Joseph Mitchell (July 27, 1908 - May 24, 1996) was an American writer who wrote for The New Yorker. He is known for his carefully written portraits of eccentrics and people on the fringes of society, especially in and around New York City.
Mitchell was born on his maternal grandparents' farm near Iona, North Carolina, the son of Averette Nance and Elizabeth A. Parker Mitchell. The family business was cotton and tobacco trading, and family money helped to support Mitchell throughout his life.
From 1925 to 1929, Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. On October 25, 1929, about the time of the crash of the New York Stock exchange, Mitchell arrived in New York to work as a reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. Over the next nine years, he worked for the Herald Tribune and several other newspapers, including The Morning World and The World-Telegram. In 1931, he married the photographer Therese Dagny Engelstead Jacobsen, with whom he had two daughters and to whom he remained married until her death in 1980.
Mitchell joined The New Yorker in 1938 and remained associated with the magazine until his death. The unusual people about whom he wrote are shown in the titles of his articles: "Evening with a Gifted Child," "The Gypsy Women," "The Deaf-Mutes Club," "The Don't-Swear Man," "Mohawks in High Steel." One of those articles, "Professor Sea Gull" (1942), told the story of a Greenwich Village character named Joe Gould and the massive book Gould was supposedly writing titled An Oral History of Our Time. As Mitchell revealed after Gould's death, however, the book never existed beyond Gould's voluble descriptions of it.
Mitchell's account of Gould's extravagantly disguised case of writer's block, published as Joe Gould's Secret (1964), presaged the last decades of Mitchell's own life. From 1964 until his death in 1996, Mitchell would go to work at his office on a daily basis, but he never published anything significant again. In a remembrance of Mitchell printed in the June 10, 1996, issue of The New Yorker, his colleague Roger Angell wrote: "Each morning, he stepped out of the elevator with a preoccupied air, nodded wordlessly if you were just coming down the hall, and closed himself in his office. He emerged at lunchtime, always wearing his natty brown fedora (in summer, a straw one) and a tan raincoat; an hour and a half later, he reversed the process, again closing the door. Not much typing was heard from within, and people who called on Joe reported that his desktop was empty of everything but paper and pencils. When the end of the day came, he went home. Sometimes, in the evening elevator, I heard him emit a small sigh, but he never complained, never explained."
Perhaps an explanation does emerge, however, in a remark that Mitchell made to Washington Post writer David Streitfeld (quoted here from Newsday, August 27, 1992): "You pick someone so close that, in fact, you are writing about yourself. Joe Gould had to leave home because he didn't fit in, the same way I had to leave home because I didn't fit in. Talking to Joe Gould all those years he became me in a way, if you see what I mean."
Joseph Mitchell served on the board of directors of the Gypsy Lore Society, was one of the founders of the South Street Seaport Museum, was involved with the Friends of Cast-Iron Architecture, and served five years on the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In August 1937, he placed third in a clam-eating tournament on Block Island by eating 84 cherrystone clams. He died of cancer at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan at the age of 87.