fell prey to an equally extreme case of writer's block. The amazing thing is that the New Yorker continued to employ him. This is a colleague's account of Mitchell's 'working day':

'Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained.'

An extraordinary and sad case - though surely a journalist with writer's block is better described as an ex-journalist.

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