The Bottom of the Harbor. Joseph Mitchell.

Joseph Mitchell. The Bottom of the Harbor. Random House New York 1944-1959. Haschette digital retrieved for Kindle.

Mitchell died in his 80s in 1996. He was an introvert whose writing skill got him a job at the New Yorker which he held for decades, writing, mostly in the 1950s, material that is thought to have been taken literally. As journalism, that is. I am aware of this because Thomas Kunkel, a journalism academic and fellow New Yorker writer has now published a biography of Mitchell which was reviewed in the Economist.

One has to confront, I guess, the issue of Mitchell’s having made up most of what he wrote. Back in the 1950s it would’ve been considered bullshitting or worse, but (I haven’t read Kunkel’s biography) it’s also apparently now accepted that Mitchell’s writing is pretty wonderful independent of its veracity. I agree.

This series of long articles about the waterways around New York almost literally stink (or smell intriguingly) of the old dirty, authentic, eccentric, hidden, back and bottom end of that aspect of the great city, about 60 years ago. There’s a bit of “let’s creep out the rich hoity-toity” undertow to the Old Hotel (and everything else too), Sloppy Louis fish restaurant proprietor and our intrepid reporter finally getting up the nerve to go and have a look at the long-abandoned upper floors of the building above the restaurant, accessible only by an ancient dangerous elevator hand-pulled by a rotten rope. They find… nothing. And that’s the beginning of Mitchell’s speculation about life. You live it, then you die. Although it may sometimes appear mysterious and intriguing it’s not.

Contemporary medical author of the column “Diet and Health” Dr. Clendening was always cheerful:

“Keep smiling!” He said. “Worry will kill you. A good hearty laugh,” he said, “is the best medicine. If you’ve got high blood pressure, laugh! If you’ve got low blood pressure, laugh! The more you laugh the longer you live.”… And then one day I picked up the paper and it said that “Diet and Health” wouldn’t appear no more because Dr. Clendening had cut his throat.

The Bottom of the Harbor has huge inconsistencies for modern readers with conventional sensibilities, the harbour all filthy with every kind of effluent and jetsam, but teeming with millions of fish that are ingeniously scooped up and trucked away to Manhattan markets. There is an ignorance or innocence both in the quality and value of the fish. But there is another kind of leap of faith in Mitchell’s contemporary readers’ accepting that he knew what was down under the surface of the famous river flowing past their homes. Of course he had no more physical idea of that than Jules Verne had about what existed Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

All the stories or articles seem to me for somebody today to carry pretty much the same message. The style is engaging because what he says seems real. But even when you know for sure that most of what he’s presenting as real is fictional, it still packs the punch of reality but of a bit different kind. This is wonderful. But “this” is me, telling you this story.

About the great river Hudson he said:

I like it best on Sundays, when there are lulls that sometimes last as long as half an hour, during which all the way from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, nothing moves upon it, not even a ferry, not even a tug, and it becomes as hushed and dark and secret and remote and unreal as a river in a dream.

It looks like old Joseph Mitchell kept trying to write that dream, but he didn’t produce much of anything in the last 20 years of his life, so we can speculate that he spent that time wishing he could accomplish it and believing he’d failed. But he didn’t fail, although it’s sad and worrisome that he probably died thinking he did. 7.0/8.9.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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