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Man in Profile

A new book by President Thomas Kunkel raises issues that color the legacy of one of our greatest non-fiction writers. We invited Kunkel, a journalist and a leader in higher education, to offer his own take on the controversy.

Returning from lunch one afternoon, I found one of those call slips on my desk that lets you know someone phoned while you were out. As I was running late for my next meeting, I almost didn’t even look at it. But I gave it a passing glance – and stopped in my tracks. 

It said, “Call Gay Talese.” Sure enough, there was a phone number, with (of course) a New York area code.

Now, I’d never met Gay Talese, never even spoken to him. But for someone like me, a longtime journalist and devotee of nonfiction literature, getting a call from the author of the legendary mob tale “Honor Thy Father,” the big-city newspaper story “The Kingdom and the Power,” and some of the greatest magazine profiles of all time (“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” “The Silent Season of a Hero” about Joe DiMaggio) – well, it was akin to being summoned by Moses.

So I blew off my meeting and dialed the number. The writer picked up right away and in a charming fashion began to explain why he’d wanted to chat.

But I am getting ahead of my story … .

I’ve been at work for a number of years on a biography of another writer of legend. From the ’30s through the mid-’60s, Joseph Mitchell turned out profiles and other major nonfiction stories for The New Yorker magazine. In Mitchell’s hands, such “ordinary” characters as a Bowery movie-house owner, a cemetery caretaker or a bum who threw an annual gala to benefit himself were in fact extraordinary, their stories artfully and empathetically rendered. In producing these, Mitchell demonstrated that true life tales can deal as confidently as fiction with the great themes of literature – life and death, struggle and triumph, time and tide. That’s why Mitchell endures, two decades after his death, as one of the giants of nonfiction writing.

Oh, yes: Joe Mitchell also spent the last 30 years of his life reporting for work at The New Yorker, yet never published another word in the magazine. His drought came to be regarded as one of the most epic “writer’s blocks” in American letters.

Those were just a few of the reasons I figured my book would garner a fair amount of critical attention. When “Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker” appeared in late April, it did.

It turned out, however, that there was one other reason for all the attention. In the course of my research, I’d learned that, in several of Mitchell’s most important stories, the protagonists weren’t real people at all but fictionalized “composites” of individuals he had known. During his lifetime Mitchell had acknowledged one of these composites, the flinty nonagenarian and “seafoodetarian” Hugh G. Flood, but not the others.

My book also illustrated how Mitchell employed tremendous latitude in assembling his stories. For instance, he often took remarks yielded from many interviews with a subject and stitched them into a single long monologue. On other occasions he seems to have “sweetened” what his characters actually told him, inserting some of himself in the process.

But journalists are not supposed to do that. In a factual story, something presented in quotation marks is understood by the reader to be precisely what the subject said, when he said it. And “composites” or no, fictional people are not supposed to be presented as real ones.

So I knew the revelations would likely upset a lot of devotees of Mitchell, who inspired the so-called New Journalists who came to prominence in the ’60s (Gay Talese being one), and who continues to inspire media professionals to this day. For them, my “news” about Joe Mitchell was, as my old journalist pal Clint Williams quipped, like telling hard-core baseball fans that Lou Gehrig had used PEDs – in this case, “prose-enhancing devices.”

And that, in fact, was why Gay Talese was on the line.

My publisher, Random House, had sent him advance galleys of the book to read, hoping he might provide the kind of testimonial “blurb” that publishers covet. So he was calling to tell me how much he’d enjoyed the book. But beyond that, he was quite keen to know more about Joe Mitchell’s writing habits, and his rationale for them. Gay Talese, as is evident from his own work, believes in heroes, and Mitchell was one of his. He was thus having a hard time squaring that Mitchell with the one whose license I’d outlined in the book.

In my star-struck state, I didn’t have the wit to jot down what Talese actually said as he was saying it, but the sentiment was akin to what he later confided to a reviewer of my book. “To hear that one of the guys I grew up admiring did things I don’t think I’d want to be accused of doing, it’s troubling and sad,” he told Mike Rosenwald, a Washington Post reporter who wrote about “Man in Profile” for Columbia Journalism Review.

Well, I would come to see a lot of that. For instance, Janet Malcolm and Charles McGrath – two colleagues who knew Mitchell well and who produced thoughtful essay-reviews in The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, respectively – seemed to have genuine difficulty figuring out how to balance off Mitchell’s unquestioned genius against some practices that would be unacceptable from contemporary journalists.

Rosenwald, for his part, was wide open about his conflicted feelings. He has been an unabashed Joseph Mitchell devotee for so long that he told me it nearly killed him to learn what I’d discovered – and he said as much in his CJR article. “About halfway through [the book],” he wrote in the opening paragraph, “a feeling of dread swept over me. I called a friend and said, ‘I wish this guy hadn’t written this book.’ ”

To which I say: I understand, and I sympathize. As a longtime writer and editor and someone who ran a journalism school for eight years, I’ve certainly always sworn by the trade’s ethics and standards. They matter utterly. What’s more, I now preside over an institution where standards of academic integrity and academic freedom are upheld and highly valued.

Would Mitchell’s practices be countenanced among our own faculty, our own students? But as a biographer who dug deeply into the life and beliefs of a complicated writer who was also an artist, I appreciated that there were many mitigating factors in Mitchell’s case. Mitchell had written a lot of fiction as a younger man, and New Yorker editor Harold Ross had actually encouraged his later composite characters. (And Ross was the one who labeled them as factual, let’s remember.) Indeed, such ruses were more common in those days, when journalistic standards were still evolving into what we understand today, and I’m not particularly comfortable judging writers from the past by contemporary rules.

But I guess here’s my bottom line: If you ask me did I now wish that some of those majestic Mitchell stories had never been written … well, my answer is no. That would be too great a loss.

And on that point, virtually all the reviewers agreed. As critic and New Yorker authority Ben Yagoda wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, with Mitchell “I must inevitably play the genius card … [His] work documented idiosyncratic and flawed people trying to make their way, and maybe find a bit of transcendence, through a hard life bookended by oblivion. I’m inclined to forgive a bit of poetic license in such a project. Put it this way: The greater the writer and the bigger the heart, the more forgiving I tend to be.”

Or as another New Yorker nonfiction legend, John McPhee, told Rosenwald, “The writing is the writing.”

The Atlantic, The London Review of Books, The New York Times … We at the magazine have been enjoying the reflected glory as the reviews for President Tom Kunkel’s new book have rolled out in much, much bigger news outlets than our own. We’re used to our faculty publishing apace, of course, and their work is well-received and well-represented on the lists of highly reputable academic presses like State University of New York and the University of California. But academic works are as likely to sell in the hundreds as the thousands, and although they earn their place on the shelves of major academic libraries, they are less likely to be found on nightstands at large.

Kunkel’s biography of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell is a serious piece of scholarship, too, but his subject’s name is a familiar one and his publisher, Random House, has a commercial list. “Man in Profile” was all over the book review pages as soon as it appeared in late April. The big time arrived on campus, too, in due course, in the shape of a BBC America reporter who flew in to interview the author in his Main Hall office. That interview is available at snc.edu/go/bbcamerica.

We’re enjoying the ride and, thanks to the conversation that Kunkel’s revelations about Mitchell began, it looks as if it may continue for some time. 

July 3, 2015