Category Archives: Writings

Douglas Mitchell: Great Conversations

Warm Up

What is an editor? To some people, who editors are and what they do will remain mysterious in a way other professions—teacher, nurse, architect—are not. Once in a while an editor becomes a brand name. Max Perkins, William Maxwell, Nan Goldin—all esteemed editors, but they are known by readers, people who read more often and more deeply than the general public, and part of the glamour of their names comes from the shine of the authors with whom they worked. News editors remain almost invisible, and yet without their gatekeeping and quality control demands, we could have no confidence that the news they present is not, well, fake. You could make the case that editors are a breed print culture has created to act as a line of defense against our slovenly, lazy, instinctual selves. They demand that we present our ideas fully dressed and well researched. In other words, they represent standards. They are a last outpost of what seems to be a diminishing enlightenment faith in our ability to find truth.

This makes editors sound like fusty custodians of old style cultural hegemony, but good editors are really about engagement not with what is already comfortably known, but that which is, no matter how unsettling, not yet known. Acquisitions book editors are the first to take a chance on a writer and her ideas, to make the case for their wide distribution. Acquisitions book editors at respected university presses are among the most obscure in the publishing industry, but they are in it for the long game. The work they champion will likely not make best seller lists, but over time, society itself will change because of the work they publish.

We lost a great acquisitions book editor (retired) for a university press (Chicago) the other day. Beyond that, we lost a great conversationalist when Douglas Mitchell left us.

We are told that individuals in our society lack meaningful interaction with others. We isolate ourselves with our screens, where we can shout anonymously with impunity. Conversation demands patience, a sense of pacing, a give and take for which there is really no substitute. Conversation animated Doug Mitchell’s life—I would almost say it was how he lived.

Let me explain.

Conversation One: Editorial

I happen to be part of a club most of the members of which I have never met. Doesn’t matter—we are all Doug’s authors. The ones I do know are among the people I most admire in the world, a pretty good testament to Doug’s discernment. Doug knew right away whether an author had an original voice and something urgent to say. I never got the sense that he agonized over acquisitions decisions—he made arguments for books for four decades—but it was not due to inattention. He had the ability all good editors have—he could get to the essence of a work right away and imagine its possibilities as a book. What followed was the true pleasure in working with Doug: the ongoing conversation about the topic, writing and revision strategies, and the details of getting a manuscript approved for publication as a book. He knew his work very well, and I suspect he knew the worth of his authors’ work better than they knew it themselves. One of an editor’s major tasks seems to be acting not so much as coach but as cheerleader, gently propping up flagging confidence and remaining resolute in the face of authorial despair. I had to eventually give in to the idea that Doug knew what he was doing, no matter what the voices in my head said about my own work.

More than this, Doug’s stewardship of titles in sociology and gender studies paved the way for evolution in the ways society thinks and behaves. Much of the strident current political conversation about gender, for example, is the natural result of society coming to terms with concepts developed over several decades in the pages of work by Doug’s authors, a series of studies that were part of a larger research conversation he fostered. He helped shape that conversation in academe by the editorial choices he made, and we live in different society in part because of those choices.  

Conversation Two: Musical

Anyone who knew anything about Doug Mitchell knew him as a jazz drummer and general music hound. For decades, he held down a regular trio gig at a bar in Chicago. I never got to hear him live, but he did provide me with a recording of his work with the pianist Ben Paterson, and I cherish it. He edited several books on jazz and music history (the titles shown here are just a subset), developing a shelf of works that helped us rethink the ways music and history interact.

At its essence, jazz is conversational. It is about listening, responding, embellishing, and, especially in the case of the drummer, pushing the conversation forward. Doug understood pacing and tempo and how to calibrate those to the musical statement being made. And he was a deep listener as well. I remember a conversation with him in which he broke down exactly what drummer Roy Haynes was doing on a recording of Miles Davis’s “Solar” (from Pat Metheny’s aptly titled Question and Answer, 1990) in such a way that I went back and listened with fresh ears. And his own long engagement with the music helped him accumulate a storehouse of great moments he was happy to share. Yes, Wayne Shorter left his drink at Doug’s table before starting a set with Miles Davis at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago. For serious jazz fans, that is a magical combination of words. Doug loved it.

Conversation Three: Gastronomical

From Los Angeles to San Antonio, from Chicago to Washington D.C., at whatever conference it happened to be, a Mitchell author could count on one thing above all others. The publisher’s lunch with Doug Mitchell would not disappoint. And it would likely be the highlight of the entire trip. For Doug, sharing a good meal was itself a kind of conversation that did not merely complement the shop talk but seemed to be an integral component of it.

Those old-time editors and writers used to get together for long lunches in Manhattan. It is a romantic image of a culturally confident mid-century America, with Dorothy Parker cracking wise and William Shawn holding court. That wasn’t our world with Doug, but he created a distinctive experience all the same. He arrived in the conference city having already mastered the food scene there, and part of the gift he gave would be the grand reveal of just where and what we would eat this time.

The most memorable of these excursions was undoubtedly in Washington D.C. In the company of Doug and two of his other authors, John Gennari and Joel Dinerstein, I made a nocturnal descent into what seemed to be a kind of Thai restaurant speakeasy, a pop up kitchen in the lower floor of a row house, the location of which I did not know then or now. How Doug had managed to discover this place, which contained all of perhaps six chairs, and had procured reservations is also part of the evening’s mystery. Understand, I was playing in the foodie big leagues here. Gennari is not only accomplished in the kitchen and a student of food, but he has deep Italian heritage backing it all up. Dinerstein has lived for decades in New Orleans and is a most discerning judge of the Big Easy’s legendary cuisine. I was along for the gastronomical ride, but it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, and not just because Doug had hitched us to a rising star chef whose food was remarkable.

Coda

Conversation, engagement, involves a certain degree of risk. Taking a chance on a manuscript, occupying the drum chair in a jazz trio, trying out a new type of food or restaurant—this was what made Doug such a remarkable person. He insisted on exploration, on communication, and we are better for having been in his orbit. His departure saddens me, but more than that, I am grateful to have been part of his great conversations.

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