Journalism and The Novel:
Cambridge University Press
9780521899529 - Journalism and The Novel: - Truth and Fiction, 1700–2000 - By Doug Underwood
The editor believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it.
– From the preface of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
There is . . . scarcely any species of writing of which we can tell what is its essence, and what are its constituents; every new genius produces some innovation, which, when invented and approved, subverts the rules which the practice of foregoing authors had established.
– Samuel Johnson
Though as we have good authority for all our characters, no less indeed than the vast authentic book of nature . . . our labors have sufficient title to the name history. Certainly they deserve some distinction from those works, which one of the wittiest of men regarded only as proceeding from . . . a looseness of the brain.
– Henry Fielding in defending Tom Jones against charges that it was a mere “novel”
The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.In the middle of the contemporary novel, Long John Silver, a fanciful account of what happened to Robert Louis Stevenson’s treacherous and enigmatic pirate hero, there appears a character based upon a real-life literary figure who has long intrigued journalism and literary historians: Daniel Defoe, the eighteenth-century novelist and journalist who – in Bjorn Larsson’s fictional memoir – meets Long John Silver while putting together a book about pirates.
– Samuel Johnson
Sitting in a London tavern that looks out upon the town gallows, Defoe describes himself to Silver as “slinking around like a criminal, condemned for my opinions . . . no more than a shadow, a word on everybody’s lips except my own, a supposition, a murmur in society.” Of his writing philosophy, he scoffs at how easily English readers are deceived and how badly they want to believe that Defoe’s characters, including his pirate heroes, were real. “I have been laughing up my sleeve,” he says. “It was all invented from beginning to end . . . Ordinary people and even the educated have such a desire to believe that everything that is written is true.”1
In our post-modern world, where things aren’t what they seem and where deception, false identity, and the concealments behind words and language fascinate us, it is perhaps fitting to find a new historical hero in Defoe, the spy, the man of many disguises and professional intrigues, and the “hack,” “hustler,” and professional wordsmith who had no idea that his efforts to make a buck out of imaginative writing would lead him to be hailed as one of the originators of the English novel. Perhaps it also is fitting that Defoe has emerged as a figure of fascination in an age when critics debate whether non-fiction has surpassed fiction as the preferred literary form, when scholars ponder whether “deconstruction” of texts and a post-modern worldview mean that truth is always relative and subjective, and when writers and scholars alike debate whether the categories that traditionally have kept up a barrier between the practice of journalism and the art of novel-writing should come down. Interestingly, there is no one better prepared than Defoe was to understand the ironic manner in which traditional terms (the facts of fiction, the fables of fact, the non-fiction novel) have been newly juxtaposed by contemporary literary analysts.2
As an innovator in the development of both the commercial newspaper and the modern novel, Defoe is the personification of the ground-breaking prose stylist and one of the earliest prototypes of the journalist-literary figure that is at the beginnings of both the journalistic and the fiction-writing tradition in the English language. The literary forms that have come to be viewed as separate ones – fiction, journalism, the novel, popular literature, biography, narrative or interpretive history, the topical essay, the short story, humor-writing, the advice column, literary criticism, journal-keeping, travel-writing – were blended together in Defoe’s era in ways that were only beginning to be distinguished in the minds of his contemporaries. Since all these kinds of writing tended to be on display in the pamphlets, the periodicals, and the emerging commercial newspapers of the time, journalism historians see them as integral elements of the written record out of which modern journalism grew. However, since literary scholars also lay claim to much of the same material, the world of what today we call “literature” and “fiction-writing” also has an ownership interest in Defoe and a number of his fellow early experimenters in written forms.
It is an intriguing twist of history that the investigation of the connections between journalism and fiction in our contemporary context should begin in a time when the practitioners of the literary and journalistic forms recognized little distinction between the two. Our words “journalism” and “the novel,” in fact, bear little resemblance to what Defoe and his fellow scribblers thought they were doing or what they named their writing activity. The etymology of the word “journalism” probably better applies to what someone such as Defoe’s near contemporary, James Boswell, the great biographer and author of The Life of Johnson, accomplished in his major writings (not only did he write in his journal in the evening as the basis for his biography of Samuel Johnson, he wrote a column for a London periodical, in which he had an ownership interest for a time, published news accounts of hangings, wrote travel literature, and mined quotes from “sources” with whom he socialized) than it does to the activities of contemporary journalists. Simultaneously, the contemporary meaning of the term “the novel” did not come into widespread use until the late eighteenth century, and Defoe’s and Boswell’s contemporaries struggled to find a term for the act of fiction-writing. The subject of Boswell’s great work, the lexicographer, essayist, and critic Johnson, called works such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones “familiar history,” and he valued them to the degree that he did because he felt they presented a more authentic and truthful picture of the world than did the romance books (so popular in his time and ours) which he greatly disliked.3
It is perhaps unsurprising that many “journalistic” novels – literary non-fiction or semi-fictional prose works that are built around real people and real life events – have been written in the years since Boswell and Johnson by a group of journalists or ex-journalists who have constructed a literary legacy out of the values that they learned in journalism. From the beginnings of the novel in English, writers who had experience in the world of journalism have been at the center of a movement that has repeatedly returned to journalistic methodology as the basis for developing realistic plots and journalistic research to provide the material for the construction of literature that draws upon actual events as the inspiration for dramatic narrative.
What has been called the “documentary” or “pseudo-factual” novel has played an important role since the emergence of the narrative-driven, book-length, imaginative story-telling form in the eighteenth century.4 Novels such as Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, William Thackeray’s The History of Henry Esmond, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Richard Wright’s Native Son present their picture of the world through the traditional conventions of fiction, but they graft onto their fictional schemes some claim to empirical validity. The attraction of this form of writing has been strong throughout history. For example, eighteenth-century writers such as Defoe and Fielding were laying claim to a broadly realistic version of “truth” that gave their pseudo-factual novels a degree of credibility that both romance and other periodical writings of their time lacked. Today, “new journalists,” such as Tom Wolfe, have made a variation of this claim by arguing that the methodologies of journalistic research, combined with the narrative techniques of the novel, are producing more vibrant and compelling forms of literature than those written by conventional contemporary novelists who have become fixated upon rarified stylistic techniques. This contemporary genre, as promoted by Wolfe and others, has created a great deal of excitement among both journalists and scholars of journalism and – even though few anymore accept the notion that there is much that is “new” about “new journalism” – the study of today’s practitioners of this form of writing has received growing attention within scholarly circles.5
However, what has been less documented is the impressive range and depth of the reporting and the research that have served as the basis of other novels that don’t meet the test of empirical validity outlined by Wolfe and Truman Capote in their conceptions of what qualifies as “new journalism” or non-fiction literature. The amount of journalistic preparation by the journalist-literary figures throughout literary history who operated on the margins of “fact and fiction” has been of only peripheral interest to the mainstream of literary scholars who tend to be most concerned with matters of writing style, textual interpretation, and aesthetic theories and techniques, or to scholars of literary journalism, who have tended to focus on writings, both contemporary and historical, that meet the definition of journalism by the journalism profession’s contemporary factual standards and/or Capote’s definition of what he called the “nonfiction novel” (for example, it is essentially “factual” in basis and the author has limited the “liberties” taken with the material to the incorporation of literary stylistic techniques into the narrative). And yet, the preponderance of the novels and short stories by the most prominent of the journalist-literary figures would not meet Capote’s definition or the standards of scholars of literary journalism, even though they could be called “pseudo-factual” in basis. Many of the most important of these works must be seen as the products of journalistic research and reporting and owe much of their realistic texture and their sense of authenticity to what these authors learned during their experiences as journalists.
This study hopes to fill in some of these gaps by examining the ongoing and continuous historical connection between the journalistic and the literary traditions – and the fiction- and novel-writing tradition, in particular. It focuses upon a group of novelists, poets, playwrights, and other literary figures that I have identified as having been strongly connected to the world of journalism and traces their contributions to the literary canon from the early eighteenth century when the novel and the commercial periodical were emerging as powerful cultural forces. These writers were influenced by their involvement in journalism in the development of their literary philosophy, and journalism and the world of fiction were reciprocally influenced by their literary contributions.
In my discussion, I hope to make clear the connections between the experiences of these journalist-literary figures and the predicament of journalism today. Contemporary news organizations are undergoing great upheavals, and there is an intense dialogue taking place about what the newspaper of the future should look like in a media world being reshaped by the internet and the emergence of other electronic forms of information exchange, economic and ownership pressures upon journalistic organizations, and a population that increasingly is forsaking the traditional newspaper in print for other news and entertainment choices. I would suggest that today’s environment is reminiscent of the era of eighteenth-century journalism, where newspapers – such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele’s Tatler and Spectator – had to compete as literary and entertainment vehicles to gain audience attention. Already “literary” and “narrative” journalism techniques are being adopted at newspapers which are moving away from delivering news in the traditional formulas (the inverted pyramid, the who-what-when-where-why-how model) and encouraging journalists to produce in-depth, literary, and stylized stories in place of news as a formulaic and impersonal regurgitation of events. I conclude the book with the hope that by studying these journalist-literary figures in the context of both their journalistic and their fiction-writing careers, it will lead to a greater understanding of the role that journalism has played throughout the breadth of literary history and to a better recognition of the creative devices that have enabled journalistically oriented writers to transcend the traditional limitations of commercial journalism and to transform journalism-based writing into important literature.
One of the reasons that journalism does not get the credit due for its contribution to the field of literature, I will be contending, is that the profession’s contributions have not necessarily always been positive ones in the eyes of either the scholarly community or many of the journalist-literary figures themselves. A primary aspect of my examination will be the frustration that many of these writers felt in trying honestly to portray the way they saw the world within the restricting formulas of conventional journalism and how they often decided they needed to take up fiction-writing to convey authentically what they saw as genuine and “real” about life and the people in it. It may seem curious to be advancing the argument that, in driving many of the journalist-literary figures out of jobs in journalism, as has been commonly the case, the field of journalism should get some kind of inverse credit for helping to launch the careers in fiction of some of its most celebrated alumni. And yet, the involvement of the journalist-literary figures in newspaper and periodical work has made for a rich and complex dynamic, and most have harbored love-hate feelings about the profession of journalism in which they gained their early writing experiences. This situation – in which the field of fiction-writing has proved to be a more congenial place than that of journalism, with its pretensions to a “tell-it-like-it-is” view of the world, for the journalist-turned-fiction-writer to express his or her “truths” about life – is a central theme of this study.
At the same time, one cannot minimize the impact of journalism on the imaginative development of these literary-journalist figures simply because the environment of deadlines, editorial oversight, and predictable news formulas ultimately did not prove to be a hospitable place for them to fully develop as writers. A case can be made with Thackeray, for example, that his journalistic background and material were seminal to the writing of Vanity Fair, but that he had to step outside journalism in order to create the imaginative distance to produce the novel. Ernest Hemingway also argued for the value to a young writer in learning to pare down one’s writing to compelling essentials and to use simple language to convey strong feeling as long as that person left journalism before coming to rely too much on its stock characterizations and easy-writing formulas.6
That journalism sometimes turned out to be a place where ambition was frustrated and where the journalist-literary figures were kept from fulfilling their writing potential does not mean that the values and ideals of journalism did not impress themselves deeply upon them. As a foil for their satire, as a place to test their idealism about life and literature, as an introduction to the realities of the world, as a field where they were encouraged to indulge their intellectual curiosity and explore the possibilities of self-expression, as a place to learn the discipline of clear and appealing writing – in all these ways and more, journalism served the best known of the journalist-literary figures quite well, even if they often had to move beyond the journalistic workplace in order to write in ways that they felt were fully authentic. In this respect, one must view the situation with a considerable sense of irony. Quite often, without encountering the limitations of the journalistic professional worldview, a journalist-literary figure would never have recognized the narrowness of pursuing the “facts” as defined in commercial journalism nor come to the conclusion that fiction-writing was a better place to convey a more expansive sense of what the world was really like.
Although the appendix enumerates the professional history and major literary works of more than 300 writers that I have identified as important journalist-literary figures, this volume focuses upon a core group of these writers who worked for newspapers and periodicals, who strongly identified themselves as journalists, and who continued to be influenced by their exposure to journalism (positively or negatively) even after they attained literary success. In compiling the appendix, I looked for writing figures whose experiences in journalism left a strong impression upon them and had an impact on the development of their literary imagination and philosophy. Some of the best known of these emerged as major figures in this study because of their role in demonstrating and articulating the central importance of journalism in the development of the British and American literary tradition. All worked for newspapers or periodicals as the modern concept of the journalistic professional and the modern news organization was emerging; all imbibed deeply the professional atmosphere of journalism and thought of themselves as journalists; all acknowledged that their journalism experience shaped their attitudes toward literature; and most continued to practice journalism in some form in intervals between their fiction-writing activities.
The selection of writers to be included in the appendix provides an important feature in my argument that journalism has had a significant impact upon the literary and fictional tradition. Even though not all the writers in the appendix are discussed in detail in this volume, the compilation of the names of more than 300 important literary figures connected to the world of journalism speaks for itself, I believe, in making the case for journalism’s influence upon the development of literary and fictional writing in the US and the British Isles. I hope this list will be helpful to future scholars and will lead to greater scholarly scrutiny of the important connections between the journalistic and the literary heritage within English prose.
As a critical element in the foundation of this study, I owe a debt to the scholars who have begun to rectify the neglected place of journalism’s literary contributions within the world of literary scholarship. In recent years, there have been a number of works that examine the historical ties between the journalistic and the fiction-writing tradition, and such scholars as Ian Watt, Diana Spearman, and Grahame Smith have written valuable examinations that touch upon the connections between journalism and fiction in the “cradle” years of the novel. Lennard Davis and Richard Cook have probed the duplicitous nature of eighteenth-century journalism and linked its artful falsehoods with the development of fictional techniques that were pioneered in the early novels of Defoe, Fielding, Jonathan Swift, and other novelists of the period. Shelley Fisher Fishkin has produced ground-breaking work in this area by analyzing the journalistic influences in the literature of Dreiser, Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, and Walt Whitman. Michael Robertson has examined the work of Stephen Crane and other nineteenth-century journalist-literary figures whose journalism he links to their literary values and their mixing of the conventions of journalism and fiction. Jean Marie Lutes has explored the role of newspaperwomen in American literary culture at the turn of the twentieth century. Barbara Foley, Phyllis Frus, and William Dow have provided perspective for this discussion, Foley by analyzing the “documentary” novel within the context of various contemporary literary theories of interpretation, Frus by exploring the role of journalistic narrative in the writings of Crane, Hemingway, and others, and Dow by calling for documentary fiction to be seen as an essential force in the development of American literature. Brian McCrea and Thomas Strychacz have studied the bias against the plain-spoken tradition of the journalist-literary figures within the literary academy and literary scholars’ preferences for literary texts that are complex, difficult, and amenable to specialist analysis.7
In addition, important scholarly analyses have been done on the journalistic origins of the literary visions of some of the major journalist-literary figures. These include: Michael Allen’s study of the impact of Edgar Allan Poe’s journalistic experience upon his literature; Richard Pearson’s, Virgil Grillo’s, and John M. L. Drew’s examinations of the role of journalism in the artistic development of Thackeray and Charles Dickens; Louis L. Cornell’s work in probing the role of journalism in Rudyard Kipling’s early artistic production; Charles Fenton’s and M. Catherine Downs’ studies of the journalistic influences in the literature of Hemingway and Willa Cather respectively; Karen Roggenkamp’s critique of the blended forms of newspaper and literary writing in the works of Poe, Richard Harding Davis, and other journalist-literary figures of the nineteenth century; and Christopher P. Wilson’s examination of the manner in which progressive journalistic values influenced a number of the major American novelists and journalist-literary figures who brought literary professionalism into vogue in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Howard Good, Thomas Berry, and Loren Ghiglione also have produced studies that connect the fiction and literature of a number of the major journalist-literary figures with their journalistic output, journalistic values, and/or the portrayal of journalists in their work.8
Perhaps not surprisingly, the major period that has caught the eye of scholars interested in the relationship between journalism and fiction is our own. What has come to be called “literary journalism” – and particularly the so-called “new journalism” movement that began in the 1960s and 1970s – has received increasing attention from a host of critics and scholars, including John Hartsock, Barbara Lounsberry, Norman Sims, Mark Kramer, Thomas Connery, Ionia Italia, Richard Keeble, Sharon Wheeler, Robert Boynton, and others.9 A number of these studies focus upon the American novelists and journalists who have been associated with the rise of “new journalism” – Capote, Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, John McPhee, Hunter Thompson, Tracy Kidder, and others. And yet, it is a sign of our self-absorbed times that journalists today are considered great innovators by turning back to the literary traditions of old (it can be argued, for example, that Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year did in 1722 exactly what the “new journalists” have done in combining journalistic fact-gathering with literary stylistic techniques). Although scholars have noted the ahistorical nature of the claims of the “new journalists” (and the fact that there have been a number of periods when what was called “new journalism” has been practiced), they have sometimes demonstrated their own tendencies to let contemporary preoccupations dominate the analysis of the influences of journalism upon the development of the literary tradition. This is partly because of the concerns of literary journalism scholars (many ex-journalists) to maintain the distinction between truth and fiction that is embraced within contemporary journalism organizations and by scholars in literature departments who operate by standards of “high” and “popular” art and who sometimes are reluctant to take journalism seriously as literature and/or show only passing interest in studying journalistic influences within the body of the works considered to be part of the literary canon.
The insights of Davis, Fishkin, Robertson, Wilson, Foley, Frus, Lounsberry, and Hartsock have been particularly important in my thinking in this volume. Davis’ analysis of what he terms the “news-novels discourse” in the writings of Defoe and Fielding in the early part of the eighteenth century has encouraged me to examine similar connections in later eras. Robertson’s extension of this discussion into the late nineteenth-century world of commercialized journalism and fiction-writing has helped me to better understand the influence of industrialization in the publishing world and the possibilities for succeeding as a writer who straddles the border between fact and fiction. Fishkin’s textual examinations of the writings of Twain, Dreiser, and others demonstrated that journalism’s influence in important fictional works can be identified in very specific ways and should not be discounted in any literary analysis of their imaginative writings.
Although I value the ground-breaking aspects of Davis’, Fishkin’s, and Robertson’s scholarship, my interest has been a different one from scholars who have engaged in in-depth investigations of particular texts or focused upon a group of journalists who were influential in particular periods when journalism had an especially powerful effect upon literature. My aim is to explore the larger sweep and scope of the relationship between the journalistic and fiction-writing traditions and to identify the major journalist-literary figures who have made their mark throughout the eras of modern literary history. I hope to do this by demonstrating their influence upon each others’ careers and showing that they shared similar views on the role of journalistic-style writing in literature. Where meaningful, I will quote from the writings of specific journalist-literary figures and draw upon the critical literature that analyzes their work, even though I don’t claim to have a specialist’s knowledge of any particular writer. However, I will apply judgments about the importance of a piece of writing to the study of journalistic literature, and I will draw attention to the works that demonstrate the role of journalism or journalistic values in their creation.
In her book, From Fact to Fiction, Fishkin noted the great number of novelists who began their careers in journalism, and she asked why the phenomenon has received so little attention among scholars. Hartsock tried to answer that question in his history of American literary journalism by enumerating the reasons why the study of fiction is held in the highest esteem by scholars and critics and why the study of literary non-fiction (and journalism) has been marginalized in the world of literary scholarship. Included in his explanations are: the traditional hostility of the literary establishment to the world of the commercial press with its view of journalism as a low-brow and inferior literary activity, the linkage of fiction to neo-classical forms aimed at the educationally privileged, the historical aim of commercial newspapers to appeal to less educated readers with crime and other sensationalized news, the emergence after the American Civil War of the modern study of letters focusing upon aesthetic style and self-consciously artistic themes that meet the tastes of the intellectual elite, and the transition of journalism studies in universities to social-science departments, with their bias against the study of journalism in a non-empirical or liberal arts context.10
In her explanation of why journalistic writing seldom qualifies as literature in the view of many contemporary scholars, Frus said journalistic writing “is tied to everyday life and is thus hampered by its pragmatic function, which is to provide information,” and, in contrast to “fiction’s imaginative freedom and creativity, journalism is discursive and mundane” and doesn’t deal in the “higher truths” that fiction does. In this sense, she added, journalistic writing with its popular appeal is considered “inferior to an elitist” notion of literature, and with some exceptions (largely from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century journalism of Johnson, Swift, Twain, and William Hazlitt) seldom meets the aesthetic standards that scholars use to judge which literature should endure.11