JUST OFFHAND, I can name four major American writers, each alive and healthy, who for one reason or another do not currently publish. They haven't for decades. They write, but they don't publish.
J.D. Salinger is, of course, the best known. No book from him since Raise High the Roof-Beam, Carpenters in 1963. Then there is Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man came out in 1952, and there has been nothing since except a book of essays -- and even that was 20 years ago. Next comes Walter M. Miller. A Canticle for Leibowitz appeared in 1960 (Miller was 37 at the time), and it has gradually come to be acknowledged as one of the half-dozen best works of science fiction ever written. What has Miller published in the ensuing quarter of a century?One volume of short stories: old ones. All of them first appeared in magazines in the 1950s.
Finally, there is Joseph Mitchell. His last book appeared in 1965.
The first three writers at least allow their books to stay in print, so that book stores stock them, and people who grew up in the 1970s and '80s find them and read them. Mitchell doesn't even permit that. The result is that Salinger and Ellison continue to be famous; and if Miller's name is not instantly recognizable, the title of his masterpiece is. But Joseph Mitchell is barely known to people under 45. People under 45 are missing a treat.
Mitchell is a North Carolinian who became a New Yorker. He went straight from the University of North Carolina to a New York newspaper. First a reporter, he quickly turned into a feature writer, and then he became an essayist, the best in the city. Some think he was (and is) the best in the country. Others, more temperate, put him in a tie for first with John McPhee.
Before he ceased to publish, Mitchell brought out five books. At least two of them are masterpieces: McSorley's Wonderful Saloon and The Bottom of the Harbor. I love both, but I love The Bottom of the Harbor more. I've reread it every three or four years for 25 years, and my opinion of it is still climbing.
The book contains six long essays, all connected with the waterfront. One -- the only one some lesser person might have written -- is about rats: the three varieties that inhabit New York, spread plagues, come and go on ships. That piece is merely brilliant reporting.
The other five are a kind of writing for which there is no name. Each tells a story, and is dramatic; each is both wildly funny and so sad you can hardly bear it; each tells its story so much in the words of its chracters that it feels like a kind of apotheosis of oral history. Finally, like the Icelandic sagas, each combines a fierce joy in the physicality of living with a stoical awareness that all things physical end in death, usually preceded by years of diminishment. One winds up admiring Mitchell's characters (all real people), loving them, all but weeping for them, maybe hoping to live as gallantly.
TAKE THE PIECE called "The Rivermen." It begins with Mitchell describing the Hudson River, and his own habit of going over to the New Jersey shore to watch it, since the Manhattan shore is largely inaccessible. He used to do his watching in the railroad yards in Jersey City and Weehawken. Ignoring all the No Trepassing signs, he'd sneak out to the end of a railroad pier and sit gazing at the river. There's endless traffic of tugs and barges and ships. Once there was something else: a six- foot sturgeon, right there in the shipping lanes. "It rose twice, and cleared the water both times, and I plainly saw its bristly snout and its shiny little eyes and its white belly and its glistening, greenish-yellow, bony-plated, crocodilian back and sides, and it was a spooky sight."
Eventually every single railroad policeman on the shore becomes aware of him, and then he has to move on. At this point he discovers the town of Edgewater, New Jersey, which is to New York City rather as the sturgeon is to the shipping in the harbor. It's also where the rivermen he is going to write about live.
Edgewater is across from upper Manhattan, between 94th and 164th Streets. It's a town of maybe 4,000 people, strung out along a narrow plain at the foot of the Palisades. It was settled in the 1630s by Dutch and French Huguenot farmers; their descendants are living in Edgewater still. Half the people in town are related.
Edgewater is a wonderful place to watch the river from. The natives have been watching the Hudson, and fishing in it, and running boats on it for three and a half centuries, and Mitchell fits right in. He soon gets to know some of the middle-aged and old men who own barges (former railroad barges), which they keep just offshore and which they use in the spring for shad-fishing. They use them all year round for clubhouses.
The heart of the piece is the story that old Harry Lyons tells, sitting on his barge one February afternoon. He's not telling it to Mitchell, but to a man his own age named Townsend, the brother-in-law of another Edgewater man who has brought him by to show him what a shad barge is like.
The story is about the shad-fishing that old Harry is still doing -- very vigorous fishing, using pole nets 1,200 feet long, sometimes catching a thousand shad in one haul. It's also about the whole past of shad fishing and of the Hudson and of Edgewater and of Harry himself. It's also about youth and old age. And it's about good eating, especially shad roe and oysters. And most of all it's about the incredible survival of Edgewater right next to Manhattan. Mitchell, who has a genius for finding real-life metaphors, tells you early on about an old graveyard in the lower part of the town. It's quite a large one, and it's still in use. It is entirely surrounded, however, by a modern factory -- a huge one, belonging to the Aluminum Company of America. The cemetery forms a two- acre garden in the middle. Funerals go in and out through the factory gate, as do people visiting graves or people who simply want to picnic in the beautiful old graveyard. That was part of the agreement when the company bought part of what was once the Vreeland farm.
Not only that, there are rosebushes in there, descended from a rosebush that came from Holland in the 1630s. Or so, at least, Mitchell hears from an old woman whom he meets (and naturally gets to know) while she is gardening in the graveyard.
Unexpected roses. Mitchell's writing is full of them.
Note on availability: "The Bottom of the Harbor" not only isn't in print, it's hard to find in secondhand bookstores because copies are snapped up. Your best bet is a library.