The best 20th century narrative reporting

A while back I posted about a class I taught on the origins of narrative journalism in the U.S. I said W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk was the best example of narrative reporting amongst the great journalistic works of that decade.

I’ve put together a semester-long course I’ll teach this fall at Harvard Extension School, looking decade by decade at the rise of narrative techniques in nonfiction, that is, applying fictional storytelling techniques in writing about real people and events.

I wanted to combine great journalism and great writing. Happily, I could follow New York University’s Top 100 Works of Journalism pretty closely. Of the 10 books I picked, six were on the list, and 13 readings overall. Where I deviated was mostly in the thinly represented 1920s and 1930s, and to reflect major cultural trends that weren’t overtly political, like sports and technology.

That’s Sever Hall, site of the class [image from]

Here’s the reading list:


Ida Tarbell, The History of the Standard Oil Company (selected chapters)

W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

1911-1920John Reed, Ten Days that Shook the World


Ben Hecht, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago [selections]

Edmund Wilson, The Follies [selections, collected in American Earthquake]

Grantland Rice, “The Four Horsemen”

Dorothy Thompson, I Saw Hitler! [class handout]

Edmund Wilson, American Jitters, [selections, collected in American Earthquake]

Joseph Mitchell, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon [Selections, collected in Up in The Old Hotel]


John Hersey, Hiroshima

Joseph Mitchell, McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon [Selections, collected in Up in The Old Hotel]


Lillian Ross, Picture

Joseph Mitchell, The Bottom of the Harbor, [Selection, collected in Up in The Old Hotel]


Joseph Mitchell, Joe Gould’s Secret [collected in Up in The Old Hotel]

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Tom Wolfe, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby [article]


Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail [selections]

1981-1990Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine


Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, “Trina and Trina” [article]

Sebastian Junger, The Perfect Storm

H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights

Tom Junod, “The Abortionist” [article]Hat tips: This class draws from as far back as my Introduction to the Humanities course at the University of Chicago, taught by the great Wayne Booth, may he rest in peace. I would not be teaching it if not for my Nieman year, where I looked at the Harvard course catalog and wondered why there were zero classes on reported narrative as a literary form. It percolated without my knowing in classes taught by Paige Williams and Philip Fisher, and benefited from a generous e-mail encouragement from Jill Lepore after she came to share her talents with the Niemans. My indefatigable research assistant Tamara Turse was instrumental to the development of this reading list, and my syllabus.

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