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.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

April 27, 2015 Issue

Charles McGrath’s "The People You Meet," in this week’s issue, helps me resolve my feelings about the recent revelation that Joseph Mitchell’s “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The New Yorker, September 22, 1956), heretofore considered a classic fact piece, is partially fiction. Janet Malcolm, in her "The Master Writer of the City" (The New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015), defends Mitchell, saying,

Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.

I find this unpersuasive. It breaches journalism’s prohibition against messing with the facts.

McGrath's argument is slightly more appealing. He says, “Mitchell’s best defense is that he wrote what he did out of affection and empathy for his subjects, not a wish to deceive.”

McGrath focuses on Mitchell’s “doctored” quotes. But it seems to me, based on my reading of Malcolm’s piece, the most objectionable fabrications in “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” are (1) the encounter with Mr. Brock in the St. Luke’s cemetery, and (2) the interview with Mr. Hunter at his house. Malcolm says,

The piece opens with an encounter in the St. Luke’s cemetery on Staten Island between Mitchell and a minister named Raymond E. Brock, who tells him about a remarkable black man named Mr. Hunter, and sets in motion the events that bring Mitchell to Hunter’s house a week later. But the notes show that the encounter in the cemetery never took place. In actuality, it was a man sitting on his front porch named James McCoy (who never appears in the piece) who told Mitchell about Mr. Hunter years before Mitchell met him; and when Mitchell did meet Hunter it was in a church and not at his house.

Malcolm is untroubled by Mitchell’s inventions. She says they are what give his pieces “their electric force.” I don’t see it that way. For me, the essence of Mitchell’s art is his allegiance to fact. I agree with McGrath when he says “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” “gains immeasurably from being presented as factual, an account of scenes and conversations that really took place. If we read it as fiction, which it is, in part, some of the air goes out.”

Postscript: I enjoy travel pieces. There's an excellent one in this week's issue - D. T. Max's "A Cave with a View." It’s about the Italian hilltop town of Matera, “one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.” Max calls it a “palimpsest in stone.” He walks the Via Madonna delle Virtù, which follows the edge of a thousand-foot cliff (“Rows of vacant caves looked like giant skulls, with the empty doorways as eyes. The limestone walls were pockmarked, rain-streaked, and sun-bleached, and they varied in hue, from gray to yellow, as the light moved across them”). In the company of Materan resident Vito Festa, he tours the Sassi, the pile-up of cave-dwellings in the town’s ancient center [“He showed me the outlines of old cisterns and called up the names of farmers who had cultivated the olive and fig trees that now grew wild. Many of his memories were about struggling to get enough to eat: he pointed to a parapet where he had put down bird traps (‘I never caught any’), and to the roofs where his family had left almonds to dry”]. My take-away from this fine piece is a sense of Matera's severe beauty - like a pile of tarnished gold thrown down by a careless giant. 

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