Fiddlehead, Golden Club, Spring Beauty, and Bluets

April 2, 2012 § 3 Comments


Aaron Gilbreath offers a very interesting take on the acceptability of the composite quote by looking at the work of pioneer New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell:

Take this quote from “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” where Mr. Hunter tells Mitchell about picking a plant called pokeweed: “I went up there one morning this spring to pick some, but we had a late spring, if you remember, and the pokeweed hadn’t come up. The fiddleheads were up, and golden club, and spring beauty, and skunk cabbage, and bluets, but no pokeweed. So I was looking here and looking there, and not noticing where I was stepping, and I made a misstep, and the next thing I knew I was up to my knees in mud.” Mitchell didn’t use a tape recorder, and he rarely took notes, which raises certain questions: how did he remember these details? The precise order in which Hunter listed them? And, if many of his quotes aren’t verbatim, then how much of his nonfiction is to be believed?

In his article for the Oxford American, “The Collector of the Everyday,” author Sam Stephenson doesn’t believe that Mitchell necessarily remembered details accurately every time – that Mr. Hunter said golden club before spring beauty before bluets – only that Mitchell got the larger truth right. William Zinsser, in his book On Writing Well, agrees with Stephenson and defends Mitchell’s technique and integrity: “Now, nobody thinks Mr. Hunter really said all that in one spurt. Mitchell did a heap of splicing. Yet I have no doubt that Mr. Hunter did say it at one moment or another—that all the words and turns of phrase are his.” Zinsser describes Mitchell’s stories as mosaics, literary composites that reflected Mitchell’s journalistic technique. He would befriend a knowledgeable and colorful source – a fishmonger, oysterman, tugboat captain, etcetera – and make multiple visits over the course of weeks or months, sometimes years, gradually gathering quotes, history, scenes and a sense of the cultural landscape. Then, Mitchell would assemble his stories over time, layering the material like some sort of phyllo dough pastry; yet he rendered these portraits to depict a particular occasion – a single visit to a graveyard, a single chat with a Bowery barfly – so that they are composites of facts, collages. He likely fashioned his Olympian quotations the same way.

MORE FROM AARON GILBREATH  HERE

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§ 3 Responses to Fiddlehead, Golden Club, Spring Beauty, and Bluets

  • Wonderful post. I enjoyed the video and plan to find Mitchell’s book. Thank you for the comments about dialogue. I am writing a memoir and putting in dialogue – I have the essence, but obviously did not tape record all that was said to me as a child – still certain phrases and the hurtful lines spoken stick in my mind.

  • Brixton says:

    Mitchell went further and used composite characters as well. The Mr. Flood in “Old Mr. Flood” wasn’t a real person. There was piece in Slate about it:

    “Liebling’s colleague at the World-Telegram and New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell, also diluted fact with fib. In the mid-’40s, he wrote three New Yorker pieces about New York’s Fulton Fish Market, which were presented as fact. Only when the stories were collected as a book, Old Mr. Flood, in 1948 did Mitchell offer this disclaimer:'”Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past.'”

  • aarongilbreath says:

    True, and all of “Old Mister Flood” is identified as fiction in Mitchell’s collected works, “Up In the Old Hotel.”

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