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The Literature
of Journalism:
Text and Context

R. Thomas Berner
The Pennsylvania State University


This book is about eighteen pieces of journalism that are worth reading, re-reading, and remembering. These stories show how journalists have risen to the challenge of reporting twentieth-century events and social conditions, from the Great Depression to the world of information technology. When they were written, these stories broke new ground and advanced the practice of journalism. They are benchmarks and standards to which beginning journalists can aspire. They helped elevate the field of nonfiction and demonstrate what a reporter and writer could do.

Why were these stories unique and why were they written the way they were written? What interviewing methods did some writers use to draw stories from reluctant sources? What were the reactions when these stories were published and how are the stories viewed now? How did the writers influence each other and what were the results? What models do these writers provide for journalists today? Some quick answers follow. Longer and more detailed answers are discussed in each chapter.

These stories were written differently from the way standard journalism stories are written because the conventional tools of the trade would not have permitted the writers to convey their stories as fully. James Agee knew he could not use the standard magazine format, with its requirement to be quickly readable, to report what it was like to be a sharecropper—he needed to use methods of writing not common to journalism at the time. To use a conventional format would have allowed form to override story, preventing Agee from painting a unique picture, from immersing the reader in the details necessary to become fully involved in the story he titled Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He wanted the reader to experience not only what it was like to be a sharecropper, but also to participate in his own process of conveying that experience—to let the reader live each moment, make each daily decision, right along with the people in the story.

A correspondent during World War II, John Hersey also needed a different form to tell the story of the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The fact that he wrote about civilians of the enemy nation was striking, but he also needed a way to convey their experiences so his readers in the West would stay with his story, Hiroshima. He fashioned an understated narrative that told the stories of four survivors. So compelling was the book-length story that it was printed in a single edition of The New Yorker, the magazine's editors having recognized the significance of the work. It is a delightful coincidence that one of the survivors is quoted reading from Psalms 90.9: "We spend our years as a tale that is told...," as though Hersey was intertextually explaining the form he had chosen.

Gabriel García Márquez had a great story to tell, but had he told it in conventional newspaper format his newspaper would have suffered severely because the story would have bluntly pointed out the corruption of the Colombian government. Instead, García Márquez extensively interviewed the survivor of a shipwreck and told the sailor's story in the first person of the sailor, in effect removing himself as the mediator and deflecting official censure. Thus was born The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.

Alex Haley told Malcolm X's story in the first person in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but Haley's uniqueness lies more in the devices he used to get a sometimes reluctant Malcolm X to tell his story. Haley also had to protect the story from changes Malcolm X wanted to make—and contractually had the right to make, because it was his story, not Haley's. To get the well-rounded story, the one that showed how Malcolm X evolved from a black separatist to an integrationist, Haley had to adapt his interviewing techniques to the personality of Malcolm X.

In other words, for these writers and the others in this book, the inverted pyramid was not the best form and conventional reporting methods were not adequate. The writers did not want just to get the attention of readers and inform them, but also to make them think and feel. The task was not simply a matter of providing data, but of conveying character and feeling.

Some authors represented in this book were considered "New Journalists," whose work, according to Tom Wolfe, was more or less structured on four attributes: scene-by-scene construction, real dialogue, status details, and point of view. As the techniques that characterized "New Journalism" came into more common use in the 1960s, conventional societal behaviors and beliefs were changing. John Hellmann argued that in the 1960s New Journalists were dealing with "a new set of American realities"1—among them, an assassinated president, an unpopular war, a generation seemingly high on drugs, and a society of changing values.

But societies are always dealing with new realities, so I would lengthen the time period and extend the national borders. Many journalists in this book, whether writing in China, Colombia, England, or the United States, had to deal with changing values and circumstances. Readers were looking at stories in new ways—seeking deeper meanings and more immediate relevance-requiring writers to find new ways to tell their stories. Hellmann noted that the New Journalists needed "to break through the prepackaged insights and perspectives which permeate the corporate fiction produced by conventional journalism."2 Hellmann's observation can be applied to nearly every story excerpted in this book, regardless of where and when it was written.

The context, the social circumstances in which a piece was written and the way it was received, tells us something about society and the state of journalism then. More recent reactions to the work can tell us something about journalism now. For example, most critics panned Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men when it was published, in part because Agee found fault with conventional journalism in a book that, unlike conventional journalism, was difficult to grasp for all but the most persistent reader. When the book was revived after Agee's death, however, it was seen as a literary classic. So the retrospective comments were kinder than the contemporaneous ones—even though the book had not changed.

Agee said the book was a failure. In some ways, he was right, but credit must go to him for trying what he did. Through his unconventional methods of reporting and writing, which drew different reactions depending on when the book was read, and through his attempts to give readers something more than facts, but also a sense of his characters, Agee unknowingly provided a preview of the New Journalism that was to come twenty-five years later—also accompanied by brickbats.

In Cold Blood was also not universally praised when it was published, in part because of the author's outrageous self- promotion as the creator of a new art form, the nonfiction novel. In addition, Truman Capote was trying to push the bounds of journalism, sticking to facts but still giving the reader the sense of reading a story.

C. D. B. Bryan used In Cold Blood as a model to structure part of Friendly Fire, but when he realized that the story needed closure—an explanation of how Michael Mullen died in Vietnam—Bryan changed voices and entered the story himself to report on his findings and Michael's parents' reactions. He too was criticized by some reviewers.
George Orwell was not without critics when he wrote The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell not only examined the life of coal miners, he included chapters of commentary in which he disagreed with the book's sponsors, a liberal book club, about the subject. Despite his own liberal politics, Orwell examined poverty from a more disinterested view and then trashed liberal orthodoxy on poverty. He bit the hand that fed him and got away with it. He found a way to deal with changing circumstances. Although it is not among Orwell's better known books, Wigan Pier is frequently quoted in late twentieth-century stories about poverty, a testament to its staying power.

The overarching point to remember about these books is that they reflect evolutionary changes in journalism and society. Studying them reveals that what was once seen as "revolutionary," even heretical, is today considered standard.

The stories in this book, to some degree, also exemplify how writers influence other writers. Qian Gang relied on John Hersey's Hiroshima when he organized The Great China Earthquake. Jean Stafford tried to imitate interviewing techniques A. J. Liebling used in The Earl of Louisiana when she wrote A Mother in History. Joseph Wambaugh, in The Onion Field, followed the lead Capote provided in In Cold Blood—and Capote cheered him on. Likewise, Tom Wolfe, who acknowledged a debt to Hersey, has influenced several generations of writers with The Right Stuff, even though by the time the book was published, his own style had already changed. Wolfe and Michael Herr, who wrote Dispatches, owe a debt to Agee. Many journalists who wrote after Lillian Ross—Susan Sheehan and Tracy Kidder among them—derived much from Ross's fly-on-the-wall reporting, that method of staying unobtrusively in the background and going so unnoticed that people forget the reporter is there and behave as they normally would.

These writers influenced each other and remain today as models of good writing and reporting. Studying their reporting methods enables those new to journalism to learn from the masters. Their texts, in other words, are manifestations of their reporting and thus become a textbook.

If you want to know how effective fly-on-the-wall reporting can be, read Ross's Reporting. It is, as one reviewer said, a postgraduate course all by itself. Ross, for having captured Ernest Hemingway off the pedestal so many had placed him on, was excoriated—not just when her portrait of the writer was published, but again when it was reissued in 1961 as a book. Yet the piece remains truer to Hemingway than a lot of other stories do because Ross showed Hemingway, not Ross writing about Hemingway. She was one of the journalists who set the stage for the practitioners of the saturation reporting and narrative journalism that arose in the 1960s, among them, Susan Sheehan, whose Welfare Mother demonstrates an understated writing style buttressed by fly-on-the-wall reporting.

When it came to capturing personalities, Liebling, like Ross, was also a master worth emulating. His skill shows in several of his books, but especially in his last, The Earl of Louisiana. Interestingly, Liebling used Earl Long's nonstandard English the way Ross used Hemingway's, but nobody complained about Liebling because Long was not only dead, he lacked Hemingway's stature.

The reader can examine the opposite of fly-on-the-wall reporting by reading Hunter Thompson, who rode with a motorcycle gang and even went on a beer run—in other words, partied with his sources—to learn the truth about the bikers and write Hell's Angels. Joan Didion also "hung out" with her subjects to produce her essays, including what many consider her best, "Slouching towards Bethlehem."

All the authors in this collection shaped their stories rather than following a formula, and the reader can sense the "shaping presence"3 of the writer. The stories discussed here represent journalism at its best. They endure because they were good at the time they were published and remain significant decades later.

Additional Reading

Anyone interested in the contemporary development of journalistic writing beyond what appears in newspapers is encouraged to read the following books. This list does not include every useful book on the subject, but should provide a starting point for further study
[list not included]


1. John Hellmann, Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 2.
2. Ibid., 4.
3. James N. Stull, Literary Selves: Autobiography and Contemporary American Nonfiction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1993), 3.

Copyright © 1999 R. Thomas Berner.


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