“Mitchell’s collection of portraits is the exact opposite of the books that choose an important subject, but are hastily written and have nothing much to say. These books, which form the bulk of current writing, always make you feel as if you had paid for looking into the wrong end of a telescope. Mitchell, on the other hand, likes to start with an unimportant hero, but he collects all the facts about him, arranges them to give the desired effects, and usually ends by describing the customs of a whole community. Commodore Dutch, the subject of one portrait, ‘is a brassy little man who has made a living for the last forty years by giving an annual ball for the benefit of himself.’ Mitchell doesn’t try to present him as anything more than a barroom scrounger; but in telling the story of his career, he also gives a picture of New York sporting life since the days of Big Tim Sullivan. The story called ‘King of the Gypsies’ is even better. It sets out to describe Cockeye Johnny Nikanov, the spokesman or king of thirty-eight gypsy families, but it soon becomes a Gibbon’s decline and fall of the American gypsies; and it ends with an apocalyptic vision that is not only comic but also, in its proper context, more imaginative than anything to be found in recent novels.
“Reading some of his portraits a second time, you catch an emotion beneath them that curiously resembles Dickens’: a continual wonder at the sights and sounds of a big city, a continual devouring interest in all the strange people who live there, a continual impulse to burst into praise of kind hearts and good food and down with hypocrisy.” —Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic
About Joseph Mitchell
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Published June 5, 2001
Literature & Fiction, Political & Social Sciences.