A Friendship Hiding in the Archives

Scott Schomburg in The Paris Review:

Mitchell-ellisonWorkers wheel Ralph Ellison’s coffin to a vault at the Trinity Church Cemetery on 153rd and Riverside Drive in Manhattan: “There’s no room in the ground to be buried.” His mourners follow the pallbearers out of a small, unadorned chapel. Classical music plays faintly from a cassette player. The vaults, about fifteen feet high, look like “oversized pink marble post office boxes in the sunlight.” The George Washington Bridge is visible in the distance, darkly present in the afternoon haze, like a bridge to a world beyond our own. I’m reading an account of Ralph Ellison’s funeral, nine pages typed, hiding in a folder among the 127 boxes of Joseph Mitchell’s extant papers, at the New York Public Library. There is no byline, and it isn’t Mitchell’s prose. I stumble on it during my third day in the archives, sitting under lamplight at a corner desk in the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room. Mitchell and Ellison’s friendship has never been documented, as far as I know, but here in the preserved debris of Mitchell’s life, Ellison fills an entire folder. Four, in fact. I keep reading: “The ceremony is perfunctory, and except for watching Joe Mitchell comfort Mrs. Ellison, his arms encircling her small body, his sorrowful face bent toward hers, you almost forget someone has died.”

Last March, during the second of six trips to the library, I spent a week reading Mitchell’s papers, attending to the details he also felt drawn to when assembling his portraits, the “scraps and crumbs and odds and ends and bits and pieces.” Mitchell’s stories reveal a writer who had little use for the spectacle at the center of things; he looked in the city’s shadows and at its dark edges for companions who reflected his own attitude toward life and death. So I began by following his threads, wondering if the truth of his life would be found beyond or beneath or adjacent to the legend that has grown up around him, in some as yet unexplored place or with the people surrounding his life—not only in the bound volumes of his work, but in his notes and collected objects, discarded things sacred only to him. My father joined me in the archives to help take photos, and I came back to Durham, North Carolina, with more than nine thousand images, including a photo for every page of Mitchell’s diary notes, all twenty boxes of them.

More here.