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 Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Joseph Mitchell - The New Yorker's Long-Line Champ


There’s a line in Joseph Mitchell’s "A Place of Pasts" (The New Yorker, February 16, 2015) that is a startling 1, 183 words long. I believe this is a New Yorker record. The sentence is as follows (take a deep breath):

And I should also say that when I say the past I mean a number of pasts, a hodgepodge of pasts, a spider’s web of pasts, a jungle of pasts: my own past; my father’s past; my mother’s past; the pasts of my brothers and sisters; the past of a small farming town geographically misnamed Fairmont down in the cypress swamps and black gum bottoms and wild magnolia bays of southeastern North Carolina, a town in which I grew up and from which I fled as soon as I could but which I go back to as often as I can and have for years and for which even at this late date I am now and then all of a sudden and for no conscious reason at all heart-wrenchingly homesick; the pasts of several furnished-room houses and side-street hotels in New York City in which I lived during the early years of the Depression, when I was first discovering the city, and that disappeared one by one without a trace a long time ago but that evidently made a deep impression on me, for every once in a while the parlor or the lobby of one of them or my old room in one of them turns up eerily recognizable in a dream; the pasts of a number of speakeasies, diners, greasy spoons, and drugstore lunch counters scattered all over the city that I knew very well in the same period and that also have disappeared and that also turn up in dreams; the pasts of a score or so of strange men and women—bohemians, visionaries, obsessives, impostors, fanatics, lost souls, gypsy kings and gypsy queens, and out-and-out freak-show freaks—whom I got to know and kept in touch with for years while working as a newspaper reporter and whom I thought of back then as being uniquely strange, only-one-of-a-kind-in-the-whole-world strange, but whom, since almost everybody has come to seem strange to me, including myself, I now think of, without taking a thing away from them, as being strange all right, no doubt about that, but also as being stereotypes—as being stereotypically strange, so to speak, or perhaps prototypically strange would be more exact or archetypically strange or even ur-strange or maybe old-fashioned pre-Freudian-insight strange would be about right, three good examples of whom are (1) a bearded lady who was billed as Lady Olga and who spent summers out on the road in circus sideshows and winters in a basement sideshow on Forty-second Street called Hubert’s Museum, and who used to be introduced to audiences by sideshow professors as having been born in a castle in Potsdam, Germany, and being the half sister of a French duke but who I learned to my astonishment when I first talked with her actually came from a farm in a county in North Carolina six counties west of the county I come from and who loved this farm and started longing to go back to it almost from the moment she left it at the age of twenty-one to work in a circus but who made her relatives uncomfortable when she went back for a visit (“ ‘How long are you going to stay’ was always the first question they asked me,” she once said) and who finally quit going back and from then on thought of herself as an exile and spoke of herself as an exile (“Some people are exiled by the government,” she would say, “and some are exiled by the po-lice or the F.B.I. or the head of some old labor union or the Mafia or the Black Hand or the K.K.K., but I was exiled by my own flesh and blood”), and who became a legend in the sideshow world because of her imaginatively sarcastic and sometimes imaginatively obscene and sometimes imaginatively brutal remarks about people in sideshow audiences delivered deadpan and sotto voce to her fellow-freaks grouped around her on the platform, and (2) a street preacher named James Jefferson Davis Hall, who also came up here from the South and who lived in what he called sackcloth-and-ashes poverty in a tenement off Ninth Avenue in the Forties and who believed that God had given him the ability to read between the lines in the Bible and who also believed that while doing so he had discovered that the end of the world was soon to take place and who also believed that he had been guided by God to make this discovery and who furthermore believed that God had chosen him to go forth and let the people of the world know what he had discovered or else supposing he kept this dreadful knowledge to himself God would turn his back on him and in time to come he would be judged as having committed the unforgivable sin and would burn in Hell forever and who consequently trudged up and down the principal streets and avenues of the city for a generation desperately crying out his message until he wore himself out and who is dead and gone now and long dead and gone but whose message remembered in the middle of the night (“It’s coming! Oh, it’s coming!” he would cry out. “The end of the world is coming! Oh, yes! Any day now! Any night now! Any hour now! Any minute now! Any second now!”) doesn’t seem as improbable as it used to, and (3) an old Serbian gypsy woman named Mary Miller—she called herself Madame Miller—whom I got to know with the help of an old-enemy-become-old-friend of hers, a retired detective in the Pickpocket and Confidence Squad, and whom I visited a number of times over a period of ten years in a succession of her ofisas, or fortune-telling parlors, and who was fascinating to me because she was always smiling and gentle and serene, an unusually sweet-natured old woman, a good mother, a good grandmother, a good great-grandmother, but who nevertheless had a reputation among detectives in con-game squads in police departments in big cities all over the country for the uncanny perceptiveness with which she could pick out women of a narrowly specific kind—middle-aged, depressed, unstable, and suggestible, and with access to a bank account, almost always a good-sized savings bank account—from the general run of those who came to her to have their fortunes told and for the mercilessness with which she could gradually get hold of their money by performing a cruel old gypsy swindle on them, the hokkano baro, or the big trick; and, finally, not to mention a good many other pasts, the past of New York City insofar as it is connected directly or indirectly with my own past, and particularly the past of the part of New York City that is known as lower Manhattan, the part that runs from the Battery to the Brooklyn Bridge and that encompasses the Fulton Fish Market and its environs, and which is part of the city that I look upon, if you will forgive me for sounding so high-flown, as my spiritual home.

What an extraordinary construction! Mitchell has written other long lines. For example, there’s a 435-word beauty in his "Street Life" (The New Yorker, February 11 & 18, 2013). But none of them come close to the length of his “A Place of Pasts” creation. Is it the longest sentence ever to appear in The New Yorker? I can’t think of any that are longer. There’s one in Ian Frazier’s great "Authentic Accounts of Massacres" (The New Yorker, March 19, 1979; included in his 1997 collection Nobody Better, Better Than Nobody). But when I counted up the words, it came to 354 – not even in the ballpark. Another candidate that came to mind is the remarkably long sentence in Roger Angell’s "Here Below" (The New Yorker, January 16, 2006), in which he observes his mother at the dinner table and imagines her “immediate deep concerns.” I just finished checking it; it contains 458 words. Therefore, to the best of my knowledge, information, and belief, Mitchell’s amazing 1, 183-word assemblage is the longest sentence in New Yorker history. I hereby declare Joseph Mitchell to be the magazine’s long-line champ.

Credit: The above photo of Joseph Mitchell is by Therese Mitchell; it appears in the February 16, 2015 New Yorker as an illustration for Joseph Mitchell’s “A Place of Pasts.”

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