Will All These Wonderful Stories—by Writers Like Henry Mitchell—be Lost and Forgotten?

By Jack Limpert

You know you’re a senior journalist when you’re sorting through stuff you’ve brought home from the office and you find a Washington Post story from 1972. Back then I had more than one pair of scissors on my desk and was constantly clipping stories from newspapers and magazines. The clips ended up in stacks and then boxes and then the trunk of a car on the way to my home office.

The clip is a story making fun of Washington society by the late Henry Mitchell, known mostly as the Post’s beloved gardening columnist  but who also was a wonderful feature writer.

The lead: “Not everyone who thinks he can survive a series of Washington social events, especially major exertions like the Symphony Ball, will in fact do so.”

A few lines from it:

“Although society is never far from the surface at any major ball, remember that the guests you will meet may at any given moment be thinking of horses, golf, bed, or some other lesser diversion.

“Do not  ever used the word ‘society’ in conversation or correspondence unless you mean the population of the world at large which of course is not society at all.

“Chamber music is not as good as a symphony. Painters are probably con men. Writers tend to be boring, especially major novelists, so avoid them.”

“Save yourself the effort if your aim is to impress anybody with anything. The rich are no dumber than the poor.

“The point of having money is that you don’t have to worry about it, and many people at balls do not. Do not exaggerate any possession; to them it is like boasting that you recently acquired an entire carton of cigarettes.

“Remember there is nothing inherently wrong in having money. Preachers sometimes preach against it but rarely turn down any.

“Not everybody has to be Episcopalian or Presbyterian.

“Remember the waiter may some day be President and remember you glowered at him. Empires have toppled for this.

“It’s important to read newspapers but not necessary to let anybody know you do.

“Smile easily, never eagerly. The idea is not to get patted on the head.”

Reading the clip, which in a few years will be thrown out, made me wonder what will happen to the great newspaper and magazine stories of the pre-digital past. I put Henry Mitchell into Google and got links to his gardening books but not to any of his other journalism. Put him into the Post website and you have to go to paid archives to find anything before 2005. Ask the paid archives about Henry Mitchell and there’s nothing before 1987.

At The Washingtonian, where I worked, you won’t find anything on the web that was published before the 1990s. All those great magazine pieces from the 60s, 70s, and 80s: How about Art Buchwald’s piece in October 1965 comparing Washington and Paris? The George V. Higgins short stories from the 70s and 80s?

Some of us still remember Tom Kelly writing about the Irish in Washington, Chuck Stone on DC’s black leaders, Frank Waldrop on Jewish life in Washington, Henry Fairlie on journalists discovering how to get rich. Rod MacLeish, Jack Mann, Doris Grumbach, Doug Kiker, Jack Germond, Barbara Holland, Dick Dabney, Johnny Apple, Diane Granat, John Sansing—for me they were memorable writers who wrote memorable stories.

Now those writers are gone. Will their stories, along with the Henry Mitchell piece making fun of Washington society, fade away and be forgotten? Are their stories saved somewhere in the digital world? Does anybody know?

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