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 Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins 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, August 6, 2015

"Mr. Hunter's Grave" - Fact, Fiction, or Faction?

Joseph Mitchell (Photo by Therese Mitchell)
It’s interesting to compare seven reviews of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker (2015) and see the various ways they respond to Kunkel’s revelation that Mitchell fabricated certain aspects of his great “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The New Yorker, September 22, 1956). The seven reviews are:

1. Thomas Berenato’s "Progress of Stories" (Los Angeles Book Review, April 21, 2015)

2. Janet Malcolm’s "The Master Writer of the City" (The New York Review of Books, April 23, 2015)

3. Charles McGrath’s "The People You Meet" (The New Yorker, April 27, 2015)

4. Blake Bailey’s " 'Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker,' by Thomas Kunkel" (The New York Times Sunday Book Review, May 19, 2015)

5. Thomas Powers’ "All I Can Stand" (London Review of Books, June 18, 2015)

6. John Williams’ "Review: 'Man in Profile" Studies Joseph Mitchell of 'The New Yorker' " (The New York Times, June 24, 2015)

7. Thomas Beller’s “Nowhere Man” (Bookforum, Summer 2015)

Before looking at these pieces, I want to set out the fabrications reported by Kunkel. There are six:

1. The single Saturday visit with Hunter, as described in the story, is actually a conflation of at least seven different interviews that Mitchell conducted with Hunter over a number of months.

2. The three long Hunter monologues in the story were constructed by splicing (and “embroidering”) quotations from related segments of multiple Mitchell-Hunter conversations. Kunkel says, “While Mitchell stayed faithful to the spirit and tang of Hunter’s observations, it seems clear that much of the old man’s language was Mitchell’s own.”

3. In the story, Mitchell’s first meeting with Hunter occurs in Hunter’s house; in actual fact, it took place at Sandy Ground’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

4. In the story, it’s Rev. Raymond Brock who steers Mitchell to Hunter; in actual fact, it was a man named James McCoy, sitting on the porch of a house in Sandy Ground, when Mitchell passed by, who first mentioned Hunter to Mitchell.

5. In the story, Mitchell first encounters Brock in St. Luke’s Cemetery; in actual fact, he didn’t meet him there. Kunkel says, “While Mitchell was preparing his story, he asked if could set their meeting in St. Luke’s Cemetery, which is one of the graveyards Mitchell knew from his early visits. Brock agreed that would make for a better read and gave his permission….”

6. In the story, Hunter takes the “BELOVED SON” wreath ribbon out of his wallet at the cemetery entrance. In actual fact, according to Kunkel, “Mitchell first came across the BELOVED SON ribbon while in Hunter’s house on his second visit there; it was spread atop a bureau in his bedroom. On a table beside Hunter’s bed lay his late son’s wallet. While it’s possible that Hunter had for a time carried the ribbon in his own wallet, it doesn’t appear he pulled it out for Mitchell in the poignant manner the writer described.”

In Man in Profile, Kunkel asks, “Should the reputation of “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” suffer for the license Mitchell employed in telling it?” He answers, “As with any aspect of art, that is up to the appraiser.”

Well, let’s see what the seven appraisers listed above have to say. Thomas Berenato, in his “Progress of Stories,” writes,

What the “character” Mr. Hunter says in the story “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” is not verbatim what George H. Hunter told Mitchell in propria persona, but it is revelatory of his character, or at least of “character” period. Sometimes Mitchell sought, and received, permission from his subjects to rearrange or even reassign the dialogue that took place. Sometimes not. In any case, monologues unspool for pages at a time. Soliloquies as charming and harrowing as these are few to find outside the works of Joyce, Beckett, or Bernhard. They are all as unmistakably Mitchellian as Sebald’s are Sebaldian. Mitchell, Kunkel writes, “was in fact a first-rate writer of literature whose chosen medium happened to be nonfiction.”

Implicit in this is that fact pieces that are considered “literature” are somehow exempt from the requirement that they be accurate.

Janet Malcolm, in her “The Master Writer of the City,” expresses a similar view. She refers to Mitchell’s “radical departures from factuality.” Regarding “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” 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.

Malcolm mocks the puritanical response to the liberties Mitchell takes with the facts. She says,

He [Mitchell] has betrayed the reader’s trust that what he is reading is what actually happened. He has mixed up nonfiction with fiction. He has made an unwholesome, almost toxic brew out of the two genres. It is too bad he is dead and can’t be pilloried. Or perhaps it is all right that he is dead, because he is suffering the torments of hell for his sins against the spirit of fact. And so on.

Her view is that “Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat.” She says,

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.

Malcolm suggests, “Mitchell’s genre is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named.”

Charles McGrath, in his “The People You Meet,” takes a different view. He says, “More than we knew, or wanted to know, he [Mitchell] made things up.” Of “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” McGrath says,

Mitchell’s best work is lovely and stirring in a way that a documentary or a recorded interview could never be. George Hunter, an elderly black man and Staten Island resident, and the subject of a story that is probably Mitchell’s masterpiece, would be less interesting if we had to read what he actually said. And yet the piece 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.

McGrath’s view differs from Malcolm’s. She sees Mitchell’s fabrications as a function of his creative imagination. She holds that most journalists lack such an imagination (“There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn’t create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads”). Whereas McGrath says, “As inglorious examples like Jayson Blair demonstrate, invention is often easier than reporting—you can do it without even leaving home—and requires no special talent other than nerve.”

McGrath doesn’t use literary values to excuse Mitchell the way Berenato and Malcolm do. But he does defend him. 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.”

Blake Bailey, in his “Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel,” calls Mitchell’s writing “a kind of hybrid nonfiction that encompassed (with the blessing of his editors) long embellished monologues delivered by old Mr. Flood and Cockeye Johnny Nikanov, the Gypsy king, who were actually composites of various New York characters with a piquant admixture of Mitchell himself.” Other than the “long embellished monologues,” Bailey makes no mention of any of the other fabrications reported by Kunkel. He calls Mitchell “arguably, our greatest literary journalist — a man who wrote about freaks, barkeeps, street preachers, grandiose hobos and other singular specimens of humanity with compassion and deep, hard-earned understanding, and above all with a novelist’s eyes and ears.”

Thomas Powers’ “All I Can Stand,” is a favorable assessment of Kunkel’s book and a wonderful review of several of Mitchell’s best stories, including “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (“To disappear is the common fate and it would have been Mr Hunter’s, too, were it not for one thing – Joe Mitchell’s refusal to let him go. In the way of writers, Mitchell has listened to Mr Hunter, told his story, and stayed the clock”). Interestingly, throughout his piece, Powers refers to Mitchell’s stories as “fact pieces” without qualification or acknowledgment of the “license” (Kunkel’s word) that Mitchell employed in writing them. Is Powers in denial of Mitchell’s fabrications? Or does he view them as irrelevant? His failure to comment on Kunkel’s revelations is a weakness in a piece that is otherwise an excellent appreciation of Mitchell’s writing.  

John Williams, in his “Review: Man in Profile Studies Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker,” calls Mitchell “a writer who observed and imagined his way to a brilliant, heightened version of reality.” He says, “It’s clear Mitchell did make things up.” He approvingly quotes Janet Malcolm’s Kunkel review (“But few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to”). It appears that Williams, like Berenato and Malcolm, sees Mitchell as a literary artist, exempt from journalism’s basic “don’t mess with the facts.”

Thomas Beller, in his “Nowhere Man,” observes that Mitchell’s pieces convey an “immersive sense of interest in their subjects, within which there is affection, even love.” He says Mitchell’s prose is “burnished with the warmth of empathy.” He doesn’t mention Mitchell’s fabrications other than to say that Mitchell wrestled with “guilt over liberties he took with facts,” and to point out that Mr. Flood was not Mitchell’s only composite character.
Until I read these reviews, I didn’t think of “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” as a “heightened version of reality” (Williams) or a “kind of hybrid nonfiction” (Bailey) or “some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named” (Malcolm). I thought of it the way Powers apparently still thinks of it – as a “fact piece.” I agree with McGrath when he says, “If we read it as fiction, which it is, in part, some of the air goes out.”

I resist reading “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” as fiction. Mitchell didn’t intend it as such. In the Author’s Note of his great Up in the Old Hotel (1992), he classified it as “factual.” In my opinion, everything in it is factual, except the six fabrications listed above. They are sufficient to compromise the story’s status as a fact piece, but insufficient to justify reclassifying it as fiction. Bailey’s phrase – “a kind of hybrid nonfiction” – will have to do for now.  

1 comment:

  1. Here's the standard I think is appropriate, which, strangely, none of those reviews even consider: would someone who knew Mr. Hunter recognize him in Mitchell's depiction? That is, does the depiction succeed at preventing Mr. Hunter himself--what he was really like, as a person, with a unique life story and voice--from disappearing? I think that was Mitchell's goal, and I think it's a worthy goal, so whether it achieves that goal is, I think, the best standard for whether it succeeds or not.