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The Literature
of Journalism:
Text and Context

R. Thomas Berner
The Pennsylvania State University


This book is intended to be used in courses that are concerned with the study of good writing, such as courses on the literature of journalism, literary journalism, nonfiction writing, feature writing, or writing analysis.

The book grew out of my efforts to show my students some of the best nonfiction of the twentieth century in its social, historical, and journalistic context. I wanted my students to understand that, while the pieces are worth reading in and of themselves, they were not written in a vacuum. I wanted them to see that important works are inspired by social conditions, shaped by historical circumstances, and influenced by other writers.

The Literature of Journalism: Text and Context is built around books that represent the evolution of journalism in the twentieth century and, coincidentally, major historical events or movements of that era, such as the Great Depression, the rise of information technology, the Vietnam war, and the drug culture. I have focused on eighteen works that characterize that evolution and have presented these works in their contexts.

The commentary that accompanies each excerpt helps set the piece in history. It describes the social or historical context that inspired the work, how it came to be published, its critical reception when it was first published, how it has come to be viewed with the passage of time, and how it influenced and was influenced by other writers. In writing the commentaries, I have drawn extensively on a variety of sources, including critical reviews and academic essays that may, in themselves, provide additional resources for anyone who wants to dig more deeply into a particular piece.


Several specific features of the book illustrate my general approach.

The excerpts are from works that, collectively, represent the evolution of nonfiction writing in the twentieth century. No doubt I could have included more or chosen others, but I felt these were good examples of the points I wanted to make and, collectively, would provide a starting point for teachers and students of the literature of journalism. One can read John Hersey's Hiroshima and see the seeds of social documentarians such as Tom Wolfe and Tracy Kidder. Similarly, the stylistic experimentation in James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is also evident (albeit muted) in Michael Herr's Dispatches.

The specific excerpts from the works reflect major points made in the commentary. The excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, for example, focuses on Malcolm X talking about his mother's troubled life after the death of her husband and Malcolm X's father, and the commentary notes how Alex Haley used a question about Malcolm X's mother to get Malcolm X to talk more freely. The excerpt from The Earl of Louisiana shows A. J. Liebling using his trademark interview trick to get not only an interview with Earl Long, but dinner and an evening's worth of insight. The commentary provides more history on how Liebling decided to ask the question he did. Some critics noted that Truman Capote cut back and forth in In Cold Blood the way a film does, and the excerpt gives a flavor of that.

The commentary in each chapter also explains the social and historical context for the works studied. The background on Hiroshima, written for a publication in the United States about people who were essentially "the enemy" the year before, is illuminated in the commentary. The commentary also explains why George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier and Gabriel García Márquez's Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor were acts of subversion.

The commentary also explains how each work came to be written. For example, the commentary in Chapter 10 explains how Hunter Thompson became interested in the Hell's Angels and how a magazine piece led to his book. The commentary in Chapter 18 provides background on how Qian Gang came to write The Great China Earthquake.

The commentary discusses how a single writer evolves. The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe, certainly stands on its own, for example, but when the book is presented in the context of his earlier New Journalism, especially The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the modern reader can appreciate the evolution of Wolfe's style.

The commentary explains how writers influence each other. Qian Gang, for example, acknowledged a debt to John Hersey. C. D. B. Bryan and Joseph Wambaugh cited Truman Capote's influence. Truman Capote mined Lillian Ross's memory on her reportage and writing technique for Picture.

Finally, the commentary discusses how the work was initially reviewed and, in some cases, how it is regarded now. That information provides a greater understanding of the nonfiction world at that time. For example, when Truman Capote produced what he called a "nonfiction novel" and turned the publication of In Cold Blood into a media event, some reviews focused more on Capote's misnomer and his ego than on what he had accomplished. Not all reviewers reacted kindly to Capote's "new" form, but today it is a standard. I discuss why Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was not well received when it was first published, but became, upon republication, a classic.

Although the chapters have been written to stand alone, the commentary brings out connections among them. Readers can discover their own links and create their own knowledge about the literature of journalism. I have used twelve of the eighteen essays in this book in my literature of journalism course, asking students to read the essays before reading a particular book, and each week students would come up with yet another link or make a comparison based on their own reading lists. I hope that this book, with its combination of features, will serve as an introduction to the study of good journalism in its social, historical and journalistic context.

Speaking of links, I'm always available to anyone to discuss the literature of journalism. I make that offer because my research on the subject is ongoing. Anyone can reach me via e-mail at And since I use the web to post new or updated resources for all of my courses, anyone can get a current look by going to and searching for me by my name.


Many people deserve my heartfelt thanks for helping me with this book. Let me first thank Jeaneen Aldridge, who as a dutiful graduate assistant in 1990 dug out numerous reviews and articles on many of the authors who formed the nucleus of my first undergraduate seminar in the literature of journalism. Five years later, another graduate student, Sun Tao, would be extremely helpful in tracking down Qian Gang, interviewing him and translating letters from him. I also got help on Qian Gang from Thomas E. Moran, who sent me a copy of his dissertation on Chinese writers. Betsy Hall, the faculty secretary in my college, converted Moran's diskette to my word-processing program, leaning on an uncle to assist her when her office software proved not up to the task. Subsequent research help came from another graduate assistant, Karen L. Schlag, who as this book was coming together would drop research she was doing for me on a course and head to the library to find yet one more article. Last-minute invaluable service also came from John Yingling, who is in charge of reprography in my college.

I got a wonderful tip on Alex Haley from Bernard Asbell, the author of several nonfiction works. Bernie directed me to Sam Vaughan, an editor at large at Random House, who set up an interview with Lisa Drew, vice president and publisher, Lisa Drew Books. Their efforts show in the chapter on Alex Haley.

Over the years I learned a lot about the literature of journalism from the late James E. Murphy, Norman Sims, Jon Franklin, Daniel W. Pfaff, Peter Parisi, Roy Peter Clark, Don Fry, Thomas B. Connery, Arthur J. Kaul, Ben Yagoda, and Barbara Lounsberry. They have written or edited their own books or moderated discussions that have informed my writing not only in this book, but in other research and writing that I've done. On the practical side, I've leaned heavily on Book Review Digest, Contemporary Authors, and related publications. Nexis (as in Lexis/Nexis) was also a great research tool.

I have yet to write a book or article that was not improved through the blind review process. So let me salute here the professors who took the time to review my prospectus, sample chapters, and finally the entire manuscript. My salute to David Abrahamson, Northwestern University; Paul G. Ashdown, University of Tennessee; Thomas B. Connery, University of St. Thomas; Thomas H. Foote, Evergreen State College; John Gaterud, Mankato State University; Carolyn B. Matalene, University of South Carolina; Nancy Roberts, University of Minnesota; Patsy G. Watkins, University of Arkansas; and Jan Whitt, University of Colorado at Boulder.

I also want to thank Sharon Barrett, Mark Masse, Melinda Wilkins, David Hayes, Carolyn Wells Kraus, Paul Many, Cathy Mitchell, and Ed Cray. When I first discussed the idea for a book, my publisher suggested I find out what interest there was. I sent queries to various journalism lists on the Internet and the people noted here were some of the respondents. Others are credited earlier. General appreciation also to the members of WriterL whose musings inform my thinking.

I've said it before, but no writer is above the pencil and so I gladly offer my deepest appreciation to Sally A. Heffentreyer for copy editing my manuscript. Copy editors don't get credit, only blame, so let me take blanket blame for any mistakes in this book and advise all readers that Sally saved me countless times. Sadly, as this book was nearing completion, we both lost our aging golden retrievers, Buck and Bailey.

I am deeply grateful to my publisher, Kathleen Domenig. One of my editors at Holt, Rinehart and Winston nearly two decades ago, she went on to become a publisher. I can't tell you how many times a publishing representative would visit me at Penn State and ask whether I had any ideas for a book. I'd pitch this book and watch as their eyes glazed over; after all, I was not pitching a book for a mass market and they quickly lost interest. But Kathleen, because she is a niche publisher, was not only interested, she was downright imperative.

Finally, my wife, Paulette, who as she holds this book in her hands will finally believe that when I "work at home" I really do work. Much love, Dear.

Copyright © 1999 R. Thomas Berner



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