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.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Malcolm Praises Mitchell's Fabrication

Joseph Mitchell (Photo by Therese Mitchell)
Janet Malcolm’s "The Master Writer of the City" (The New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015), a review of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, delivers disconcerting news. Malcolm reports that Kunkel’s research reveals that Mitchell’s “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The New Yorker, September 22, 1956), heretofore considered a classic fact piece, is partially fiction. She says,

What Kunkel found in Mitchell’s reporting notes for his famous piece “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” made him even more nervous. It now appears that that great work of nonfiction is also in some part a work of fiction. 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.

What is even more disconcerting is that Malcolm praises Mitchell’s fabrication. She says,

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.

This significantly departs from Malcolm’s position in her great The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), in which she says,

The writer of nonfiction is under contract to the reader to limit himself to events that actually occurred and to characters who have counterparts in real life, and he may not embellish the truth about these events or these characters.

That, to me, is journalism’s fundamental principle. John McPhee, in his "Editors & Publisher" (The New Yorker, July 2, 2012), puts it this way:

It is sometimes said that the line between fiction and nonfiction has become blurred. Not in this eye, among beholders. The difference between the two is distinct.

I agree. Regrettably, Mitchell’s “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” appears to have crossed the line, carrying Malcolm with it.   

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