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Up in the Old Hotel: and Other Stories

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Up in the Old Hotel: and Other Stories Cover

ISBN13: 9780679746317
ISBN10: 0679746315
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Reading Group Guide

1. In his introductory note, Joseph Mitchell notes that his stories are characterized by something he calls “graveyard humor,” which, he goes on to say, “is an exemplification of the way I look at the world. It typifies my cast of mind.” [p. v] What do you think Mitchell means by graveyard humor, and how does it figure in his stories, both in those that deal directly with death, like “Mr. Hunter's Grave” or “The Mohawks in High Steel” and those that don't?

2. Mitchell is not so much a storyteller as a portraitist, which is to say that he seems less interested in narrating action than in revealing character. How does he go about this? Which of Mitchell's character studies are based on the slow accretion of detail and which hinge on his observation of a seemingly incidental habit, utterance, or gesture? One thinks of Mazie Gordon, whaling the tar out of a drunken heckler but then slipping her victim a dime so he can buy himself a drink, or Orvis Diabo's complicated feelings as he sits in the reservation graveyard listening to the Mohawk singing in the longhouse. Which of these details cements our earlier impression of a character? Which reverses or undermines it?

3. Many of Mitchell's characters are conservators of one sort or another. McSorley's new owners are proud of keeping the saloon exactly as it was under its original owners. In his Museum for Intelligent People, Captain Charley keeps everything from old pith helmets and Chinese coins to a bone purportedly hacked off a murdered Arab. How does Mitchell view these people and their undertakings? Are they noble or pathetic? What do their stories suggest about his attitude toward the past? Toward time? What does it mean to be a conservator-of a place, craft, or a tradition-in a city that's in a constant process of renewal, usually heralded by signs saying, “Going Out of Business Sale” or “Demolition”?

4. Closely allied to the theme of preservation is the theme of collecting or accumulating. Many of Mitchell's characters are collectors of oddities, like Captain Charley, or seashells, like Hugh Flood. If they don't amass actual objects, they amass words that denote them. Note the frequency with which lists occur in these stories: the derelict Eddie's poetic list of Bowery flophouses, Captain Campion's detailed breakdown of gypsy tribes, families, and surnames, and Hugh Flood's recitation of varieties of clam. What role do collections and collectors, lists and catalogs play in Mitchell's writing? How do lists bulk up his otherwise lean sentences? Can someone who successfully collects objects or words or bits of information be said to defeat time, which scatters and disperses all things, and especially, memory?

5. Although Mazie Gordon dislikes the movies, she enjoys watching the daily promenade of drunks and eccentrics outside her ticket booth. With her four diamond rings, violently colored outfits, buzz-saw voice, she too is a kind of performer. “People walk past here just to give me the eye,” she tells Mitchell. “I got a public of my own, just like a god-damn movie-pitcher star [p. 27].” Discuss the theme of performance in Mitchell's writing. Which of his characters is putting on an act-whether for the reporter, a larger public, or simply for his or her own amusement? Is a performance necessarily false, or can it be an organic expression of one's true self? Does Mitchell make a distinction between self-conscious performers and unconscious ones?

6. Many of Mitchell's characters are not just individuals but representatives of a people, a community, or a way of life. Johnny Nikanov is both a disreputable old man and a gypsy king. Orvis Diabo is Mitchell's guide to the history and folkways of Mohawk construction workers. Houdini speaks-or sings-for an entire world of Calypsonians, as Hugh Flood, Misters Zimmer and Poole, and Captain Ellery Thompson speak for the worlds of the fish market, the harbor, and the waterways. How does Mitchell manage to turn a personal profile into a study of an entire culture? What sort of human groupings seem to interest him? Why, for instance, does he write about clamdiggers rather than stock brokers? Why might he have chosen a non-gypsy police detective as the mouthpiece in his story on gypsy women? What is it that keeps Mitchell's cultural studies from being anthropological or touristic?

7. Mitchell has often been compared to Dickens, but his character studies are much cooler than the earlier writer's, without Dickens's generous servings of heartache and indignation. Mitchell doesn't tell us what to feel about his people. But does that mean that he is dispassionate about them? How does this highly reticent writer convey feeling? What clues suggest his attitudes toward Joe Gould, Jane Barnell, or Peggy in “Goodbye, Shirley Temple,” for example? Which of these characters do you think he admires? Which ones does he despise? Which ones might he pity?

8. Among Mitchell's characters are many who lead less than exemplary lives. There are cadgers (Commodore Dutch, Joe Gould), lushes (Gould again, Johnny Nikanov), gluttons (the diners in “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks”), bigots (Mr. Giddy, Mr. Ransom), swindlers, and public nuisances. Does Mitchell judge these people? Which of them seem to arouse his affection and esteem? How would you judge a sensibility that values both lowlifes and upright folks like Mr. Hunter, Mr. Zimmer, and Captain Ellery? What traits do you think Mitchell most admires?

9. Most of Mitchell's subjects can be divided into working people and idle ones. The working people often have unusual jobs, a partial listing including proprietor of a museum of oddities, street preacher, sideshow attraction, and confidence squad detective. The jobless include a couple of pensioners, a soft-touch artist, a bohemian-that is, a bum with literary pretensions, and a gypsy king. It's notable that Mitchell never profiles one of the idle rich. How does he treat work? Which of his jobless characters seem paradoxically busy? You may want to consider the different meanings attached to work and idleness during the Great Depression, when a third of the non-farm workforce was unemployed.

10. The pieces in Up in the Old Hotel, especially those from McSorley's, defy the bounds of political correctness or, really, ignore them, since the notion of political correctness didn't exist when Mitchell was writing. It's doubtful that a national magazine today could get away with running a piece about a circus freak (which is what Jane Barnell calls herself) or larcenous gypsies (not without a sidebar that dismissed all imputations of larceny to Romany people as racist libels). Is Mitchell's writing offensive? Does it trade in ethnic stereotypes or make light of conditions that we now recognize as pathologies? And if not, why not? In this light, consider the implications of Jane Barnell's remark: “If the truth was known, we're all freaks together [p. 105].”

11. Another notable characteristic of the people Mitchell writes about is how many of them are engaged in grand endeavors, and how many of those endeavors are futile. Joe Gould immediately comes to mind, but also Daddy Hall, who is crusading to rid New York of sin, and Arthur Samuel Colborne, who wants it to stop cussing. Where else in these pieces do we find people who are trying to do the impossible? Does the futility of their undertakings seem comical or tragic? This raises the question of whether Mitchell is a comic or tragic writer or some combination of the two, and whether that combination is exactly what he means by graveyard humor.

12. Mitchell has a reputation as an urban writer, but some of his best writing explores rural settings, like the North Carolina of his childhood or Staten Island, which back when Mitchell was writing was an idyllic garden hanging off the southern end of the city. How do his “country” pieces differ from his “city” ones? In which environment does he seem most comfortable? And, considering that his longest pieces have rural settings, why do you think we remember Mitchell as a chronicler of the city?

13. In a short preface to Old Mr. Flood, the author reveals that the title character is really a composite of “several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past [p. 373].” Given that New Journalism was still more than a decade away, do you think that Mitchell is guilty of violating journalistic ethics? Where else in this collection may he be taking liberties with the facts? And what do you think of his declaration that “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual” [p. 373]?

14. Why do you think Mitchell felt drawn to write two different portraits of Joe Gould? Does the character who emerges in “Joe Gould's Secret” seem drastically different from the one in “Professor Sea Gull,” or are his alcoholism, narcissism, and mental paralysis already implicit in the earlier portrait? Is Mitchell's true subject Gould or his own confused and shifting reactions to him, the way his subject aroused first his curiosity and amusement, then his admiration, then his irritation and contempt, and at last his horror and pity?

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JaneEyre, August 4, 2012 (view all comments by JaneEyre)
These essays are an absolute pleasure to read. I was hooked from the first page. Although it's cliched to say so, the places and characters do come alive. And Mitchell's writing is a joy --- as I read, I kept finding myself wanting to buttonhole someone and read aloud to them!
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Bricoleur, December 10, 2009 (view all comments by Bricoleur)
Quite simply, one of my favorite books ever. I have given away a half-dozen copies of this book to friends, demanding that they read it. Diamond-brilliant essays about everyday life in a New York that has long since vanished. Probably the best-known piece from this collection is "Joe Gould's Secret" (Stanley Tucci made a movie of it in 2000) but there are many lesser-known bits of genius here. I think this book belongs in every collection. Get your hands on it!
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780679746317
Author:
Mitchell, Joseph
Publisher:
Vintage
Location:
New York :
Subject:
General
Subject:
Fiction
Subject:
Social life and customs
Subject:
New york (state)
Subject:
New York
Subject:
New York (N.Y.) Social life and customs.
Subject:
Essays
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Subject:
essays;new york;journalism;short stories;fiction;non-fiction;new york city;new yorker;history;literature;anthology;eccentrics;20th century;cities;stories;us;america;memoir;american
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage
Publication Date:
19930601
Binding:
Paperback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Y
Pages:
736
Dimensions:
8 x 5.1 x 1.3 in 1.1875 lb

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Anthologies » Essays
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z
History and Social Science » Journalism » Journalists

Up in the Old Hotel: and Other Stories Used Trade Paper
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Product details 736 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780679746317 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Joseph Mitchell wrote these stories and more for the New Yorker. Technically, they are nonfiction pieces — Mitchell's books are shelved mostly in literature and journalism. But his prose reads like some of the finest fiction the magazine's published. You won't make it to the best Christmas-time destination (Old New York no longer exists), so read all about it in Up in the Old Hotel.

"Review" by , "Mitchell's darkly comic articles are models of big-city journalism. . . . His accounts are like what Joyce might have written had he gone into journalism."
"Review" by , "A legendary figure. . . . Mitchell's reportage is so vivid, so real, that it comes out like fiction of the highest order."
"Synopsis" by , In this omnibus collecting decades of his work, Mitchell offers compassionate, wistful examinations of early-20th-century New Yorkers who existed on the margins of society.
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