Workers 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. Some notes are typed; others are written in barely legible shorthand; they are often edited with pen. Loose pages are almost always folded the same way, in thirds (to fit in his coat pocket, I would later learn), and a few notes are scratched onto paper plates. His diaries contain lists of found objects from North Carolina and Lower Manhattan, bits of dialogue, books he read, galleries he visited, films he saw, where he ate and what he ate and who he ate with, notes from phone calls and office visits, and other anecdotes of significance to him. Every once in a while, there are notes like this one, on an old postcard: “Death is not knowing that we have ever lived.”
The account of Ellison’s funeral includes descriptions of his eightieth birthday party, just six weeks before his death, and of his memorial service held at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Mitchell attended both. On page 6, the document’s author appears: “I call Fanny … I ask to speak with Mrs. Ellison, and she comes to the phone. ‘Hello, Mrs. Ellison, this is Susan DiSesa calling.’ ”
Mitchell’s Diary: Tuesday, April 19, 1994. “Sheila and I meet Susan DiSesa and Joe Fox at Random House at around a quarter to 11. Ralph’s funeral is at 12.”
At Ellison’s vault, wind envelops the mourners. “The highway is next to us now,” DiSesa writes. Several times, they have to ask nearby workmen to be quiet. On the top row of the last wall, a pink marble slab is missing. Workers elevate the coffin with a riser—steel creaking, motor grinding—as everyone watches. At twelve feet, “the riser tilts slightly, and the coffin begins to slip into its shelf.” Arguing with one another, “the men try to muscle the coffin into place, heave-hoeing it with a sickening, scraping sound.” They paint the sides of the opening with an adhesive, then seal it shut with a marble slab. Metal florets are drilled into each of the slab’s four corners.
When I visited Ellison’s grave in January, one rose lay on the concrete floor at the foot of the column that includes his vault; Fanny Ellison now rests in a vault next to his. Distracted by the noise of traffic, I turned toward the highway and looked beyond it to the Hudson River, letting my eyes travel along the water’s surface. There, directly west of Ellison’s vault, is Edgewater, New Jersey, the site of Mitchell’s famous story “The Rivermen,” published in The New Yorker in 1959. I think of the woman who bent Mitchell’s ear in the old Edgewater Cemetery, “who was down on her knees in her family plot,” who described the roses growing in that cemetery as having “good strong roots that go right down into the graves.”
At Ellison’s funeral, Mitchell did not double over in grief like the woman he had met in Edgewater. He stood upright, back slightly arched, chin straining upward, eyes squinted and brow furrowed, as if studying a bird in flight. Surely Mitchell, too, looked west and saw Edgewater that day. In “The Rivermen,” he disappears into the talk of Harry Lyons, Joe Hewitt, and others as he chronicles the contemplative life of the rivermen, craftsmen of the shad-fishing trade who keep their mortality always in front of them. “The only thing that mitigates the matter in the slightest is the fact that nobody else is going to escape,” Mr. Hewitt told Mitchell. “Nobody—no, not one.”
“I often feel drawn to the Hudson River,” Mitchell famously begins the piece, “and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me.” Perhaps his memories of considering the water and its depths converged with his grief that day at Ellison’s funeral, the ghostly voices of the rivermen instructing him the same way they did forty years earlier: look at the water, contemplate the end that awaits you, and live—“live as long as you possibly can.”
Mitchell comes alive, I am learning, when I watch someone remember him. In an instant, their countenance changes, and I see Mitchell briefly in that moment of reunion between two friends. As our first phone conversation came to an end, Susan DiSesa, now Susan Sheeline, said, “It was wonderful to spend time with Joe again.” Sheeline worked as a publicist for Mitchell’s magisterial collection Up in the Old Hotel, and then, as managing director, helped get Mitchell’s books published at Modern Library. Late in Mitchell’s life, they became close friends; no one shows up more in his diary notes from the midnineties than Sheeline. Perhaps the best description of their friendship can be found in Mitchell’s papers, in a typed draft of an inscription he wrote in her copy of The Bottom of the Harbor:
For my dear friend Susan DiSesa, begetter of this Modern Library edition of The Bottom of the Harbor—who is not only my dear friend but also sometimes my wry adviser (wryness expressed by a turned-down lower eyelid) and sometimes my openly amused adviser but always my wise advisor on matters having to do with life as well as letters.
With love, Joe Mitchell
Sheeline wrote her account of Ellison’s funeral after relating the experience to Mitchell during one of their regular lunches, which were usually followed by long, meandering walks. “Write it down,” Mitchell advised her. “Write it down.” And I’m glad she did, for in her account, I discovered a world I didn’t know existed—a friendship hiding in the archives. “Ralph and Joe were true intellectual companions,” Sheeline told me. “There was an immersion, a desire to figure it all out, like I’d never seen in all my years in publishing. They both spoke to people on the lower frequencies—their friendship was based on mutual respect and respect for the absurdity of life.”
Curious, I asked Sheeline about Mitchell’s inscription in her book. Why had he written a draft of something so informal? “He wanted to get it right and was afraid of making a mistake,” she said. “Joe put thought into everything he wrote.” Mitchell, then, was the kind of writer whose inscriptions and published writing could be discussed in the same breath. Contemplating his attention to language makes his so-called writer’s block and much-debated reporting methods look like lesser mysteries. “Joe took what few, if any, are willing to take,” Sheeline wrote to me. “He took time.” Mitchell knew it took time to get to the truth of a thing, she seemed to say, and he got closer than most of us.
“I created some of the people I wrote about,” reads one of Mitchell’s diary entries from the eighties, “but I created them out of themselves.” His creations are the result of two excavations: one, of his subject; the other, of himself; each an attempt to stave off the madness of the world by celebrating life in the face of inexorable loss. Wandering around in the city’s many cemeteries, reading epitaphs on gravestones of people he never knew, Mitchell watched the world with the dead, believing it deserved all his interest and empathy. He descended into the depths of the New York harbor, where the sludge and shipwrecks and strange creatures on the harbor bottom became metaphors to confront the mysteries at the bottom of his own life—a descent not entirely unlike that of the protagonist of Ellison’s novel, who sinks into an underground coal cellar to then rise back into the world.
“He drew his inspiration as much from the earth as from the sky,” Sheeline told me. The more I talked with Sheeline, the more I wanted my research to mimic Mitchell’s way of life. It doesn’t take me wandering in the archive long before something catches my eye: a eulogy for Ralph Ellison—this time, the author’s prose is unmistakable.
Though Fanny Ellison requested he speak, Mitchell decides not to give his eulogy at Ellison’s memorial service, held at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He doesn’t like to speak in public. Sheeline is there. Toni Morrison is there. Wynton Marsalis is there. Albert Murray is there. Mitchell arrives late. “If he was going to speak, he wouldn’t have been late,” Sheeline told me. “He would have been too nervous.” We resolved that he must have given his eulogy at the next academy meeting, months later, where he also read Saul Bellow’s tribute to Ellison at Bellow’s request. Fanny Ellison couldn’t be there to hear it.
I imagine Mitchell at the academy amid Ellison’s friends and colleagues, bent over the podium, squinting at his page. He glances up at the gathered crowd without lifting his head, then turns back to his eulogy, his lips poised to speak: “Ralph and I were friends for over fifty years. We became acquainted back in the thirties, during the Great Depression, when he was a writer on the WPA Writer’s Project and I was a reporter on an afternoon newspaper for which I had very little respect. In other words, we got to know each other back in the hard times.” Mitchell, born in 1908, was from the rural town of Fairmont, North Carolina; Ellison, born in 1913, was from Oklahoma City. They spent most of their time together during the seventies and eighties, both as aging men.
Mitchell’s eulogy continues: “After lunch, almost always, if the weather was good, we would go for a long, aimless walk, and as we walked, we talked every step of the way about the state of the world and the state of the human race and particularly about the state of American literature. Ralph had a cast of mind that was distinctly humorous and what he had to say was often remarkably funny and it was a great pleasure to walk along beside him and listen to him. In those days, we joked a lot, but by and by changes began taking place out in the great world, and also in our own little world, that neither of us had the heart to joke about.”
Both writers, each in their own distinct way, responded to the world by resisting diminished images of the human experience and by enlarging the frame, viewing the absurdity of life with room for the unexpected to astonish them. Ellison: “The mixture of the marvelous and the terrible is a basic condition of human life.” And Mitchell: “Life is a goddamn mess, but you wouldn’t want to miss it.”
From my wooden chair in the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room, I return to the folder with Sheeline’s account of Ellison’s funeral. Now I linger on her description of his eightieth birthday party. It would be the last time many, including Mitchell, would see their friend. Fanny, of course, was there. Albert Murray gave the toast. Sheeline cohosted the celebration and documents the night:
Ralph, enthusiastic, animated, lingers upstairs, inscribing books, laughing and talking with his friends. The sadness that seemed to cloud his face on his arrival is gone. Someone inadvertently almost walks off with someone else’s purse, and after we turn the room upside down, the purse is sheepishly returned. It is a good night. As Ralph says to one dinner guest, “Thank you for remembering so much.”
Sheeline describes how the evening ended. Mitchell, concluding his eulogy for Ellison, recalls how it began:
I remember a conversation I had with Ralph the last time I saw him, which was at a party celebrating his eightieth birthday. It was held in a restaurant on the Upper East Side. I arrived early and so did Ralph and we went to the bar and ordered martinis. Ralph asked, “How’ve you been?” And I said that reading the New York Times was beginning to get me down, and that I was seeing all kinds of signs and portents in it. I said that invisible man fought his way out of invisibility but that I was afraid he was in danger of becoming invisible again. Ralph laughed and it was his old-time deep, hearty laugh, which pleased me. “You never got over the depression, did you Joe?” he said. “No I did not,” I said. “Nor did I,” Ralph said, “But this is an excellent martini—almost as good as the ones Fanny makes. So let’s drink these good martinis and talk about those signs and portents some other time.”
Scott Schomburg is a writer and editor living in Durham, North Carolina. He is currently researching the life and work of Joseph Mitchell.