REPORTER AT LARGE
Morris Markey's literary journalism in The New Yorker
(this is a fairly short intro) If his writing is a reliable guide to his personality, Morris Markey (1899-1950) was pompous, self-centered and condescending. His journalistic work is of mixed quality, and his reporting career is bracketed by two novels most charitably described as tepid. He apparently had little respect for his journalistic colleagues and there are hints that his colleagues did not think much of him, either.
Nevertheless, Morris Markey has not received due credit. As one of the earliest long-time staffers at The New Yorker, he helped lay a foundation for literary journalism that would later erupt with the "New Journalism" of the 1960s.
Analysts of literary journalism have long recognized that journalists have used the techniques of fiction to describe factual events for centuries. Daniel DeFoe was doing it in the early 1700s with one of the first works of disaster journalism, The Storm, 1704. In their anthology of literary journalism, Kerrane and Yagoda list James Boswell, Charles Dickens, W.T. Stead, Stephen Crane, Abraham Cahan, and Jack London as "Pioneers" in the field,1 all predating Markey, and that list does not even include such notables as Mark Twain and Lincoln Steffens.
Still, Markey can lay claim to fame on the grounds that he kept the flame of literary journalism alive (rather dim, perhaps, at times, but still burning) between 1925 and the early 1930s with his "Reporter at Large" column. He was a sort of Brooklyn Bridge between turn of the century journalists like Crane and Joseph Mitchell, who is more often credited with introducing literary journalism to The New Yorker. Moreover, The New Yorker was the one of first magazines to build a lasting reputation and readership in part due to the strength of its literary journalism, and Markey was the first reporter to do it well at that magazine.
(lit review begins here) The standard interpretation of Tom Wolfe's famous, definitive essay on "The New Journalism" (although he claimed to be uncomfortable with that term) is that it originated with a Jimmy Breslin column in the city newsroom of the New York Herald Tribune in 1963: "There it was, a short story, complete with symbolism, in fact, and yet true to life, as they say, about something that happened today . . .."2 The new style was prompted, he wrote, by the decline of the American novel. Deep down, journalists really wanted to be novelists, he decided, and in the late 1960s a curious new notion, just hot enough to inflame the ego, had begun to intrude in the tiny confines of the features statusphere . . . This discovery, modest at first, humble, in fact, deferential, you might say, was that it just might be possible to write journalism that would . . . read like a novel. Like a novel, if you get the picture. This was the sincerest form of homage to The Novel and to those greats, the novelists, of course.3
(lit review)He went on to defend the New Journalism against charges that it was really just made-up drivel, poorly researched and "impressionistic." It was, he insisted, based on thorough reporting: "The idea was to give the full objective description, plus something else that readers had always had to go to novels and short stories for; namely, the subjective or emotional life of the characters."4
(lit review)"Nonsense," snorted Jack Newfield a year later. The New Journalism was "nothing more profound than a lot of good writers coming along at the same time." This rush of new talent, furthermore, did not spring Zeus-like like from John Hay Whitney's banker's brow in the Trib's protean cityroom in late 1963. It appears, rather, to have crystallized at Esquire in the late 1950s, and to have been motivated by an economic desperation to compete with Playboy's sexist centerfolds, then attracting considerable advertising revenue away from Esquire. 5
(lit review)Others, who do accept that the New Journalism really was new, place its origins even earlier. Kerrane and Yagoda observe that "World War II had a salutary effect on nonfiction writing." The horrors of war, the "old formulas proving inadequate, engendered new ways of representing the world."6 John Hersey's 1946 Hiroshima, an account of the aftermath of the war-ending atomic bomb, was a perfect example.
(lit review)Norman Sims goes back yet further, to the late 1930s, and asserts that "Joseph Mitchell and several of his colleagues at The New Yorker were responsible for keeping literary journalism alive during the middle years of the twentieth century before the New Journalism burst on the American scene."7 Wolfe knew this, asserted Sims, but because of the hard feelings over Wolfe's 1965 attack on The New Yorker editor William Shawn (a nasty combination of satire and reporting that drew some vicious reprisals-the title of the New York piece says it all: "Tiny Mummies! The True Story of the Ruler of 43rd Street's Land of the Walking Dead!"), "Wolfe could not bring himself to acknowledge The New Yorker's genuine contributions."8
(lit review)But that is not, strictly speaking, true. In his essay Wolfe acknowledges Boswell, Twain, Henry Mayhew, Crane, Hersey, and Lillian Ross as "Not Half-Bad Candidates" to be credited with founding New Journalism, and concludes that "if anyone wants to maintain that the current tradition starts with The New Yorker and True, I will not contest the point."9
(lit review)Very well, then. The current tradition did start with The New Yorker, and not with the arrival of A.J. Liebling and Joseph Mitchell in the mid 1930s, but a decade earlier with Morris Markey in the publication's first months. By including Markey in his anthology of literary journalism, and by his comments elsewhere, Yagoda has acknowledged that Markey deserves a place in the history of literary journalism. (SORT OF RQ/HYPOTHESIS) This paper will explain his contribution of being one of the first to consistently employ techniques that were later more fully developed in the New Journalism.
(METHOD NOT DELINEATED – WHICH IS WEAKNESS OF THIS PAPER)
Reporter at Large
(RESULTS)Morris Markey was born in Alexandria, Va., in 1899 and attended high school in Richmond. He served in France during the war, rising to First Lieutenant. He was fired from his first post-war job, in a soap factory, and in 1922 came to New York. He found work as a reporter, first with the Newark Ledger, followed by stints at the New York Daily News, the New York Evening World, and the New York World.
(RESULTS) In 1925 World was edited by Herbert Bayard Swope who, in Yagoda's opinion, had "transformed Joseph Pulitzer's yellow sheet into a paper of estimable style and wit."10 Harold Ross had just founded The New Yorker earlier that year, promising in his famous prospectus to create a magazine that was "a reflection in word and picture of metropolitan life," definitely not "edited for the old lady in Dubuque."11 To do this he needed writers capable of interpreting news and events in a "sophisticated" style. Ross figured that Markey, whose work at World he had noticed, "possessed a writing style more graceful, even literary, than that of the usual ink-stained wretch."12 He invited Markey up to his office for a chat.
(RESULTS) Markey was "a tall, blond, affable youth of twenty-five with a background that had much in common with Ross's." 13 Markey recalled in the introduction to his first of two collections of columns, That's New York!14, which he dedicated to Ross, that he distinctly remembered what you told me, which was to be honest at whatever cost. It was entirely novel to be told such a thing. I had written for newspapers and newspaper writers can never be wholly honest, no matter what they editors say, for the reason that they can never allow themselves to be bored, or indifferent, or exerted, or angry, or to forget the caution instilled into them by the fear of violating good taste.
(RESULTS)Kunke reported that Ross "uttered the words that every young journalist longs to hear but seldom does, 'Write exactly what you see, exactly what you feel.' The young man was hooked."15 Kramer, writing some years earlier, uses a longer version of that quote, but neither Kramer nor Kunke offer attribution for it, raising the possibility that Kramer was perhaps improving Markey's own version a bit.16 By time Yagoda recounts the story, he has it down to "a simple charge: roam the city and write down what you see."17
(RESULTS) Both Kunke and Kramer describe how "the technique which Markey and Ross worked out between them was in time to strongly influence nonfiction writing, especially for magazines. Though 'Reporter [at Large]' pieces were factual, the technique of the short story was borrowed for their composition."18 They would sometimes argue, line by line, over pieces Ross had edited. "'The only thing I had a talent for,' Markey said later, 'was looking at a thing and trying to tell people exactly what I saw. Ross knew that, and I suppose he was trying to sharpen it.'"19
(RESULTS)Ross, for his part, was still trying to sort out The New Yorker style. He had originally envisioned a magazine chiefly of satire and wit, something to compete with Judge, perhaps, but with "human" feel and a "metropolitan" sophistication that would appeal to New York's upper classes. The New Yorker also tended to write about itself, what Yagoda called "reflexive commentary," and Yagoda offered the following item, undated but from the magazine's financially unstable early years, as an example:
Observed on the elevated newsstand at Forty-Second Street was The New Yorker prominently displayed between True and Snappy Stories. This, says the circulation manager, is very, very good news. Suicide Day for the sincere member of the staff has been set for next Tuesday.20
(RESULTS)Markey seems to have thrived under this "reflexive" tendency. As Yagoda noted, Markey didn't only display his emotions in his stories, he displayed himself, habitually structuring them around the act of reporting. This near-revolutionary unveiling of the traditionally invisible reporter prefigured the 'new journalists' of forty years hence.2
(STILL RESULTS INTERTWINED WITH DISCUSSION OF RESULTS AND CONCLUSION FROM HERE ON DOWN)
The result is that if one thing comes through loud and clear in Morris Markey's writing, it's Morris Markey. In the years 1925-27 he seemed, in general, contemptuous of "the masses." In a piece about an afternoon at a Yankees baseball game, "I had observed the spectacle of 55,000 people transformed from money-grubbing human animals, with bills to meet and bosses to please, into a holiday throng, with laughter in their voices and contentment in their eyes."22 In an account of a murder trial, in which the jurors were "bored and probably stupid, as most juries are,"23 he concluded that there was "no honest effort to find the truth" but "as a spectacle, an ironic spectacle full of juicy chuckles! Ah!"24 In a piece entitled "Presto! Fame!" he concludes that politics, art, religion, and literature are all moribund and so "the mob has nobody, literally, to worship except athletic prodigies."25 He concludes an account of a divorce trial, whose tawdry details were creating a sensation in New York, with the assertion that you can
curse [the tabloids] for the debauchery they practice upon the public mind, upon public taste and the esthetic tone of our nation. Or one may be amused . . . One may say, "The sight of the human herd rollicking amid the cheap and filthy is a spectacle for the amusement of the intelligent. Let us watch them build their ethos and their dreams upon the textbook of the tabloids, and chuckle deeply." But even so, one must occasionally hold his nose.26
Was this a back-hand slap at his targeted high-brow readership or pure, elitist condescension? It strikes me as the latter, possibly to be chalked up to a kind of youthful exuberance at being allowed, or rather invited, to "be honest at whatever cost." It should be also be remembered that Harold Ross edited these stories, with The New Yorker's target upper-class audience in mind, intending to create a tone of sophisticated, ironic detachment.
The condescension is even more pronounced in Markey's 1932 travelogue, suggestively titled This Country of Yours. He left The New Yorker and spent a year driving around in his Ford, "to undertake the immense impertinence of worming my way into their homes and their private thoughts, for I wanted to discover how [the common folk] live and what they live by."27 It sounds good, but within five pages he is not finding out what they think, he is arguing with them. After the superintendent of a mine near Duluth has the effrontery to tell him that, yes, his workers are satisfied, Markey writes, "I said, 'You know the country is full of fellows like you, and I never get over being amazed by it.' He wanted to know what I was talking about." After Markey berates the guy for supporting his company, the superintendent weakly responds, "Well, you have to be loyal, don't you?" "To a lot of stockholders in Pittsburgh?" responds the writer.28
This badgering interview style persists throughout the book, and would never have been recorded had not Markey possessed both a keen ear for dialogue and a complete confidence in the rightness of his own position. The book concludes with a rant against the press (there were "no more than a dozen newspapers in the country" that would not let themselves be censored by their advertisers), religion (Christianity was impotent and children are not taught morals), and the country in general ("The ideals and aims upon which this country was founded have disappeared . . .").29
But there are also times when This Country of Yours foreshadows the 1960s New Journalism more closely than it might initially seem. The New Journalism sometimes had a tone of indignation, of self-righteous anger over injustices they saw in racism, Vietnam, the Nixon administration, materialism, and other targets. Markey had that same indignation prodding him to prod is subjects into an awareness of the injustice in their lives. The Muckrakers of the early 1900s were driven by that same moral imperative, but where the Muckrakers generally kept themselves out of their stories, Markey gave the frustration in his stories a personal tone, and some of the New Journalists who came after took an intensely personal approach.
His second collection of "Reporter at Large" columns, Manhattan Reporter,30 published in 1935, shows more restraint. But his ironic detachment, which implied that he and the reader who identified with him were a cut above the common "herd," was still ubiquitous. In "Nocturne," for example, Markey and a friend literally whistle up a policeman to ask directions to a speakeasy during Prohibition. Once there, the pair (in Markey's version) use their quick wits and quicker tongues to narrowly escape being robbed. Never once in Markey's three collections of journalism is there a flash of self-depreciating humor (a telling point in a writer for a humor publication) and Harold Ross's assessment, from around 1930, seems about right: "Markey's gotten to the point where he thinks everything that happens to him is interesting."31
But from the first years of his column Markey demonstrated a flair for a style that felt literary without being stuffy or long-winded. Here is the lead from "Our Gangs":
A day or two ago an anemic youth in a fifteen dollar suit walked out of a candy store down in Delancey Street and shuffled over to stand at the curb, bending his face disconsolately upon the concrete sidewalk. He had been there about ten minutes when a crowd of men drove up behind in an automobile and killed him. They killed him rather thoroughly. Without bothering to stop the car, they poked three or four pistols through the curtains and emptied them in the general direction of the youth's back.
No pedestrians were killed, notes Markey, because everybody in the neighborhood knew that the youth was a "marked man": To preserve life, one always listens to the chatter one hears in the candy stores and the cafes. And when one discovers that Abie Cohen is about to be bumped off, one simply crosses the street whenever Abie crawls out of his tenement flat for an airing.32
In fact, Markey regularly used all four of Tom Wolfe's classic list of the characteristics of the New Journalism: scene-by-scene construction, detailed record of the dialogue, third-person point of view, and the use of status symbol details. Although seldom does a single story contain good examples of all four techniques, that may be more a reflection of the length of Markey's articles-1,500-2,500 words, compared to the 5,000 or more Wolfe's New Journalists were putting out-than any stylistic limits on his talent.
In the "Case of the Poisoned Bun," for example, Markey recreates for the reader, apparently from nothing more than police reports and his own imagination (both main characters being dead), the scene near Broadway and 104th St. He tells how a man needing $100 dollars to pay a debt went into a drugstore to buy "forty-five cents worth of cyanide": Now you see a woman named Lillian Rosenfeld-a ragamuffin woman with a soiled face-creeping out of the cellar where she lives. She walks along the street while Jellinek is in the drugstore. She has never heard of Jellinek or his hundred dollars.33
Jellinek sprinkled the cyanide on a snack he bought in an Automat, felt sick and dropped it on his table to go die in the basement because "there must not be a scene. It would not be nice to upset all those people sitting quietly at breakfast." Rosenfeld came along scavenging for food and "as he got up, went away, she saw business. Her kind of business. She was up like a hawk. Like a hawk she swooped toward the table he had left" and "grasped the half-eaten bun with the white powder spread among its poppy seeds, and went back to her perch, and munched the bun until it was all consumed." She soon toppled from her chair and died. Investigators later discovered she had $45,000 in various bank accounts.
Markey also had a nice ear for dialogue, and would sometimes offer extended quotes, frequently enlivened by his keen sense of irony:
"Come in simple faith to Jesus!" [the girl evangelist] cried, "and you will be healed. And that is not the power of mind over matter. That is not suggestion! It is the living power of Jesus, pouring through your body. It may seem strange to some of you, no doubt, that I am standing here and preaching the healing power of Jesus, and still the Devil has a hold of my throat. You ask what that means, and maybe you won't come to listen to me preach God's word. But you do come, all right!"
The Amens were accompanied by nervous laughter this time, and they redoubled in intensity when she shouted, "Choose Jesus as your physician and trust in Him!"
Another paroxysm of coughing seized her, . . ..
Wolfe felt that the primary benefit of third person point of view was to allow the writer to get into his subjects' thoughts and feelings. Most magazine journalism prior to the 1960s, he felt, failed to do this; much description was best characterized as the work of "The Literary Gentleman with a Seat in the Grandstand."34 This is largely a fair criticism of Markey, but occasionally he reached a little deeper.
"The Marlow Mystery"35 opens with the ringing of a telephone, "a trivial and slightly stupid sort of noise to be a gong of doom." Markey then sets the scene in La Tavernelle, "a dull little restaurant in Fifty-Second Street," a description qualified by the observation that "genuine tough joints have a way of appearing paralyzed with dullness to the slumming eye."
Frankie Marlow, Markey explains, is sitting "across the white cloth" with his "friends," including a boxer, a promoter, some other unsavory characters, and "Mary Seiden was Mickey of the Rendezvous, whose small dancing heels had sailed close to trouble often enough." Marlow was in trouble, we discover, with thin ice abounding on every side and every greeting from an acquaintance flavored by the narrowed eyes of a new grievance. He had borrowed money from everybody. He had appropriated money placed in his hands for dubious purposes. All of this he had bet on the races, and lost; his difficulties were complicated by the bad racing tips he had given to every friend he had.
Markey's work contains fewer items from Norman Sims' list of the characteristics of literary journalism.36 Perhaps constrained by the weekly deadlines of The New Yorker, Markey did not practice immersion reporting as later reporters would, nor does he use particularly complicated structures. Still, in Markey's tone and voice, his choice of topics and his style, he reflects what it felt like to live in New York in that period. In the end that may be a truer measure of whether a work qualifies as "literary journalism" than a perfect match with a grocery list of qualifications.
Sadly, after the publication of This Country of Yours Markey's career began to fizzle. Yagoda reports that he suffered "what turned out to be a spotty career as a Hollywood scriptwriter and freelance journalist."37 Through the 1930s he wrote occasionally for American Mercury, Harper's, and the Saturday Evening Post, and rarely for The New Yorker. He is still remembered in some Alcoholics Anonymous circles for his complimentary October, 1939, piece in Liberty magazine, possibly the group's first national exposure, called "Alcoholics and God: Is there hope for habitual drunkards? A cure that borders on the miraculous-and it works!"
In the Second World War he became a Navy correspondent, and in 1945 came out with Well Done!, a fawning account of an aircraft carrier crew in the Pacific theatre. By the late 1940s, according to the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, Markey was writing primarily for Holiday magazine, producing articles with titles like "America's Favorite Meat." His last book was a novel, Doctor Jeremiah,38 about a physician dealing with his personal and ethical dilemmas. The highest praise his publisher can come up with for the dust jacket is the fact that the American Medical Association once published an article praising his medical journalism, and that "nowadays he takes pride in the fact that he is at his desk 364 days every year. Christmas is his holiday." The photo shows him clean-shaven, dark-haired, and tending to chubbiness, with glasses slightly askew. He looks like a career bureaucrat.
When Morris Markey died on July 11, 1950, at his new home in Halifax, Va., TIME said in a brief obituary (July 24 issue) that it was the result of an "accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound." However, the Aug. 5 Publisher's Weekly added, somewhat ominously, that he was killed with a rifle bullet and that the "coroner entered an open verdict."
1 Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda, eds. The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
2 Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism (New York: Harper & Row, 1973) p. 13.
3 The New Journalism, p. 9.
4 Ibid, p. 20.
5 Jack Newfield, "Is There a New Journalism?" in The Reporter as Artist, ed. Ronald Weber (New York: Hastings House, Publishers, 1974) p. 300.
6 The Art of Fact, p. 104.
7 Norman Sims, "Joseph Mitchell and The New Yorker Nonfiction Writers" in Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, ed. Norman Sims (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990) p. 83. Thomas Kunke, Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of The New Yorker (New York: Random House, 1995), p. 300, also gives credit to the "third wave" of reporters hired in the late 1930s.
8 "Joseph Mitchell and The New Yorker Nonfiction Writers," p. 107.
9 The New Journalism, p. 46.
10 Ben Yagoda, About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made (New York: Scribner, 2000), p. 38.
11 Cited in About Town, p. 38.
12 Kunke, Genius in Disguise, p. 127.
13 Dale Kramer, Ross and The New Yorker (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1951), p. 88.
14 Morris Markey, That's New York! (New York: Macy-Masius, 1927).
15 Genius, p. 127.
16 Ross and The New Yorker, p. 88.
17 The Art of Fact, p. 93.
18 Kramer, p. 117.
19 Kramer, p. 89.
20 Yagoda, About Town, p. 47-8.
21 Ibid., 76.
22 "A Yankee Holiday," That's New York!, p. 138.
23 "The Somerville Follies," That's New York!, p. 41.
24 Ibid., p. 45.
25 Ibid., p. 94.
26 "The Blackstone Revels," That's New York! p. 29-30.
27 Morris Markey, This Country of Yours (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1932) p. viii.
28 Ibid, p. 5.
29 Ibid. p. 304-312.
30 Morris Markey, Manhattan Reporter (New York: Dodge Publishing Company, 1935).
31 Kunke, Genius in Disguise, p. 127.
32 That's New York! p. 5.
33 Manhattan Reporter, p. 141.
34 The New Journalism, p. 42.
35 Manhattan Reporter, p. 3-10.
36 Norman Sims, "The Art of Literary Journalism" in Literary Journalism (New York: Ballantine Books, 1995), p. 5.
37 Yagoda, The Art of Fact, p. 93.
38 New York: Dial Press, 1950.