DE PERE — The latest book by St. Norbert College President Tom Kunkel has received numerous positive media reviews, including from such national sources as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. In April, Random House released “Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker,” a biography by Kunkel that had been in the works for several years.
“Kunkel is one of the great authorities on the ethos of both the magazine (a world all its own, to be sure) and New York newspapers in their picaresque heyday. Better still, he’s a writer and craftsman worthy of his subject,” wrote Blake Bailey in a May “Sunday Book Review” for the New York Times.
The praise is rewarding, especially considering the effort required for the book. Kunkel met Mitchell in 1991 when conducting interviews for his 1995 book “Genius in Disguise,” a biography of Harold Ross, founding editor of The New Yorker. Mitchell, who liked the Ross book, died in 1996 at age 88. Five years after Mitchell’s death, Kunkel began making inquiries to his executor about a biography.
Joseph Mitchell, a North Carolina native, arrived in New York in 1929. He worked as a reporter for newspapers in the city until being hired as a writer by The New Yorker in 1938. He published his last piece for the magazine in 1964, but reported to work each day until his death. Mystery surrounded his last 30-plus years.
“My first go was definitely to try to answer the question, ‘What was he doing?’ Really the point of writing the book was to remind people why he was this titanic literary figure,” said Kunkel in an interview with The Compass. “Even if he would have dropped dead a week after he wrote his last piece — he was 56 when he published his last story — his body of work is still quite remarkable. … In 1991, Joe was 83. I talked to him several times and interviewed him a number of times in his office in New York, so I can attest that he was going to work.”
Kunkel was a new dean at the University of Maryland when he began the book project. In 2008, he became the seventh president of St. Norbert College. Even though he writes efficiently, limited time combined with a large amount of required research made completion of the book challenging. He used vacation time to work on the chapters. Kunkel hopes the positive attention the book has received brings people back or introduces them to Mitchell’s work.
The book is the sixth for Kunkel. His past works also include “Enormous Prayers, A Journey into the Priesthood,” which features portraits of 28 Catholic priests, published in 1998. His next project may tackle a religious leader.
“I am toying with the idea and have toyed with it for a long time, the idea for a very short, I wouldn’t even call it a book, more of a monograph, 25,000 to 30,000 words about the life of Norbert,” he explained. “St. Norbert is such an interesting individual. We have 900 years of history, but there’s not really a good English language portrait of him, nothing that is easy for a lay person to grasp. There are a number of really good historians in the Norbertine order.”
Kunkel added that the St. Norbert text would be useful for the college. Some of his inspiration for the work stems from his experiences on the Norbertine Heritage Tour. St. Norbert faculty and staff travel to Europe to visit Norbertine abbeys.
“When you consider five or six years of Norbert’s proselytizing, how charismatic must he have been, how persuasive. You can only imagine what kind of forceful personality he must have been to have that kind of impact,” said Kunkel. “Think about the most charismatic politician and multiply that three or four times. I think it would be really neat to try to go as deep as I can to capture his passion.”
In addition to his duties as president, Kunkel feels a responsibility to continue as an author and journalist.
“If I’m going to be directing people of whom we have an expectation of creative scholarly work in addition to their teaching, it might not be a bad idea if I did my own project,” he said. “I’ve written three books and edited three books, none of which were done to make money. I tend to pick subjects that are not J.K. Rowling material in terms of commercial success. I’m interested in writing books that most other people wouldn’t choose to write.”