The best writing teachers are writers who draw you into the worlds they create, worlds filled with the most important writing lessons you’ll ever learn. Joseph Mitchell is that kind of writer and teacher.
Joseph Mitchell is a writer worth following. And if you follow him, you’re sure to learn a lot about good writing. Mitchell wrote for the New Yorker for more than 25 years – from 1938 to 1965. Even though the world he wrote about is largely gone today, you can still learn much about writing from Mitchell’s “effortless style, his organization of enjoyable information, his humor and his humanity (Zinsser).” And as a bonus you’ll learn about people and places in New York City that you’ve probably never heard of.
William Zinsser’s tribute to Mitchell contains several samples from Up in the Old Hotel, a recent collection of Mitchell’s works. Let’s begin with an early-morning walk through New York’s Fulton Fish Market. Notice Mitchell’s simple declarative sentences and the way he slowly points out one detail after another while walking through the market. Nothing fancy here, just good writing:
Every now and then, seeking to rid my thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to Fulton Fish Market. I usually arrive around five-thirty, and take a walk through the two huge open-fronted market sheds, the Old Market and the New Market, whose fronts rest on South Street and whose backs rest on piles in the East River. At that time, a little while before the trading begins, the stands to the sheds are heaped high and spilling over with forty to sixty kinds of finfish and shellfish from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Gulf Coast and half a dozen foreign countries. The smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me. I wander among the stands for an hour or so. Then I go into a cheerful market restaurant named Sloppy Louie’s and eat a big, inexpensive, invigorating breakfast—a kippered herring and scrambled eggs, or a shad-roe omelet, or spilt sea scallops and bacon, or some other breakfast specialty of the place.
In The Bottom of the Harbor, Mitchell takes us on a party boat out into Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay to fish among the hundreds of sunken ships lying on the bottom of the bay:
Furthermore, [the hulls] are coated, inside and out, with a lush, furry growth made up of algae, sea moss, tube worms, barnacles, horse mussels, sea anemones, sea squirts, sea mice, sea snails, and scores of other organisms, all of which are food for the fish. The most popular party boats are those whose captains can locate the fishiest wrecks and bridle them. Bridling is a maneuver in which, say the wreck lies north and south, the party boat goes in athwart it and drops one anchor to the east of it and another to the west of it, so that the party boat and wreck lie crisscross. Held thus, the party boat can’t be skewed about by the wind and tide, and the passengers fishing over both rails can always be sure that they are dropping their bait on the wreck, or inside it. Good party-boat captains, by taking bearings on landmarks and lightships and buoys, can locate and bridle anywhere from ten to thirty wrecks. A number of the wrecks are quite old; they disintegrate slowly. Three old ones, all sailing ships, lie close to each other near the riprap jetty at Rockaway Point, in the mouth of the harbor. The oldest of the three, the Black Warrior Wreck, which shelters tons of sea bass from June until November, went down in 1859. The name of the next oldest has been forgotten and she is called the Snow Wreck; a snow is a kind of square-rigged ship similar to a brig; she sank in 1886 or 1887. The third one is an Italian ship that sank in 1890 with a cargo of marble slabs. Her name has also been forgotten and she is called the Tombstone Wreck, the Granite Wreck, or the Italian Wreck…. Several of these wrecks have been fished steadily for generations, and party-boat captains like to say that they would be worth salvaging just to get the metal in the hooks and sinkers that have been snagged on them.
That’s good writing! Simple declarative sentences. Adjectives that help us see, smell, hear, taste, and feel. Explanations or enough clues in the context to help us understand bridle and athwart. Like all accomplished writers, Mitchell takes good care of his readers.
Mitchell writes about a time and people that have past, but his writing is timeless. He will always have much to teach the would-be non-fiction writer who will walk with him through mid-20th century New York. I strongly urge you to join him.
Reference: William Zinsser, Journeys with Joseph Mitchell (1993)