Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Ears Are Bent

I do love reading American newspaper and magazine writers of the years between the wars. The prose is almost always concise, clear, and colorful. I am talking of those such as E.B. White, James Thurber and Janet Flanner of The New Yorker

I have now discovered another: Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell was a reporter and feature writer for New York City's The World, The Herald Tribune, and The World-Telegram. In 1929, when he was twenty-one, he came to New York from North Carolina and ended up interviewing the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and George Bernard Shaw and he covered the Lindbergh kidnapping trial.

But the people he really enjoyed chatting with were the boys in the barrooms, the ladies of the burlesque stage, the prizefighter hopefuls of the gymnasiums, and the street preachers of Harlem. Eventually he too went to work for The New Yorker and showed up daily at the office until he died of cancer in 1996. He was 87.

All this leads me to Mr. Mitchell's collection of early newspaper stories with the ever-wonderful title: My Ears Are Bent. These feature stories were first published in book form in 1938 and brought back into print in 2001. I bought my copy at a recent used book sale and the writing is terrific.

Here is a fine example of summer in the city:

The plentiful inhabitants of the lower East Side sit on the shady side of their disheveled streets and make no unessential motions.

No breezes stir. Even the gestures of the sidewalk peddlers are half-hearted. Food is cheaper on stoop stands and pushcarts in the afternoon, and now the women are going home from market -- going home to their hot little kitchens. Every one carries a bulging market sack -- a brown-paper sack filled with frayed vegetables.

The string of a market sack clutched in each wrinkled hand, an old wife walks slowly up Eldridge Street. Here she stops and passes a few words concerning the hot weather with another old one. Here she stops and argues for a moment with a peddler of jams.

Don't you think the phases disheveled streets and frayed vegetables perfectly capture the spirit of the scene?

Fortunately for me, Mr. Mitchell has another collection of stories that he wrote for The New Yorker titled Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories. It was published in 1992 and contains all his writings from four other collections. A treasure, I am sure.

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