Where today’s nonfiction greats got their start

During my Nieman year (2010-2011) I was surprised to see that there was not a single Harvard course on the literature of the real – narrative nonfiction. The English department had scores of classes about various aspects of novels, plays, musicals and so on, but nothing on the art form as expressed in long-form nonfiction.

Perhaps the medium is seen as entirely derivative, a lesser art than that practiced by novelists. But I was perplexed, and e-mailed Jill Lepore, who teaches history and literature at Harvard and still manages to write for The New Yorker, this question:

I had meant to ask you why Harvard doesn’t seem to offer courses built around narrative non-fiction. One can take plenty of classes on the great fiction of various eras, on poetry, and on creative nonfiction writing. But there doesn’t seem to be a course on oh, from Riis to Junger or some such thing. This kind of powerful nonfiction story-telling seems uniquely American and certainly since the Modernists has taken the mantle of American story-telling from novelists. That was happening when you and I were in college and it’s only gotten more pronounced. It puzzles me that the novel remains ascendant in the academy.

She graciously wrote back and said it was a fantastic question, and maybe she should develop such a course. She asked me what five books I’d pick.

Five books!?

Goodness. I was stymied in part because I didn’t know where to start. I hadn’t read Riis, or Ida Tarbell or Lincoln Steffens or any of the early giants of journalism. So I started reading.

Late last year, I had lunch with Daniel Gross, a Harvard student I’d met in class and remained in touch with. Daniel asked me if I I’d be interested in teaching a Wintersession class on some aspect of journalism. “How about the beginnings of narrative non-fiction?”  I replied.

That turned into The Roots of Narrative Nonfiction, a course I led last week with 10 undergraduates. We read four works from the first decade of the 20th century, Tarbell’s History of Standard Oil (the shorter edition, about a quarter of the 900-page original), Steffens’ The Shame of the Cities, DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a reported novel. I picked Sinclair as a stylistic contrast, someone deliberately writing a story that combined reporting with fictional techniques. The other three I picked because of their legendary status and their presence in the top 13 most important works in the history of  20th century journalism, as established by New York University.

I told the class that I believed these works would ground them in some of the best journalistic writing at the beginning of the 20th century, and in some of the highest-impact reporting of all time. From these works, I asserted, nonfiction, reporting-driven narratives grew into an art form on par with the novel, and can be studied as such. Why did they all emerge in this period?

Many factors drove the rise of great journalism, not least need. It was a period of huge change in the U.S., one where the national identity was changing. By 1900, America had the highest standard of living in the world, and the biggest economy – producing nearly 24 percent of the world’s industrial output. For all that, three in five Americans still lived in “Our Town,” places with less than 2,500 people, and few had electricity, plumbing or high school educations. Media was, as it had been for hundreds of years, limited to paper. There were 8,000 cars across a population of 76 million. But society was expectant. People were migrating to cities, and thought they would get electricity and plumbing and the like, very soon. [Some facts and figures from the list at this link]
Society is turbulent, our capitalism claw-and-tooth, rapid technological change all around, and a growing middle class plus the promise of better life brought scores of people to the U.S., 1 to 2 million immigrants a year throughout the first decade of the 20th century. Many of them find disappointment – something like one-third of the people who immigrate to the U.S. end up leaving and going back to their home countries. Before they fail, many of them are involved in strikes and protests against the Trusts, large cartels that dominate American industry. Society is restless, and changing – the U.S. has the world’s highest divorce rate, a scandalous 1 in 7.

Politics filled with bitterness — the Populist movement had crested, and William Jennings Bryan again lost the Presidency to William McKinley, who would be shot a year later, putting Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. Darwinian evolution has gained prominence in social discourse, forty-one years after The Origin of Species was published, and the human genius (or weakness) for analogous reasoning means Darwin’s ideas have mutated into Social Darwinism.

The rise of new technologies, industrial success and evolutionary theory also created a new approach to writing, Modernism. The stark prose of Jack London and other writers break with the Victorian ideals of storytelling – people no longer wrestle against themselves and others, but against unseen forces against which we often have no real chance.

Against this backdrop, we examined our four authors. All of them helped define what America should be. All of them present certain challenges for the modern reader.

Tarbell deliberately did not try to write stories that emulated fiction. She did not consider herself a good enough writer to be a novelist (and at least one of her biographers, Steve Weinberg, author of Taking on the Trust, agrees with her). I drew on Steve’s book, a dual biography of Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, in teaching. Steve bemoaned that so few people today read Tarbell. There’s a reason why: she’s hard to read. Her prose is stuffed with references to documents and court cases and a bewildering array of people – there is a central villain, but no similar person against him. She’s also writing a Victorian morality play; her prose represents a holdover from the earlier era.

I told the class to remember that she started out writing a three-part series, and was such a sensation that her employer, McClure’s magazine, spun it into its ultimate elephantine 19 parts. I also told them to pay attention to how she built a damning case against a widely admired man who was Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates rolled into one, and did it after 30 years of other people failing to do so. To do so, especially as someone whose family had been affected by Standard Oil’s predatory practices, she needed to adopt a deliberately dispassionate voice. (we also read her character study of Rockefeller, published after her articles had been organized into a best-selling book, and discussed the power of the piece abut how it also undermined her credibility through its personal attacks on Rockefeller). I can only speculate on how she might have done this piece had she been forced to stick to three chapters.

Steffens might have been the Hendrik Hertzberg of his day, but his prose does not flow nearly so well to the modern reader. It’s frustrating – he has a powerful voice, uses sly asides to build rapport with his audience and clearly is a keen observer of politicians and political life. He also appears to have done the reporting he needs to do to spin in dialogue and scenes that would drive us through his narrative. But he almost never uses dialogue and when he does it often feels made up. I told the students to pay special attention to his audacity in telling his readers that politicians are only corrupt when they can get away with it. They reflect us. That kind of bold framing rips apart stereotypes in a way that any journalist should strive for.

Incidentally, both Tarbell and Steffens are publishing their works in McClure’s a magazine juggernaut of the day. I gave the students as background a draft chapter of Dean Starkman’s forthcoming The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, putting McClure’s and its new-fangled investigative journalism in context. Based on their reaction to this chapter, his book is going to be a valuable one to read.

Tarbell and Steffens remain in print only through Dover. Sinclair and DuBois are still in print from multiple publishers. Their writing is a big reason why.
Upton Sinclair sets out to write a novel based on seven weeks of immersion reporting – he embedded himself in Chicago’s Stockyards, working in the factories there. His writing moves us, not from his skill as much as the power of his reporting. The class didn’t think it agreed with me that the main character, Jurgis Rudkus, represents an idealized pre-Socialist version of Sinclair, but they found him compelling at the start. Sinclair loses his authority, his way, and our interest as he gets further from his reporting. It’s gripping work for 15 chapters, but then descends into a common serialized soap opera for the next 17 or so, and in the last four becomes a kind of Socialist utopian propaganda tract. A writer with the gifts of Fitzgerald or Nabokov can be read simply for the beauty of their prose; Sinclair could not. His work depended on his reporting. He complained that he aimed for people’s hearts and hit them in their stomachs. Some of it had to do with what he reported, and what he couldn’t. Some of it had to do with his ultimate aim — people’s heads. It gave us a powerful lesson in the value of reporting, no matter what genre you work in.

W.E.B. DuBois uses Biblical references and classical allusions in a way that meant something to readers of his day but is lost on modern readers. Otherwise, he is surprisingly modern. He has a clear story arc. He uses a variety of narrative techniques, including scenes, analysis, vignettes, and even allegory. He combines it all to create a compelling narrative. He, of the four authors we examined, breaks the mold of what came before, and points the way to where nonfiction is going. Thus I have the beginnings of an answer for Jill Lepore: start with DuBois.

Though they don’t always use them, the elements of modern immersive reporting exist in all four of these works. These writers point the way towards the richly detailed, wildly varied approaches to nonfiction narrative we are blessed with today.

A coda: I told the class that while America on the surface looks very different than it did in 1900, similar forces are at play. They are living through massive technological change. Where our ancestors looked forward to electricity, plumbing and cars, we will soon have our DNA in our wallets, micro-arrays that will automatically balance our brain chemistry for optimal performance in school and work and houses that will combine simple robots and digital technology to provide us with residential servants. We also have our maverick political ideology, not Populism driven from the heartlands but a techno-determinist Libertarianism that comes from secondary cities on the coasts.

Perhaps these students will help define our new America, in stories that push the boundaries of reported narrative.

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