Saloon-keepers and street preachers, gypsies and steel-walking Mohawks, a bearded lady and a 93-year-old "seafoodetarian" who believes his specialized diet will keep him alive for another two decades. These are among the people that Joseph Mitchell immortalized in his reportage for The New Yorker and in four books--McSorley's Wonderful Saloon, Old Mr. Flood, The Bottom of the Harbor, and Joe Gould's Secret--that are still renowned for their precise, respectful observation, their graveyard humor, and their offhand perfection of style. These masterpieces (along with several previously uncollected stories) are available in one volume, which presents an indelible collective portrait of an unsuspected New York and its odder citizens--as depicted by one of the great writers of this or any other time.
Joseph Mitchell was a fine essay writer. He apparently enjoyed walking around New York City, visiting neighborhoods and places where he could sniff old, original city industries: especially the salty industries, anything that involved clams, oysters, fish. The essays are nostalgic, each portrait of each character (tattooed lady, the owners of McSorley's Saloon, the caretaker of a cemetery, oyster captains, oyster eaters) fond and smoky and exact. The nostalgia here, and the various casts of characters who belong in the nineteenth century but have somehow hung on into the twentieth, remind me of Country of the Pointed Firs by Jewett.
First, Mitchell was a keen observer of everyday life. Rather than painting scenic vistas of New York living, he gives us the fine details that make the scenic vista possible. His characters are every-day people, living every-day lives in an every-day environment, and instills them with a dignity a casual observer would overlook.
Second, Mitchell has a profound respect for the tradition of oral history. His characters have something to say about their world, and Mitchell is careful to capture these observations in their finest details. There is a point, there: we are the sum of what has come before us, and to understand ourselves we need to be mindful of those who are responsible for our being here. Maybe the saddest thing is that the oral history tradition Mitchell highlights is becoming lost to contemporary society.
Finally, Mitchell is a master at presenting his characters. Serious writers couldn't do better than to read Mitchell's work to learn how to develop a fine character sketch, producing not just a character occupying space in the world, but as people who both stand out with their own intrinsic value, and who add the richness to the world around them.