The Master Writer of the City

Therese Mitchell/Estate of Joseph Mitchell

Joseph Mitchell in Lower Manhattan, near the old Fulton Fish Market; photograph by his wife, Therese Mitchell

In 1942 The New Yorker published Joseph Mitchell’s profile of a homeless man in Greenwich Village named Joe Gould, whose claim to notice—the thing that separated him from other sad misfits—was “a formless, rather mysterious book” he was known to be writing called “An Oral History of Our Time,” begun twenty-six years earlier and already, at nine million words, “eleven times as long as the Bible.” Twenty-two years later, in 1964, the magazine published another piece by Mitchell called “Joe Gould’s Secret” that ran in two parts, and that drew a rather less sympathetic and a good deal more interesting portrait of

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