MAN IN PROFILE: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, by Thomas Kunkel. Random House, 366 pp., $30.

His subject was the New York of boozers and floozies on the Bowery. He was drawn to garrulous diner philosophers caffeinated on cheap coffee. He worked the docks of the old waterfront, when it still teemed with stevedores, and the stalls of the Fulton Fish Market. He brought out the eloquence of dive bar patrons, and his ear was a finely tuned instrument.

Joseph Mitchell made literature from such material. One of a pioneering generation of early New Yorker writers, Mitchell only wrote a handful of pieces for the magazine. His articles were notoriously slow in coming -- from 1944 until his death in 1996, he would publish just 14 -- but they are some of the most beloved in the magazine's history. After 1964, when he penned a sequel to "Professor Sea Gull," his famed profile of West Village denizen Joe Gould, self-proclaimed "last of the bohemians," Mitchell went quiet, much to the bafflement of his readers. Today he is something of a cult figure, but Mitchell's life and work offer a snapshot of a vanished New York, one that still lives and breathes on his pages.

Thomas Kunkel's "Man in Profile" is an admiring book that doesn't ignore Mitchell's limitations as a writer. Kunkel tracks Mitchell from his roots in the swamp and cotton country of southeastern North Carolina to the New York of the 1930s. Mitchell honed his craft at the legendary New York Herald Tribune, where he covered everything from crime stories to celebrities, and then at the New York World-Telegram.

A compulsive walker, Mitchell plunged into the city's teeming subcultures. "It's hard to imagine any person in any other occupation who was exposed to as much of thirties New York as Joseph Mitchell," Kunkel observes. A lover of food (especially seafood) and drink, always nattily turned out in a Brooks Brothers suit, he was nonetheless a man of unpretentious tastes. Mitchell felt at ease in the greasy spoon and the saloon; he had an endless fascination with the human condition wherever it could be found.

Among the fans of Mitchell's newspapering was Harold Ross, editor at The New Yorker, who recruited him as a staff writer in 1938. His specialty became "finding characters of such bold hues, they were nearly off the color wheel," Kunkel writes. The author of a biography of Ross, Kunkel is excellent on the development of Mitchell's metier. Mitchell took many journalistic liberties -- for example, he compressed years of interviews into conversational set pieces that unfolded over the course of one visit, as in "Up in the Old Hotel." He even made up characters -- there was no Mr. Flood, who was a composite sketch. This was not fraud, Kunkel explains: Ross encouraged Mitchell to take such steps, which allowed him to get at deeper truths. His techniques anticipated the New Journalism of Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe, though Mitchell hated that term.

Mitchell labored over his assignments, cutting out single sentences and entire paragraphs with scissors, reshaping his manuscripts until they were perfect. He worked best when confined to the spaces of an article; The New Yorker tolerated his slowness and quirks. His infamously long silence did not mean he had stopped working; Kunkel reveals he was consumed with a never-finished book that would be the summation of his New York, and also a journey back to North Carolina.

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Working from Mitchell's journals and papers, Kunkel shows a man beset by doubt and sadness: "Very likely that humanity is done for," he noted in one entry. The writer had set up too many psychological barriers to finish the job: "Mitchell had stepped into a trap, one largely of his own device," Kunkel writes. Still, he had not failed: taken together, his classic articles are his great New York book, imperishable documents of the city's grand pageant of life.

 

Mitchell for beginners

Joseph Mitchell's classic works are collected in "Up in the Old Hotel" (Vintage, $18 paper). First time readers should turn to this handsome anthology, which showcases Mitchell's masterworks about New York's waterfront culture and includes "Joe Gould's Secret" and "The Bottom Of the Harbor."

For a taste of Mitchell's pre-New Yorker work, peruse the pages of "My Ears Are Bent" (Vintage, $15 paper). In these selections from the World-Telegram and Herald Tribune, you can hear the crackle and fizz of 1930s New York loud and clear.