We’ll Always Have McSorley’s: How Joseph Mitchell’s wonderful saloon became a sacred site for a certain literary pilgrim

"McSorley's Bar," John Sloan, 1912

Here is an excerpt from a “classic” essay about McSorley’s Bar in New York City, “a sacred site for a certain literary pilgrim.” by Robert Day. To read the complete article, please click here.

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When I was in college at the University of Kansas, my friend Harris and I made “pilgrimages” to towns we’d read about. Or to places in songs. One summer we drove my open-top CJ-5 ranch Jeep (with the windshield down when we cruised through cities large and small) from Lawrence, Kansas, to Bangor, Maine—all because of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

On the way we stopped just shy of Bangor at Old Town, where we discovered a boat builder. After checking our pocket money and double-checking our bank balances, we bought a canoe and rigged it as a top for the Jeep so that we sailed along in shade. The canoe was red like the Jeep. People would honk and wave and flash their lights.

We were not tempted by Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.” Too nearby—especially if you drove the main roads. And there was no there on the way to Wichita unless you counted Hutchinson’s “world’s largest grain elevators”—which we did not. Even if William Inge and William Holden did.

After we were both out of graduate school, Harris and I once again headed out (same Jeep; windshield down through Salina, Hays, Atwood, Buffalo Gap; no canoe) for Scarborough Fair (which we thought was in northern California), only to get as far as Deadwood, South Dakota, and the graves of Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, where we ran out of money. Later we learned that our destination was not only in the wrong country, but in the wrong century as well. Ours was a road not possible to be taken.

Before that misguided adventure, there was the semester Harris and I enrolled in an American literature class taught by a celebrated visiting multi-adjective New York University professor. Just before spring break, he observed that southern novels are “grotesque and gothic” and as such their details are exaggerated: “There is more Spanish moss and kudzu in Capote’s fiction than in fact,” he said.

Harris and I thought we’d find out for ourselves, so we drove to New Orleans (this time in Harris’s Daimler convertible, top down) where we discovered Spanish moss and kudzu in a plenitude that even Truman Capote had not imagined. Plus a streetcar named Desire. And a tavern called Ruby Red’s with a lovely Vargas girl framed on the wall behind the bar, and an equally lovely one tending the bar. Peanut shells on the floor. We were two days late getting back to campus. By then our professor had sailed on to Jack London’s Sea Wolf, where in “real life” men were “not that mean to one another.”

Which brings me to this: one blue-blizzard winter night while studying for an American poetry exam, I discovered the following lines from an e. e. cummings poem that the editor of the anthology had titled “Snug and Warm Inside McSorley’s”: I was sitting in mcsorley’s. outside it was new york and beautifully snowing. It seemed like a good place to be with Whittier making coldness visible on the vast prairie just outside the frosted window of my barely heated (frugal landlady) garage apartment. Not that I knew where McSorley’s was—or what it was. At least it was snug and warm.

“It’s a bar,” said Lola, my girlfriend in those days. “In New York City.” Lola was an art history major. “Somebody from the Ashcan School made paintings of it. I’ll find them for you.”

“Let’s go,” Harris said a week later. We were at the Gaslight Tavern drinking red beers and looking at an art history book opened to John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar. “We can leave after Christmas and be back when classes start.”

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To read the complete article, please click here.


Robert Day is an adjunct professor of English at Washington College and the author of The Last Cattle Drive, a novel, Speaking French in Kansas, a collection of stories, and The Committee to Save the World, literary nonfiction.

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