Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Interesting Emendations: Joseph Mitchell's "Mr. Hunter's Grave"


There are two versions of Joseph Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” One appeared in The New Yorker, September 22, 1956. The other is included in Mitchell’s great 1992 collection Up in the Old Hotel. The two versions are very similar. Where they differ is in the description of the weeds and wildflowers covering the graves in Sandy Ground cemetery. In the New Yorker version, Mitchell wrote:

A scattering of the newer graves were fairly clean, but most of them were thickly covered with weeds, wild flowers and ferns. There were easily a hundred kinds. Among those that I could identify were milkweed, knotweed, ragweed, Jimson weed, pavement weed, chickweed, joe-pye weed, wood aster, lamb’s quarters, plantain, catchfly, Jerusalem oak, bedstraw, goldenrod, cocklebur, chicory, butter-and-eggs, thistle, dandelion, selfheal, Mexican tea, stinging nettle, bouncing Bet, mullein, touch-me-not, partridge pea, beggar’s-lice, sandspur, wild garlic, wild mustard, wild geranium, may apple, old-field cinquefoil, cinnamon fern, New York fern, lady fern, and maiden-hair fern. Some of the graves had rusty iron-pipe fences around them.

In the Up in the Old Hotel version, the passage is changed:

A scattering of the newer graves were fairly clean, but most of them were thickly covered with weeds and wild flowers and ferns. There were scores of kinds. The majority were the common kinds that grow in waste places and in dumps and in vacant lots and in old fields and beside roads and ditches and railroad tracks, and I could recognize them at a glance. Among these were milkweed, knotweed, ragweed, Jimson weed, pavement weed, catchfly, Jerusalem oak, bedstraw, goldenrod, cocklebur, butter-and-eggs, dandelion, bouncing Bet, mullein, partridge pea, beggar’s-lice, sandspur, wild garlic, wild mustard, wild geranium, rabbit tobacco, old-field cinquefoil, bracken, New York fern, cinnamon fern, and lady fern. A good many of the others were unfamiliar to me, and I broke off the heads and upper branches of a number of these and stowed them in the pockets of my jacket, to look at later under a magnifying glass. Some of the graves had rusty iron-pipe fences around them.

Notice the deletion of chickweed, joe-pye weed, wood aster, lamb’s quarters, plantain, chicory, thistle, selfheal, Mexican tea, stinging nettle, touch-me-not, may apple, and maiden-hair fern from the later version. Also note the addition of rabbit tobacco and bracken, and the addition of “A good many of the others were unfamiliar to me, and I broke off the heads and upper branches of a number of these and stowed them in the pockets of my jacket, to look at later under a magnifying glass.” 

The list of weeds, wildflowers, and ferns is one of the most beautiful passages in the piece. Why did Mitchell change it? I think he was trying to be more accurate. He wasn’t comfortable with the impression he conveyed in The New Yorker version that he was able to identify all those plants on the spot. In the Up in the Old Hotel version, he takes pains to specify only those plants that he was actually able to identify when he was at the graves. The plants that he deleted are likely the ones that he later identified when, as he says in the second version, he had the use of a magnifying glass. All of this is pure conjecture on my part. He might’ve made the deletions simply because he felt the list was too long. But that doesn’t account for the addition of the line about “many of the others were unfamiliar to me,” and so on. Some of the stories in Up in the Old Hotel are fictional; some are factual. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is factual. Mitchell makes this clear in the “Author’s Note.” Unlike some of today’s writers of fact pieces, Mitchell believed in painstaking accuracy. His tweaking of his list of weeds, wildflowers and ferns in his masterpiece “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is, I submit, an example of his conscientious effort to be as accurate as possible.  

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