The Reconstruction of a Life
From The East Bay Express, Nov. 1991
Clear Pond, which won the 1990 John Ben Snow Prize, is a biography, a memoir, and a work of history; it's also a completely original, quirky book that's great fun to read. Roger Mitchell —a widely published poet and professor at Indiana University—grew up in the Adirondacks, to which he returned to do research for a book of poetry. For reasons he's never fully been able to fathom, he became obsessed with a man whose name he happened to come across in his research. This man, Israel Johnson, had lived during the 1800s in the woods of upstate New York, and had, for one evening, entertained the party of men that had first climbed the highest mountain in New York state.
From that moment on, this "ordinary person," about whom Mitchell knew next to nothing, became his obsession, and he felt compelled to spend the next five years researching and reconstructing the life of Israel Johnson.
Mitchell's search led him in and out of university libraries, historical societies, and cemeteries. He chatted with local historians and local busybodies, store owners, and bartenders. He pored over books, microfilm, deeds, and grave registries. At times he led a Spartan existence, sharing an isolated cottage with bats and spiders, in order to concentrate wholly upon his work.
Mitchell's relentless pursuit of his subject paid off, and—no small achievement—he learned enough to bring Israel Johnson vividly to life: a slightly crotchety, hard-working, modest, basically honest man; an inventor, farmer and millwright. At the end of his search Mitchell says of this ordinary man, "Israel Johnson and people like him are little more than traces of themselves. They can't be found, not really." But Mitchell is too modest—in fact, his own elegantly written book has, in its eccentric, fascinating fashion, located Johnson for the rest of us.—Janice Eidus