See Everything: On Joseph Mitchell’s Objects


Notes from a Biographer

Photograph by Therese Mitchell. Courtesy of Nora Sanborn and Elizabeth Mitchell.

A black-and-white photograph, three and a half by five inches, shows a figure in profile—a silhouette in suit and hat, alone on a giant heap of demolished buildings far above the cathedral tower of the Brooklyn Bridge. I found it in a stack of photos stored inside a small envelope with a handwritten label: “NY Downtown, Summer 1971.” The man’s expression is hidden, but his stooped posture and tiny scale against the massive pile make the picture feel lonely. His eyes are fixed on something beyond the frame, but the longer I studied it, the more I could see him staring at the Twin Towers, which, though unfinished, had reached their full height.

The man in the photo is the writer Joseph Mitchell, who was then in his early sixties, or “well past what Dante called the middle of the journey,” as he wrote in his notes. From 1938 to 1964, he published legendary profiles as a staff writer at The New Yorker, mostly portraits of ordinary people in disappearing worlds on the edges of the city. By 1971, he was a stranger to himself. Increasingly he wandered the city by day and at night, surprised by the intensity of his emotion. The beauty of commonplace images—“a sunflower growing in a vacant lot”had become almost unbearably moving to him, and sometimes he stared for a long time at certain old buildings in the city, trying to understand why he felt so drawn to them.

For more than three decades, the story goes, he went to his office at The New Yorker on West Forty-Third Street almost every day, worked behind his closed door, and never submitted another story. But unpublished fragments—notes, drafts, letters, photographs, and found objects—attest to another Mitchell, one who would leave his desk to visit an old cemetery or enter a demolition site, where, he noted, he worked as hard as he ever did. In his published stories, he preserved lives that might have otherwise gone unnoticed, then he gathered objects from their threatened worlds. Mitchell couldn’t find one single way to describe what had changed—he called it “living in the past,” “living with the dead,” “living as in a dream, or, I might as well say it, as in a nightmare”but he claimed to know the exact moment when he metamorphosed into an obsessed collector.

It was 4 A.M. on the Friday of October 4, 1968. Mitchell woke from uneasy dreams, then got out of bed as quietly as he could, so as not to disturb his wife, Therese, and set out from their 44 West Tenth Street apartment for the Fulton Fish Market, where “the smoky riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness,” as Mitchell wrote in his 1952 profile “Up in the Old Hotel,” always gave him a feeling of well-being. But urban renewal projects had doomed much of Lower Manhattan, and the wrecking ball was destroying whole blocks. (In the previous year, more than sixty acres of buildings were demolished.) The piles of rubble depressed him, so he went to the Paris Café at Meyer’s Hotel, which afforded a good view of the East River. He ordered coffee, found a spot at the bar, and as he observed people cooking fish on the riverbank and box fires built against the blackened posts of the elevated highway, he saw his oldest friend in the city, Joe Cantalupo.

Cantalupo was a white-haired, energetic New Yorker. He’d been working at the market since he was fourteen years old. Mitchell met him in 1931. Ever since, Cantalupo, who owned a carting business, had been his fish-market guide, and their shared reverence for the market—especially its old buildings—led to a mysterious union. That day, Cantalupo wanted to show him something, so they left the café and crossed South Street to arrive at one of the oldest sheds in the market, where, in a loft on the second floor, a large object was covered with a tarp. Cantalupo lifted the cover, revealing a halibut box filled with old papers. One of the fishmongers had told him to get rid of it, Cantalupo told Mitchell, according to his notes, but when Cantalupo came up there to dispose of the box, he’d found a cat inside—she was having a litter—and he didn’t want to disturb her. Cantalupo liked the market cats, so he kept on going up to the loft. Each time he did, the cats were still there, and each time, he would glance at the old bills and receipts, names he’d known since he was a boy—and it occurred to him that Mitchell might like to see them.

Mitchell spent the next three days looking obsessively through the fish-box papers. He took them back to his apartment, and when he picked up a brick from a destroyed Lower Manhattan building, he felt his spirits lift, so he took the brick home, too. The ruins exerted a strong pull on Mitchell, whose art worked by repetition. As a writer, he returned to the same subjects again and again, above all the waterfronts of New York and the people connected to them. In his profiles he had reached for what he called “the real true deep-down hidden” life in his subjects, many of whom had begun to die as the worlds around them vanished. Perhaps if Mitchell could bring the past home, in pieces, he could continue his pursuit of a deeper world; the objects could give him a future. Or perhaps he knew it was time to let go of the past but clung anyway. In any case, guided by Cantalupo for about ten years, Mitchell went from ruin to ruin, filling paper grocery bags with whatever caught his eye. At the end of each expedition, his suit was covered in dust.

Eventually, Mitchell’s vast collection filled every corner and covered every surface of his small apartment. He’d accumulated hundreds of architectural pieces, including cast-iron stars, Hudson River bricks, terra-cotta ornaments, finials from cast-iron lampposts, carved brownstone, egg-and-dart moldings, Greek keys, fret tiles, rosettes, stone decorations, U-shaped cast-iron pieces, a cast-iron fleur-de-lis. Some of these objects were stored beside the shelves packed with his collection of books: the red-cracked spine of a volume of Shakespeare’s plays, small blue volumes of Proust, seventeen books on the Jugtown Potters, every edition of Wildlife in North Carolina—North Carolina was his native state—and some two hundred and fifty books on Joyce, including a worn copy of Ulysses. He stacked piles of ephemera into boxes­—a makeshift archive—alongside boxes of his daily notes, each page folded to the size of his pocket. Mitchell sometimes expressed feeling for these objects—”I’ve been looking at these cast-iron stars for years, wishing they could be saved”—and sometimes, after climbing through half-demolished buildings, his obsession bewildered him—”risking my life for two iron dogs when I already have six, seven, eight, maybe more of them at home.” But mostly he documented his finds in plain detail: “bricks from a demolition on Ferry Street, bricks from the Rhinelander Building, bricks from the World Trade Center, six bricks, more bricks, old bricks, red bricks with names all sunken in—KING, MALLEY, ARCHER, RICHMOND, ROSE.”

Mitchell wanted to write about his thirty-year search, but when he died in 1996 at the age of eighty-seven, the story remained unfinished, though many of its pieces survived. Some of them can be found in his papers at the New York Public Library and some are at the South Street Seaport Museum, but most of his objects and ephemera have been divided equally between his daughters—Nora in New Jersey and Elizabeth in Atlanta—who, after their father died, carried away three truckloads. Seeing some of them preserved at Nora’s and Elizabeth’s was at once moving and sad. When I called her father’s objects “fragments,” Elizabeth flinched. “Whenever I hear that word, I think of The Waste Land—’These fragments I have shored against my ruins.’ My father and I used to listen to a recording of it,” she said. “He was trying to stave something off, but he knew it wouldn’t work.” Earlier that day, I had found a typed letter to Mitchell from his old friend the writer and editor William Maxwell, sent after Mitchell’s father’s death in 1976, when Mitchell was almost seventy. Maxwell had read an interview with the poet John Hall Wheelock in the Fall 1976 issue of The Paris Review, some of which, he wrote, applied to both him and Mitchell: “Everything is in flux,” said Wheelock. “Our places are taken by others. The generations can’t be poured into one life span. It almost seems as if time was an invention to make it possible to provide space for more to come.”

When I saw the photograph of Mitchell on the heap of demolished buildings, I was up in Elizabeth’s attic, surrounded by pieces of his collection I hadn’t seen. It was the summer of 2023. That morning, Elizabeth, who is now in her seventies, helped me look through boxes until she needed a break, and for the last few hours I was alone with Mitchell’s things. A small open window let some air in, but the piles of idle objects overwhelmed me. I thought of Mitchell’s dictum to a friend, repeated later to me: “See everything, remember everything.” Through his observation, things could transform, the prosaic suddenly sublime. When he looked at a blazing winter sunset in North Carolina, he saw “colors as deep and mysterious as stained-glass colors, seen through a million limbs and branches,” and when he caught a shaft of red sunlight slanting through stained glass at Grace Church on Broadway and East Tenth Street, he saw “the red of a split-open pomegranate.” Just as I was about to leave, I noticed a few shards of yellow glass and then read Mitchell’s note, written in pencil on a piece of cardboard he had tied to the glass with string. “Yellow panes from windows high up on the west side of the Erie Lackawanna ferry house on Barclay Street. I remember seeing sunsets through these windows.” I lifted a shard to the attic window, let the afternoon light pass through it, and watched the glass turn gold.


Scott Schomburg is a writer based in New York City. His book on Joseph Mitchell is forthcoming in 2025.