The Master Writer of the City

Malcolm_2-042315_jpg_600x763_q85Janet Malcolm at The New York Review of Books:

Images that “stand for something” recur throughout Mitchell’s writing and reinforce the sense that we are reading a single metaphoric work about the city. That the author was a southerner only heightens its authority. As Robert Frank’s European sensibility permitted him to see things as he traveled around America that had been invisible to the rest of us, so Mitchell’s outsiderness gave him his own X-ray vision.

Thomas Kunkel’s biography adds some telling details to what Mitchell’s readers already know about his childhood as the eldest son of a prosperous cotton and tobacco grower in North Carolina.* Perhaps the most striking of these is Mitchell’s trouble with arithmetic—he couldn’t add, subtract, or multiply to save his soul—to which handicap we may owe the fact that he became a writer rather than a farmer. As Mitchell recalled late in life:

You know you have to be extremely good at arithmetic. You have to be able to figure, as my father said, to deal with cotton futures, and to buy cotton. You’re in competition with a group of men who will cut your throat at any moment, if they can see the value of a bale of cotton closer than you. I couldn’t do it, so I had to leave.

Mitchell studied at the University of North Carolina without graduating and came to New York in 1929, at the age of twenty-one. Kunkel traces the young exile’s rapid rise from copy boy on the New York World to reporter on the Herald Tribune and feature writer on The World Telegram.

more here.