The roots of narrative non-fiction

I’m leading a dialogue on the roots of nonfiction narrative as a Harvard “Wintersession” class (Wintersession being a series of mostly for-fun classes that Harvard and MIT organize during the long break between end of the Fall Semester in December and beginning of the Spring term at the end of January). We’re discussing four early examples of narrative journalism — The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois, The Shame of the Cities, by Lincoln Steffens, The History of the Standard Oil Company, by Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a reported novel.

Tarbell was a great journalist and what she did in putting together her pieces on Standard Oil is nothing short of a tour de force of reporting. Her writing could be very good, but she is a throwback in the way she covered Standard Oil. It’s like reading a Victorian morality tale, one with a clear villain but not much else. She seems to almost deliberately not use narrative techniques in these stories, though she used them in other stories, and even in her character sketch of Rockefeller, publishing in McClure’s after her book came out.  That lack of narrative provides a big reason why the full History is not in print, despite the undeniable impact of her work.
Unlike Tarbell, DuBois employed a lot of the elements of fiction in his journalism; he’s surprisingly modern in his style and in the way he structures pieces. You could almost hear the words ringing in your ears, generally the sign of a good writer. Sadly, some of his stories could probably still be reported today (20 years ago I was looking at things in Louisiana that could have come out of DuBois’s book). It was audacious at the time to argue that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line;” most whites probably didn’t see it as a problem at all. But he carries it off throughout his text.

Steffens no less audacious for saying that corruption in politics is not the fault of the politicians, it’s the fault of the people. He is not, however, as interesting to read as DuBois. Steffens has a sly voice and writes with authority, but his use of dialogue, scenes, description and even basic facts does not measure up to modern narrative writing. Reading him is like running into Montaigne on the city desk.

Sinclair’s reported novel is like three books in one. The first 15 chapters are built on his immersive stint in the packing factories. The writing is pretty good and while Jurgis Rudkus is not a deeply drawn character, he is sympathetic and believable. Most of this section could be reported and written as actual non-fiction, and indeed was received that way, though Jurgis does not exist. (A digression: I believe Sinclair created Jurgis in the stockyard as an idealized version of himself before socialism.) The second part of the novel, Jurgis’s decline and shift into the corrupt politics of Chicago, remains believable, though it feels like it was reported less from observation than from reading Steffens and other accounts of the day. The third part of the novel is a socialist Utopia based on not much more than Sinclair’s own beliefs. It can’t be reported because it doesn’t exist, and the book’s ending suffers badly for it. Worst of all, Jurgis basically disappears. Most of the other characters sound like Sinclair giving speeches (he uses an actual speech he gave as his climax). I told the students they should try to avoid Sinclair’s approach here, though he fell into a common trap: not knowing what your ending is going to be.

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