The Rest was Silence: Joseph Mitchell’s epic case of writer’s block

Joseph Mitchell  in his office at The New Yorker Magazine in New York, 1994. Photograph: AP Photo/Wyatt Counts)

Joseph Mitchell in his office at The New Yorker Magazine in New York, 1994. Photograph: AP Photo/Wyatt Counts)

 

Whenever the daily deadline looms and I’m struggling to fill my allotted space, as happens often, it sometimes helps to think about Joe Mitchell.

The “poet laureate of Fulton Fish Market”, as he was known, contributed essays to the New Yorker for many years in the middle of the last century. But despite having the city with a million stories as his subject, he also experienced one of history’s longest recorded cases of writer’s block, starting in 1964 and continuing for 32 years.

On the contrary, it was also an extreme example of that other well-known curse of corporate life: presenteeism

Another thing he had been called during his earlier career was the “New York James Joyce”. That may be where the problem started. Joyce famously spent his last 17 years writing Finnegans Wake. Mitchell must have spent nearly as long reading it. He got through the full thing at least “half a dozen times” by his own account, which is half a dozen times more than the vast majority of even the most ardent consumers of literature manage.

Mitchell’s “obsessive” devotion to the book centred on the Anna Livia Plurabelle section, wherein the river Liffey takes on the personality of a Dublin washerwoman and where he could hear “the voices of my mother and my aunts”, even though they were Scots Presbyterians from North Carolina.

Obsession seems to be a common experience among the minority who do make it to the end of Joyce’s most difficult epic.

That’s why I have been reading it slowly, in small instalments, over several years now, while being careful not to inhale.

Mere duration apart, the notable thing about Mitchell’s epic silence as a writer was that it did not involve absence from the office. On the contrary, it was also an extreme example of that other well-known curse of corporate life: presenteeism. He retained his office in the New Yorker throughout, arriving every morning dressed for work, taking a regular lunch break and returning in the afternoon, but never submitting anything for publication.

After his death in 1996, a colleague recalled: “Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained.”

One of the fictional characters from his productive years, ironically, was “Old Mr Flood”, a Fulton Fish Market regular well-named for his verbal outpourings. 

Here’s one example, from 1944, in which Mr Flood, explaining the often-mysterious thinking behind how people behave, recalls the story of “the old farmer who wouldn’t tell the drummer the time of day”.

The farmer is on a train somewhere, with a crock of applejack (fruit brandy) between his feet. After consulting his antique gold watch, he repeatedly refuses to share the time with the young drummer opposite, until the offended drummer demands an explanation.

“If I was to tell you the time of the time of day,” the farmer said, “we’d get into a conversation, and I got a crock of spirits down on the floor between my feet, and in a minute I’m going to take a drink, and if we were having a conversation, I’d ask you to take a drink with me, and you would, and presently I’d take another, and I’d ask you to do the same, and you would, and we’d get to drinking, and by and by the train’d pull up to the stop where I get off, and I’d ask you why don’t you get off and spend the afternoon with me, and you would, and we’d walk up to my house and sit on the front porch and drink and sing, and along about dark my old lady would come out and ask you to take supper with us, and you would, and after supper I’d ask you if you care to drink some more, and you would, and it’d get to be real late and I’d ask you to spend the night in the spare room, and you would, and along about two o clock in the morning, I’d get up to go to the pump, and I’d pass my daughter’s room, and there you’d be, in there with my daughter, and I’d have to turn the bureau upside down and get out my pistol, and my old lady would have to get dressed and hitch up the horse and go down the road and get the preacher, and I don’t want no God-damned son-in-law who don’t own a watch.”

That sentence may or may not count as great literature (and in fairness to Mitchell, the jury is still out on Finnegans Wake too), but it has its charms.

Not least among those – I speak here as someone also haunted by deadlines and white space – is that it’s almost 300 words long.

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