”My brothers, think what sort of people you are, whom God has called. Few of you are men of wisdom, by any human standard; few are powerful or highly born. Yet, to shame the wise, God has chosen what the world counts weakness. . . Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.” — I Cor 1: 26–28
I have come lately to the writings of Joseph Mitchell, a name many of a previous generation would instantly recognize with warmth, but for most of us today, is a poignant discovery. I found him through Michael Dirda’s wonderful book, Bound to Please (2005), a compendium of 109 essays on books that Dirda, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book reviewer for The Washington Post, loves and recommends, from Herodotus to Kingsley Amis, with lists of books in specific genres following.
Whenever I feel that my literary education is lacking, and I want a conversational voice to lead me willingly into the company of the great, I pick up one of Dirda’s several paens to books and reading and I settle down. That’s how I found Joseph Mitchell, who started in the journalism business in 1929, coming out of North Carolina at the age of twenty-one, just as the Great Depression smacked everybody down. He quickly became a lead reporter in New York City for such long-gone papers as the Morning World, The Herald Tribune, and The World-Telegram. He wrote about the Lindbergh kidnapping and interviewed Albert Einstein, Fats Waller, and Clara Bow. He covered all of New York, but felt most at home writing about the people of the Bowery, Times Square, Harlem, the Village, and the docks. He was famous enough that his portrait was on the side of newspaper delivery trucks.
In 1938 he went to work for The New Yorker and Harold Ross, who would become legendary as its long-time editor. Mitchell was stunningly prolific, writing as many as thirteen bylines in 1939. He kept up such a pace for several years, and in all wrote for the magazine for fifty-one years. His first book, Up in the Old Hotel, is a collection of narratives about some of the people whose lives he chronicled.
As David Remnick, the current editor of The New Yorker, says in his introduction, “there was no kitsch in his portraits. His subjects were not ‘characters’; his settings were not tourist destinations.”1 They were people whom Mitchell knew and respected, whose lives he detailed with an eye that did not miss a thing and a voice that was gentle, humorous, and almost courtly. Most of them were people cast aside, bobbing in the eddies left by the main stream, anonymous to all but their families and friends. If it were not for Mitchell’s observations, they would never have been heard from and their stories would have died with their lives.
The effect of Mitchell’s essays is to widen one’s interior vision and to enlarge one’s imaginative conversations with the unfamiliar, and sometimes disquieting people, at the edges. One of my favorite novelists, John Gardner, once told me to look past the lights to those in the shadows, the people who clear the tables after us, who work late and rise early, who toil quietly with a stubborn endurance that somehow gets them through. “That’s where the stories are,” Gardner said, “at the periphery, among the invisible people.”
The Gospels are full of such people. They haunt Jesus at every turn, thrusting children toward him for healing and for blessing. When they hear he is at the lakeside, they rush out, whole families of them, to hang on his words until the day grows dark. They see him as their last hope. The woman with internal hemorrhages desperately throws herself forward, and on her hands and knees stretches for the hem of his caftan as he is elbowed and buffeted by the crowd. It is enough. Jesus turns, feeling energy flow from him, and blesses her. A Canaanite woman from Lebanon, a stranger who is not welcome in Galilee, spars wittily with Jesus, who rebuffs her at first. She throws herself at his feet, begging his help for her daughter who is possessed by a devil. He tries to put her off. My mission, he snaps, is to my own people, not yours. It isn’t right to take food out of our children’s mouths and throw it to the dogs—an insult in any language. She will not be deterred: “True, sir,” she comes back, “yet the dogs eat the scraps that fall from their masters’ table.” And Jesus, jarred into a larger vision of his mission, turns to her in amazement: “Woman, what faith you have! Be it as you wish.”
Jesus sees his people, lost and bumbling, sheep without a shepherd, and he loves them. He had friends among the Pharisees, the educated and the respected, but he gives his time and his life to the ones who can never pay him back. Given a hard choice between following the social norms or healing someone thought to be undeserving, Jesus breaks the rules—a life over convention—every time.
It is that way with Paul too. Sometimes he flows between social classes like liquid, but other times he plants his feet and batters away at walls and locked doors. No divisions, no polarizations, he says firmly. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, everybody is equal, and everybody has a place in the new order. God’s grace is there for everybody; you have to opt out not to receive it.
To the community at Corinth Paul writes a startling message: Not many of you are wise by the world’s standards. You’re not powerful or to the manor born. You don’t have connections in high places. He finishes with a rhetorical flourish, “Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.” And what was the existing order? The cult of emperor worship in the largest empire the world has known. In some circles, those words could get you dead.
Is this self-justification? Making the best of an unfortunate situation? Or is it an acknowledgement that we don’t have to have achieved anything to be called of God? That in our weakness there is strength, and that our very need releases God’s sustaining power?
People of faith have reached a nexus point these days. We can admit our falterings and our weaknesses. We don’t have to bluster and boast and preen about who we know, what we’ve done, and how much we’ve got. There’s less pretense and more realism about what we lack and what we owe. This is all to the good. Humility, like love, covers a multitude of sins, and it invites us to learn freely.
When it comes to spiritual things, few of us are brilliant or even ahead of the curve. We’re lucky if we can navigate the curve without being shot off into the underbrush. Those of us who are lifers in Christianity are particularly susceptible to spiritual smugness. Self-righteousness abounds and a casual cruelty toward those in the shadows is accepted and even encouraged. Truth be told, a lot of us who call ourselves Christians don’t much like the world or the beings in it. We are the reverse of Lucy in Peanuts, who shouts, “I like humanity, it’s people I can’t stand!” Bent as we are to find the black hole at the heart of humanity, we fulfill our own prophecies by provoking the very response we fear in ourselves.
When I read the Bible stories these days, I try to imagine my way into their times and lives. It also helps to keep the holiness of these Scriptures in the room, but in the far corner. Too much reverence blinds us to our human bonds to these people, despite the intervening centuries and the friction of cultures. And we need imagination, lots of it, to create some air between us and our obsessive need for facts. We forget these are stories which holy men of God were inspired to write, but not transcribe.
Sometimes the indirect way comes closest to truth. I read Joseph Mitchell on the bums and whores and dock workers of old New York and I hear a voice of humor and compassion. I read Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Bellow, and in their wry and sometimes despairing narratives I sense a deep and abiding undercurrent of love and admiration for the human race. Seamus Heaney, W. H. Auden, R. S. Thomas, and George Herbert—in varying degrees, but with consistency, these poets fly the flag of hope for humanity.
These authors and others help us see beyond the ramparts of our self-righteousness. They invite us down from our battlements to walk with them, to join the human race and work alongside them. In their songs of human weakness and hope, they shame the wise and humble the arrogant. I hear the music of Jesus and Paul and John and Peter in their hymns.
Mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order.
- Mitchell, Joseph. Up in the Old Hotel. New York: Vintage Books, 2008, xi. ↩