New book reveals — you’ll never guess — that another hero of urbane liberal sophisticates across America was full of shit!
About halfway through Thomas Kunkel’s remarkable new biography of Joseph Mitchell a feeling of dread swept over me. I called a friend and said, “I wish this guy hadn’t written this book.” (…)
About halfway through the book Kunkel reveals evidence of Mitchell relying on techniques that might have been quietly accepted as his pieces were published back then but are first-degree felonies now: composite characters, rewriting quotes to enliven the language, altering narrative details, and moving dialogue from one day to another. There is evidence that Mitchell conspired with Ross to keep some of these tactics secret, suggesting Mitchell knew what he was doing was wrong. (…)
Kunkel turns up a peculiar letter Mitchell sent the magazine’s lawyer two decades after his story appeared. A director inquired about making a musical of the gypsie’s life, but Mitchell protested, saying Cockeye Johnny wasn’t in the public domain. “He is a fictional character, and I invented him,” Mitchell wrote the lawyer. His attempt to write a definitive profile of a gypsy king wasn’t coming together, he told the lawyer, “because of wartime conditions not a single one of the gypsy kings in the city at that time was really a representative one.” With Ross’s consent, Kunkel reveals Mitchell made up Cockeye Johnny based on other gypsies he knew. (Mitchell knew a lot of gypsies.)
And then he got to his justification: “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts.” This is the first time Mitchell publicly acknowledged presenting fiction as fact. (…)
Mitchell used the Flood character, Kunkel writes, to say and think things about “the march of mortality, the serendipity of life, the fickle humor of our condition, the power of good food and drink” — all themes that consumed Mitchell.
This is more proof, by the way, that individuals who are “consumed” by “the power of good food and drink” are shallow, stunted creatures of appetite and all-around dubious characters.
The shaping of facts, he said, is subjective. While I think this is true, it’s also true that Mitchell invented new facts to shape. (…)
Kunkel argues — and I know others at The New Yorker agree — that Mitchell deserves some dispensation because standards were different back then, other New Yorker writers engaged in the same behavior, there was less transparency in reporting, and unlike modern embellishers like Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Brian Williams, his boss and other editors knew what he was up to. I think that’s a bit too generous; there is circumstantial evidence showing Mitchell had misgivings about his fictional characters and that he and Ross knew they were crossing a line.
And who does he think Blair et al modelled their writing on, but the great Mitchell’s and his ilks?
Not that they knew he was lying, but obviously in order to mimic the master’s style, they had to imitate his techniques (even though, notably, they didn’t know that’s what they were doing…)
Mitchell “believed the latitude taken with a character’s speech and certain surroundings were in the service of a greater good. The core ‘truth’ of the story was important; its interior factuality was not.”