Joseph Mitchell Inducted into N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame

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A few months ago UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication asked me to nominate Joseph Mitchell for posthumous induction into the North Carolina Halls of Fame in Journalism, Advertising and Public Relations.  Below is the letter I wrote.  Tomorrow the induction ceremony will take place at the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill.  HERE is a piece I wrote about Mitchell for the Oxford American magazine a few years ago, and HERE is a public radio segment I did with novelist Allan Gurganus about it.  HERE is a piece I wrote on this blog about Mitchell’s fellow New Yorker writer Whitney Balliett in which I evoked Mitchell.

-S.S.

January 28, 2011

Dean Jean Folkerts
Carroll Hall, Campus Box 3365
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3365

Dear Dean Folkerts:

I am writing to nominate the legendary New Yorker magazine writer, Joseph Mitchell, to the N.C. Halls of Fame in Journalism, Advertising and Public Relations.

The facts of Mitchell’s candidacy are these:  In 1908 he was born Joseph Quincy Mitchell in Fairmont, North Carolina, and he attended UNC-Chapel Hill 1925-29 and wrote for the Daily Tar Heel.  He moved to New York City four days after the stock market crash in October 1929 and began working as a reporter for the New York World. He soon moved to the New York Herald Tribune and worked there for two years before taking a job with the New York World Telegram. In 1933 he published his first piece in the New Yorker and in 1938 he became a staff writer at the magazine.  For the next three decades he contributed regularly to the New Yorker, reporting and writing about ordinary life in the city.

Those are the facts.  Beyond that, I should get straight to the point, using the words of Charles McGrath, longtime head of the New Yorker’s fiction department and the New York Times Book Review; in 2005 McGrath wrote:  “If (Joseph) Mitchell wasn’t the single best writer who ever appeared in the New Yorker, then it was a tie between him and E.B. White.”

What is remarkable about McGrath’s extraordinary statement is that he applied those words to a writer, Mitchell, who wrote nonfiction, primarily, a reporter who relied on interviews for his content.  The Nobel Prize for literature rewards novelists, short story writers, playwrights, and poets, people that dream worlds, as they say.  Nonfiction “reality” writers rarely get the kind of praise that McGrath heaped on Mitchell, and McGrath personally edited some of the finest fiction writers of modern times, including Nobel winners.

Mitchell’s subjects were not prominent or newsworthy in any timely sense.  He wandered the back alleys, harbors and waterfronts of New York City and found ordinary, topsy-turvy human beings with vernacular skills, routines and voices, and he applied to these obscure folks the same kind of concentration that journalists normally apply to prime ministers and presidents and CEO’s and superstar athletes and entertainers on the one hand, or drug addicts and accident survivors and convicts on the other hand; people of extremes.  Mitchell wrote mostly about people in the middle – fishermen, restaurant owners, bartenders, graveyard tenders, and other people who were overlooked by history.

Last year I was driving through the barren, beautiful landscape in between Santa Fe and Albuquerque and I heard the journalist Nicholas Kristof being interviewed on local New Mexico Public Radio.  It was not a syndicated national radio show; it was local.  Perhaps only a few thousand people were listening.  Kristof made a statement that I memorized long enough to jot down when I came to a stop.  He said, “Journalism covers well what happens one day; journalism does not cover well what happens every day.”

Joseph Mitchell wrote about the every day.  He found subjects and repeatedly visited them over a period of weeks or months or even years.  Then he wrote 10,000 or even 15,000 words on these people and the New Yorker would run these pieces in some of the most prime literary real estate in American periodical history.  This is not done anymore, that I know.  That kind of prime space is now reserved for Johnny Depp, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernard Madoff and other spectacular topics.  The ordinary human beings that Mitchell wrote about no longer get that kind of space and I believe it is a moral loss for our culture.

By honoring Mitchell in your Hall of Fame I believe you will be helping to highlight and restore the subtle artistic and moral values of paying attention and listening, values that are missing in our culture today of bellowing opinions.  There is something divine about Mitchell’s achievement and his work points toward a better world.  This world can still be achieved and journalists – reporters – are an essential part of the process.  We need to teach Mitchell’s kind of selfless and timeless observation on a wide scale.  But this kind of work has never been popular.  Thus, your Hall of Fame would make an important choice in Mitchell.

Sincerely,

Sam Stephenson
UNC ‘89
Jazz Loft Project Director &
Research Consultant
Center for Documentary Studies
Duke University

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