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This fascinating biography reveals the untold story of the legendary New Yorker profile writer—author of Joe Gould’s Secret and Up in the Old Hotel—and unravels the mystery behind one of literary history’s greatest disappearing acts.

Born and raised in North Carolina, Joseph Mitchell was Southern to the core. But from the 1930s to the 1960s, he was the voice of New York City. Readers of the New Yorker cherished his intimate sketches of the people who made the city tick—from Mohawk steelworkers to Staten Island oystermen, from homeless intellectual Joe Gould to Old John McSorley, founder of the city’s— most famous saloon. Mitchell’s literary sensibility combined with a journalistic eye for detail produced a writing style that would inspire New Journalism luminaries such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Joan Didion.

Then, all of a sudden, his stories stopped appearing. For thirty years, Mitchell showed up for work at the New Yorker—but produced nothing. Did he have something new and exciting in store? Was he working on a major project? Or was he bedeviled by an epic case of writer’s block?

The first full-length biography of Joseph Mitchell, based on the thousands of archival pages he left behind and dozens of interviews, Man in Profile pieces together the life of this beloved and enigmatic literary legend and answers the question that has plagued readers and critics for decades: What was Joe Mitchell doing all those years?

By the time of his death in 1996, Mitchell was less well known for his elegant writing than for his J. D. Salinger–like retreat from the public eye. For thirty years, Mitchell had wandered the streets of New York, chronicling the lives of everyday people and publishing them in the most prestigious publication in town. But by the 1970s, crime, homelessness, and a crumbling infrastructure had transformed the city Mitchell understood so well and spoke for so articulately. He could barely recognize it. As he said to a friend late in life, “I’m living in a state of confusion.”

Fifty years after his last story appeared and almost two decades after his death, Joseph Mitchell still has legions of fans, and his story—especially the mystery of his “disappearance”—continues to fascinate. With a colorful cast of characters that includes Harold Ross, A. J. Liebling, Tina Brown, James Thurber, and William Shawn, Man in Profile goes a long way to solving that mystery—and bringing this lion of American journalism out of the shadows that once threatened to swallow him.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “A revelatory portrait…a celebration of the hidden people and places of New York City, and a literary mystery of the first order.”

    Gay Talese, #1 New York Times bestselling author

  • “Excellent…Joseph Mitchell devotees—and we are many—do not tire of thinking or talking about the man…[A] first-rate Mitchell biography.”

    Wall Street Journal

  • “[An] authoritative new biography…Kunkel is the ideal biographer of Joseph Mitchell.”

    New York Times Book Review (Editor’s Choice)

  • “A richly persuasive portrait of a man who cared about everybody and everything.”

    London Review of Books

  • “Mitchell’s life and achievements are brought vividly alive in [this] splendid book.”

    Chicago Tribune

  • “A compelling book on one of the more revered journalists of the twentieth century, warts and all.”

    Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

  • “[A] long-awaited biography of this demon-driven journalist…lovingly unearthed.”

    Los Angeles Review of Books

  • “For those in love with the New Yorker, this tale of a bygone period in the magazine’s history will be nirvana. For those interested in writers’ lives, it will be the start of a hunt for Mitchell’s own books.”

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • “A vivid portrait of the writer…chronicling the lives of some of [New York City’s] most colorful denizens.”

    Library Journal

  • “Narrator Joe Barrett’s gravelly, expressive voice, which employs subtle characterization, is perfectly matched to the precise and confident prose…Winner of the AudioFile Earphones Award.”

    AudioFile

  • “Kunkel probes Joseph Mitchell’s life and career with empathy and unflinching reportage.”

    Gene Roberts, Pulitzer Prize–winning author

  • “Joseph Mitchell, the finest reporter ever published in the New Yorker, is fortunate to have Thomas Kunkel as his biographer. This is a beautiful book.”

    Susan Sheehan, Pulitzer Prize–winning author

  • “This insightful, thorough, and well told account of Mitchell’s life and work will go a long way toward bringing him the wider recognition he deserves.”

    Ian Frazier, New York Times bestselling author

  • “Joseph Mitchell was the great artist/reporter of the twentieth century, cousin as a stylist to Twain and Joyce. Reading Man in Profile is like talking to Mitchell on intimate terms after finishing one of his exact and lyrical stories.”

    Alec Wilkinson, author of The Ice Balloon

  • “I enjoyed this book immensely. It helped me hear how much of the magic in Joseph Mitchell’s writing had to do with his cadence, his use of lists, concrete facts. It brought me inside his methods—of walking, lingering, visiting, and the way his work seeped into his life and vice versa. Some of Mitchell’s writing quoted in the book appears here for the first time, and it is thrilling to read it. Now and then I put the book down so I could savor it and think through the many ironies, layers, and textures Thomas Kunkel has brought before us about this singular writer and man.”

    Thomas Beller, author of The Sleep-Over Artist and J. D. Salinger

  • “A three-dimensional portrait of a conflicted Southerner who fled his cotton-and-tobacco-farm childhood to spend most of his adult life in passionate acquisition of the people, the parks, the buildings, the bridges and waterways, the graveyards, and, pacing every inch of them, the very sidewalks of New York. Thomas Kunkel gives readers, Mitchellites, and newcomers alike not just a Man in Profile but a great writer in all his holistic glory.”

    Janet Groth, author of The Receptionist

  • An Amazon Best Book of the Month in Biographies for May 2015
  • Winner of an AudioFile Earphones Award
  • A Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2015
  • A New York Times Editor’s Choice
  • An AudioFile Best Voice of 2015
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About the Author

Thomas Kunkel is the president of St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin. He has served as president of American Journalism Review and as dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He is the author or editor of several books, including Genius in Disguise, Enormous Prayers, and Letters from the Editor.