Excerpted from My Ears Are Bent by Joseph Mitchell. Copyright © 2001 by Joseph Mitchell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1. Mitchell recalls that in an average workday he might interview an Italian bricklayer who looked like the Prince of Wales, a “lady boxer,” and a theatrical agent with a sideline in racing cockroaches. What does that suggest about newspaper work in the 1930s? About New York during the same time? Does the book's division-into sections headlined “Drunks,” “Cheese-Cake,” “Come to Jesus,” etc.-convey the same freewheeling social fluidity? In which of these different worlds does the author seem most comfortable?
2. How does Mitchell reconcile his taste for “conversation just as it issues forth, relevant obscenity and all [pp. 13-14]?" With the stringent standards of gentility then prevalent in newspapers? What strategies does he use to circumvent those standards? Do Mitchell's subjects sound racier than they really are, or does he manage to make their depravity sound innocent? You may want to look at “The Year of Our Lord 1936, or Hit Me, William,” “Nude, Definitely Nude,” “It is Almost Sacred,” “The Marijuana Smokers,” and “I Know Nothing About It”.
3. 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? Discuss his use of dialogue and detail in the profiles of the saloonkeepers Dick and Gilligan; the exotic dancer Florence (aka 'Tanya') Cubitt, Elder Michaux, Mrs. Anna di Massa Agnese and her American family, George Bernard Shaw, and the suave anarchist Carlo Tresca.
4. Much of Mitchell's writing is comic or contains a comic element. How would you characterize his sense of humor? Does he make fun of his subjects or simply report the things they do and say? And what makes the latter so funny?
5. From time to time a darker note creeps into Mitchell's writing, especially in the section entitled “The Biggest City in the World.” Is this just because of a change in subject matter-say, from strippers and sporting men to the homeless, hospitalized war veterans, and condemned murderers? Or does Mitchell's voice change as well? How does he modulate his style as he takes on different kinds of subject matter? In what ways does his style remain distinct, regardless of what he is writing about?
6. Many of these pieces are concerned with work, whether of the kind done by vice cops, exotic dancers, a manufacturer of ostrich-feather fans, oystermen, gospel preachers, an ASCAP investigator, famous writers and entertainers, and journalists like the author himself. What aspects of work most interest Mitchell? In what way are his strippers like evangelists, his policemen like the criminals they arrest? What lines of work does he appear to hold in high regard? Is news reporting one of them?
7. My Ears Are Bent is divided between portraits of individuals and social panoramas, the latter including such milieus as backstage-at-the-Apollo burlesque theater, the Municipal Lodging House late on a winter night, and the rooftops of the Lower East Side in the middle of a blasting summer. Compare the ways Mitchell approaches these genres. How does he lend life and energy to his individual profiles? How does he give his crowd scenes a feeling of intimacy?
8. In obedience to the code of his profession, Mitchell rarely says what he feels about his subjects. But does this mean he is dispassionate about them? How do you imagine the author feels about Gilligan Holton or Rosita Royce, Peter Arno or George M. Cohan? Which of these characters does he seem to admire? Which does he seem to hold in disdain? Are there any he seems to love?
9. Many of Mitchell's characters are misanthropes and express their misanthropy with considerable pungency. Witness Gilligan Holton's campaign of abuse against two well-heeled customers; Mazie Gordon's wish that one of her drunken beneficiaries “go die” [p. 101], or George Bernard Shaw's cheerful suggestion that since “the world at present is not fit for children to live in,” the small beneficiaries of the Children's Aid Society be given “a gorgeous party and then, when they have eaten and danced themselves to sleep, turn on the gas and let them all wake up in heaven [pp. 289–290]” On the evidence of these pieces, is Mitchell also a misanthrope? If not, why?
In Their Own Words:
Some of Mitchell's subjects holding forth on a variety of topics:
Tanya Cubitt, popularly billed as 'Queen of the Nudists,' on her occupation: “It keeps us out in the open. It doesn't keep us out late at night, and we have a healthy atmosphere to work in. My girl friends think we have orgies and all, but I never had an orgy yet. Sometimes when the sun is hot, nudism is hard work [p. 68].”
Jack Pfefer, wrestling promoter, on his clients: “Oh, hell . . . it is like the circus with elephants that wear shoes and eat off plates. I am so sick of freaks sometimes I have to go to the opera to quit my nerves from jumping [pp. 108–109].”
Gilligan Holton, on the odds in the impending Joe Louis-Max Baer fight: “Yes, sir, unless a tornado strikes, Joe will win. When Mr. Baer stick his head out it's going to be touched. Like a man stick his head into the dumb-waiter and a ice wagon fall on it [p. 128].”
Harry Lewis, incarcerated pickpocket, on the insanity defense: “I would like to have a psychiatrist go over me because I am sure there is something wrong somewhere . . .” I must have a twist in my brain [p. 214].”
George Bernard Shaw, playwright and social thinker, on a proposal to convene a literary congress for the suppression of war: “Why should they suppress war? War is just a method of killing people. There are a great many people who ought to be killed [p. 279].”