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Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories ()

National Review's List of the Top 100 Nonfiction Books of the 20th Century

    When somebody suggested that he wrote about the 'little people,' he replied that there were no
    little people in his work. 'They are as big as you are, whoever you are,' he said.
        -OBIT : Joseph Mitchell, Chronicler of the Unsung and the Unconventional, Dies at 87 (Richard Severo, NY Times,  May 25, 1996)

One day, it would have to have been the very early 70's, we were in the car with my grandfather, driving through the Bowery, and he pointed out the window at one of the derelicts and casually mentioned : I went to school with him.  School, in this case, was Harvard Law School, back when that still meant something.  He said that the guy had fallen on hard times and had refused repeated offers of help, so we drove on and he went along his merry, though entirely demented, way.  Had this occurred just a few years earlier, that bum might well have been Joe Gould, whom Joseph Mitchell immortalized in the pages of The New Yorker.

Up in the Old Hotel is a collection of Mitchell's otherwise hard to find essays, in which he lovingly describes haunts like the Fulton Fish Market and McSorley's, one of the last bars in America to admit women, and profiles various fisherfolk and colorful denizens of New York City's nether regions, most famously, Joe Gould, the bohemian character with whom he is inevitably and eternally linked.  Mitchell first wrote about Gould in 1942, in a piece called, Professor Sea Gull.  Mitchell's great skill as a writer was to let his subjects seemingly speak for themselves, but to in fact render their words in compulsively readable fashion.  This works particularly effectively with Joe Gould who was a fountain of words anyway.  The story relates how Gould, a Harvard grad, subsists on practically no money (one of his tricks is to make a soup out of the ketchup in restaurants), his propensity for making a spectacle of himself as he starts flapping his arms and declaiming poetry in the "language" of sea gulls, and his life's work, the nine million word Oral History of Our Time.  Within the pages of hundreds of composition books, of the kind we used to use in school, Gould claimed to be writing a history of the world in the form of the conversations of ordinary people as he heard them speaking every day ""What people say is history."  It was this idea that beguiled Mitchell and his readers, made Gould into a minor celebrity, and ultimately formed a tragicomic link to Mitchell's own career.

You see, Mitchell gradually came to suspect that Gould's magnum opus did not really exist.  When, upon Gould's death, Mitchell went in search of the Oral History and could find only a few garbled fragments, he decided, with some qualms, to expose the hoax that he had such played a central role in propagating.  The result was the elegaiac Joe Gould's Secret which was written in 1964 and proved to be the last piece Joseph Mitchell ever published.  For the next thirty years he showed up at The New Yorker every day, went into his office and seemed to work, but never produced a word.  He became legendary for his "writer's block," a staple figure in the many novels featuring a New Yorker like magazine, such as Bright Lights, Big City. Rumor had it that he was emulating his hero James Joyce and writing a Ulysses-type novel set in the New York he knew so well.  But like Joe Gould, his masterwork does not appear to have been committed to paper.

There are many fine essays in the book, but you really should, at least, read these two Joe Gould profiles.  They stand as masterpieces of the journalist's art on their own, but when Mitchell's subsequent problems are taken into account and the eerie parallels become clear, these stories become transcendent and genuinely haunting.


Grade: (A+)


Joseph Mitchell Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Joseph Mitchell (writer)
    -PODCAST: All You Can Hold for Five Bucks [Joseph Mitchell] (Bitcoin Audible, 11 April 2023)
    -PODCAST: Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell (Lit Society, 8 July 2021)
-REVIEW ESSAY: Out of Step with the World (Russell Baker, September 20, 2001, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Wages of Sin is Laughter (Alexander Nemser, Agni)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Biography of Joseph Mitchell (
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of My Ears are Bent
    -ESSAY : All You Can Hold for Five Bucks (Joseph Mitchell, New Yorker, Issue of 1939-04-15)
    -PROFILE : A Listener Bends The Ear Of Another (WILLIAM GRIMES, NY Times)
    -PROFILE (Gavin McNett, Salon)
    -OBIT : Joseph Mitchell, Chronicler of the Unsung and the Unconventional, Dies at 87 (RICHARD SEVERO, NY Times,  May 25, 1996)
    -OBIT : Joseph Mitchell, New Yorker writer (The Associated Press)
    -OBIT : Joseph Mitchell, writer and Robeson native, dies at 87 (Roy Parker Jr., Contributing editor Fayetteville Observer)
    -TRIBUTE : JOYCE BY THE HUDSON (Charles McGrath, NY Times)
    -TRIBUTE : Joseph Mitchell, A Writer Worth Reading (McSorley's Old Ale House)
    -ESSAY : The mystery of the silent typewriter : Joseph Mitchell, a New Yorker journalist, became famous, not for what he published but because, in 30 years, he never wrote a word.  (Stephen Smith, New Statesman, September 06 1999)
    -ESSAY : Discovering Joseph Mitchell:  A Robesonian at The New Yorker (Scott Bigelow)
    -ARTICLE : The Diary of a Legendary Village Bohemian Surfaces at NYU  Joe Gould's Secret History (Charles Hutchinson & Peter Miller, Village Voice)
    -REVIEW : of Up in the Old Hotel By Joseph Mitchell (Herbert Mitgang, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of UP IN THE OLD HOTEL And Other Stories. By Joseph Mitchell (Verlyn Klinkenborg, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell (Christopher Carduff, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of Joe Gould's Secret by Joseph Mitchell (John Preston, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Bottom of the Harbor (Mary Wakefield, Asian Age)
    -REVIEW : of My Ears are Bent by Joseph Mitchell (Michael Dirda, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of My Ears Are Bent and  McSorley's Wonderful  Saloon  By JOSEPH MITCHELL (JIMMY BRESLIN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of My Ears Are Bent and McSorley's Wonderful Saloon By Joseph Mitchell (Michael Rosenwald, Boston Globe)
    -BOOK LIST : The Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States  in the 20th Century (NYU)
    -BOOK LIST : NR's List of the 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century (#29) Up in the Old Hotel

    -OFFICIAL SITE : Joe Gould's Secret
    -BUY IT : Joe Gould's Secret (2000) DVD (
    -BUY IT : Joe Gould's Secret (2000) VHS (
    -ESSAY : Small moments, big nights :  Actor-director Stanley Tucci talks about his new film, "Joe Gould's Secret," his struggle with the Writers' Guild and the importance of ambiguity in art. (SUSAN PERRY, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Telling a Secret : Stanley Tucci, star and director of Big Night, takes up the story of a New York literary legend for his new film. (John Clark, Book Magazine)
    -REVIEW : of Joe Gould's Secret (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : "Joe Gould's Secret"   Stanley Tucci and Ian Holm face off as a New Yorker writer and the loopy Greenwich Village street character he turned into a celebrity -- with devastating results (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW : The Last Word : Why did the New Yorker's Joseph Mitchell stop writing? Let Stanley Tucci explain it all to you. (Bill Gallo, New Times LA)
    -REVIEW : (STUART KLAWANS, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : (Stanley Kaufman, New Republic)

    -McSorley's Old Ale House (Beer Travelers)
    -DISCUSSION : Roundtable:  The History of the Essay (Fourth Genre)
    -ESSAY : Turning out the lights on the old New Yorker : Was it Utopia? Camelot? Paradise? Or does the possibility exist that, as fine as it once was, it was still just a magazine? (GAVIN MCNETT, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Gone: The Last Days of `The New Yorker' By Renata Adler Jabbing the Knife Home (Scott Dickensheets, Ironminds)
    -ESSAY: McSorley’s Old Ale House resists restoration: The pub has Ireland, and the Irish experience in America, in its DNA (Owen Matthews, March 24, 2023, Spectator)