The Eternal Mystery of the Reclusive Writer
From Mitchell to Pynchon to Ferrante, Why We Love the Hermits
For nearly three decades, Joseph Mitchell worked at The New Yorker, where he produced some of the magazine’s most venerable essays, including his masterpiece, “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964. This piece was a follow-up to his 1942 profile on Gould, “Professor Sea Gull,” which made the Greenwich Village vagrant famous. Though he came from money and attended Harvard, Gould opted for the bohemian life on the streets of New York. His friends—e. e. cummings among them—often functioned as patrons, giving the eccentric little man money or food. Gould was notorious for an ongoing project called “An Oral History of Our Time,” which was made up of overheard conversations and observations from Gould’s life as a bum. It was said to be over one million words. But much to Mitchell’s chagrin, he soon discovered that Gould’s book didn’t exist, and almost 20 years after the initial profile appeared, Mitchell revealed Joe Gould’s secret, which was also, in many ways, Mitchell’s.
Gradually, then suddenly, Mitchell stopped writing. And for the next 30 years he published nothing. Though he still showed up at the office everyday, no new Joseph Mitchell pieces ever appeared in the magazine again. The man was blocked. As David Remnick put it, “No one but a fool would ask about his silence.”
What happened? Why did one of the most revered writers in America suddenly stop publishing? And why, more importantly, are we so fascinated by such occurrences? Why is it, in other words, that when a successful author chooses to either stop producing work or avoid the limelight altogether, that our interest in their work changes? Or, more accurately, our analysis of their work changes? Why do we scrutinize Elena Ferrante’s novels for any glimpse of the real person? Why did Mark Moskowitz spend years searching for Dow Mossman, the author of The Stones of Summer? Why did people regularly journey to Cornish, New Hampshire to catch a glimpse of J.D. Salinger? And just who the hell is this Thomas Pynchon fellow, anyway?
In terms of Joseph Mitchell’s sudden silence, a new book hopes to answer that question. Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker by Thomas Kunkel explores the life and work of the iconic writer, and delves into the years after his final publication. As I read the book with undisguised glee, a few things became very apparent. First, Mitchell’s life was a lot like his famous profiles: short on drama, long on observation. Mitchell’s story can be summarized thusly: He was born in North Carolina on a farm, moved to New York and wrote for a few newspapers, married, joined The New Yorker, produced incredible portraits of his city, and then stopped. There were no major controversies, no secret shortcomings, no epic battles, no divorces. But that doesn’t mean Man in Profile isn’t a fascinating read. Kunkel, instead, tells the story of Mitchell’s writing, almost piece by piece, and by doing so gives us a complex profile of a man who was best known through his beautiful work.
But here’s the other thing that occurred to me: the answer to the great Joseph Mitchell mystery is tragically (and disappointingly) banal. So, too, I suspect, are the answers to many of these literary enigmas. A writer who disappears (or who never appeared in the first place) becomes a fiction, and with that comes guesswork, conjecture and, inevitably, mythologizing. If we were to discover who Elena Ferrante is, or what happened to Margaret Mitchell, or Harper Lee, the answers would probably never be as interesting, or as meaningful, as the fictions we create in their absence.
“I believe that books,” Elena Ferrante wrote to her publisher before the publication of her first novel in 1991, “once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t… I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own… True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known… Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the least expensive author of the publishing house. I’ll spare you even my presence.”
As James Wood notes, “It is hard to argue with the logic of this withdrawal,” but do we really, in a practical sense, agree with her? What are books without their authors? Judging by our actions, we don’t believe this at all. Consider the way scholars still obsess over Shakespeare’s identity or the degree to which he collaborated on his plays. The art itself, it seems, is not enough for us.
Listen to the way Wood, in the same essay, collects the information about Ferrante:
It’s assumed that Elena Ferrante is not the author’s real name. In the past twenty years or so, though, she has provided written answers to journalists’ questions, and a number of her letters have been collected and published. From them, we learn that she grew up in Naples, and has lived for periods outside Italy. She has a classics degree; she has referred to being a mother. One could also infer from her fiction and from her interviews that she is not now married.
It is like a speech out of a detective novel. And why not? Ferrante’s novels are fantastically good, and, moreover, they positively gush with potentially fascinating autobiography. Why wouldn’t we want to know more about this author? Why wouldn’t we want to pick and poke until we uncovered some fundamental truth?
Stepping back a bit farther, it’s plain to see that the aforementioned writers are no ordinary artists. Salinger, Mitchell, Lee, Pynchon, Ferrante—together they’ve produced some of the more enduring works of literature of the twentieth century. So maybe our fixation on their private lives (or, in some cases, their very identities) makes total sense. In some way, whatever information we can cull from their books or from investigations can extend, albeit briefly, our experiences of their writing, like finding an old grocery list of a dead friend. Maybe it doesn’t mean all that much in and of itself, but to some it is a treasure.
But there’s something else here, isn’t there? Isn’t it a struggle to understand why someone so talented and respected and revered wouldn’t want the fame and fortune that comes with it all? Who among us, for instance, could turn down the opportunity to receive a major award, as Thomas Pynchon did in 1974 when he won the National Book Award for Gravity’s Rainbow? (He sent a vaudeville comedian in his place.) One mustn’t forget that the very people obsessing over these reclusive and secretive authors are themselves writers (or at least literary types). Writers have even more reason to question such deliberate obscurity, for we spend most of lives struggling to emerge out of crowd so we can be pronounced special. But Salinger, Pynchon, et al—they desperately avoid what so many of us strive for.
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Or, in the case of Joseph Mitchell, they are undone by it. By the 1970s, Mitchell didn’t recognize the New York he lived in. Crime was rising while historic buildings were falling. The New Journalism catapulted a handful of young writers into the limelight, changing the way people read and wrote nonfiction (though of course Mitchell had been doing this for years; or, as John McPhee put it, “When the New Journalists came ashore, Joe Mitchell was there on the beach to greet them”). Mitchell’s city, in other words, looked very different from the one he’d portrayed with such exquisite detail in the previous decade. Despite this, readers of The New Yorker still clamored for his work, and still believed him to be the best chronicler of the city. “With all this pressure,” Kunkel writes, “how could the master keep producing… well, masterpieces?”
Always a perfectionist, Mitchell became increasingly hard on himself, leading him deeper into depression. In addition, Mitchell suffered a number of important losses over the years: his mother, his great friend and colleague A.J. Liebling, his wife, and his father. Also, he began to spend more time on his family’s farm in North Carolina, the place he considered his real home, to help out his aging and ailing father before his death. He pursued philanthropic endeavors—even serving on New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, a position Mayor Ed Koch appointed him to.
So what’s the answer to the great Joseph Mitchell mystery? Life. Life happened. There was no single incident that pushed him into silence, no earth-shattering secret to reveal. Joseph Mitchell spent his remaining years, as he put it, “living in the past,” a phrase he found inadequate in capturing exactly how he felt but better than any other description. He aged. Those he loved died. Writing became more difficult. Is this really so hard to comprehend? And shouldn’t we respect it? Shouldn’t we be grateful to him for giving us such wonderful writing and let him be?
Look at Harper Lee. After To Kill a Mockingbird was published in 1960, Lee disappeared from the public eye, stopped granting interviews, and, shock of shocks, went about living her life the way she wanted to. This has never sat right with people, who desperately longed for another novel like To Kill a Mockingbird, and another hero like Atticus Finch. It was assumed, like Mitchell, that Lee felt direly inhibited by expectations, and froze. And since 1960, she has given her adoring public nothing…
…until now of course. Now, this summer, the world will finally get what it had stopped hoping for: a new work by Harper Lee. But what’s been especially fascinating leading up to the publication of Go Set a Watchman hasn’t been the excitement around it but the controversy. This is, after all, a sequel to one of the most important American novels of the 20th century, yet the literary world has rightly viewed it with not just suspicion but concern: is this the way we want another book? Has our constant hounding of reclusive writers made such a possibly ill-conceived publication inevitable? We’re getting what we want, but will it be worth it? If the book disappoints (which is not hard to imagine), what will happen to our perception of Lee? Will knowing what another novel by Harper Lee looks like be better than imagining one?
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Samuel Johnson once wrote, “A transition from an author’s books to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples, and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendor, grandeur, and magnificence; but, when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.”
Joseph Mitchell, J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee—it is important to remember that they are simply human beings, whose lives are full of banal trivialities much less interesting than their fictions. Who is Thomas Pynchon? He’s just a guy—a particularly brilliant one, yes, but discovering everything there is to know about him won’t really add to our understanding of his books. Like Johnson’s metaphorical city, a closer look at Pynchon would be a let down of ordinariness.
All of this, of course, is not meant as criticism of these writers. Their ordinariness is their right, just like their privacy. The disappointment I’m talking about is one we’ve set up for ourselves. Life is never more fascinating than when it withholds answers, because in place of answers we create fictions no real person could live up to. It’s a lot like Joe Gould’s Oral History. It’s such an appealing idea: a brilliant vagrant writing a masterpiece. And since no one had read the thing, Mitchell and others created a fictional version of it in their minds. But the truth about Joe Gould—like the truth about Mitchell, and Lee and Salinger and Pynchon, probably—was much more plausible than the alternative: he was delusional, manipulative and dishonest. There was no Oral History, just as there is no great secret to Joseph Mitchell’s final years.
Of course, we will go on with our intense fascination with reclusive or secretive writers. We will continue to imagine them as impossibly interesting people—as ourselves, only better. Joseph Mitchell admitted how much of himself he saw in Gould, and that his nonexistent Oral History wasn’t all that different from the “big novel of New York” that Mitchell always hoped to write but never even began. After realizing that Gould’s braggadocio regarding his Oral History was to deceive himself as much as others, Mitchell writes:
He must have found out long ago that he didn’t have the genius or the talent, or maybe the self-confidence or the industry or the determination, to bring off a work as huge and grand as he envisioned, and fallen back on writing those so-called essay chapters. Writing them and rewriting them. And, either because he was too lazy or because he was too much of a perfectionist, he hadn’t been able to finish even them. Still, a large part of the time he very likely went around believing in some hazy, self-deceiving, self-protecting way that the Oral History did exist… it might not exactly be down on paper, but he had it all in his head, and any day now he was going to start getting it down.
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This, tragically, is true of most of us. Most of us won’t have the skill or talent or determination to finish even one book, let alone a masterpiece, though some of us delude ourselves for much longer than others. Gould captured something in the people who read about him—a belief in greatness, in amazing people performing incredible acts. We’re not wrong: greatness does exist. Gould may not have written his Oral History but Mitchell actually wrote “Joe Gould’s Secret,” and “Mazie” and “The Rats on the Waterfront” and “Mr. Hunter’s Grave”—just as Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, et al, wrote their books. And when there are people who seem able to accomplish the things that have always stayed out of our reach, it’s a bit of a struggle to understand why they’d give it up, or why they wouldn’t want validation. They are the best of us, and all we want is to celebrate them, read them, let them know how much they’ve given us. Why don’t these rare, great figures want those things? But the thing we forget about greatness is that underneath it exists a human being, with all the fragility and frailty that entails.