this is the 177th in my series of forgotten or seldom read books
The Bottom of the Harbor by Joseph Mitchell – original © date 1944, 1947, 1951, 1952, 1956, 1959 – Pantheon Books 2008 hardcover, non-fiction – portraits of people and places in New York
Suggested by Jeff Meyerson, this is a collection of pieces which appeared in The New Yorker magazine in the years shown. Mitchell was interested in his city, and in the waterways surrounding it. In these six pieces he portrays the physical spaces and, more importantly, the people who inhabit them. With a fine eye for detail and an ear for the rhythm of speech, and the ability to encourage memory, Mitchell almost makes it look too easy to put the reader in the room, on the dock or sharing the boat with the subject of the story being told.
I’ve spent next to no time at all in New York, city or state, so there were a few names and terms that puzzled me, but it wasn’t any problem at all to understand by context what was being discussed, and what was being discussed was fascinating.
The personalities inhabiting these pieces are what some might call “plain folks”. They run or work in restaurants, fish markets, on boats, docks, shrimpers. They are retired oystermen, many of them, for the area was once rich ground for bringing up oysters by the hundreds of bushels. There are men with long memories for families and friends, for towns and history. Mitchell lets us sit down with these men while they talk of their old days, and their present days, the way things were and are.
Of course the present in these is the late Nineteen Forties and the Nineteen Fifties. Through Mitchell’s eyes, and those of the people he talks with, we see the world as they knew it then, a world now mostly faded into the past.
- Forward by Luc Sante,
- Up In the Old Hotel
- The Bottom of the Harbor
- The Rats on the Waterfront
- Mr. Hunter’s Grave
- Dragger Captain
- The Rivermen
This is a wonderful collection. I couldn’t put it down and was sorry when the final page was turned. Wonderful, and highly recommended.
Glad you liked it as much as I did. It’s amazing how well I remember some of the people and stories even though I read most of these back in 1998. Yes, the world he wrote about is mostly gone now, though McSorley’s Old Ale House is still on East 7 Street the same as when I first saw it in the late 1960’s (when women were still banned), and when Mitchell discovered it decades earlier.
Jeff, I’m very grateful for your recommendation of Mitchell, and for spotting this on BookSwap. Many thanks. I’ll read more of his work as I come across it.
Never really been a reader of New Yorker type works. Maybe I’m missing out.
It’s kind of a specific type of thing, Charles. I read the New Yorker for years before it was changed with new format and editorial philosophy. It’s not the same magazine now, but was so good then.
I’ve been a big Joseph Mitchell fan for years. Sadly, I’m not sure THE NEW YORKER would publish his type of story today.
George, I agree, and sad it truly is.