John O'Hara in Ranks

Literary Hacks
American Journalists Get Novel

By Richard Carreno
Whether they considered themselves realists, naturalists, populists, or simply 'social historians,' America's literary journalists -- or 'journo-novelists -- all share a common trait: fictional works infused with the grit, as well as the polish, of life experience. Their inspiration was diverse, played out in different forms -- drawing from the savagery of war, the intrigue of small-town familiarity, and class and worker struggles.

Almost all the journo-novelists were former journeyman reporters. As products of this hard-knocks school of writing, they believed that life's drama was best chronicled in the pages of America's big-city metros and back-water bugles. Journalism's clarion -- rooted in the profession's peculiar stylistic and structural technique -- set the stage the stage for a new literary voice. In the 20th century, writers as divergent as Ernest Hemingway, John O'Hara, and John Steinbeck to Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote honed the form.

Over the years, journo-novelists have isolated, explored, and championed some of America's greatest literary themes. Individuality, avarice, power, personal and political corruption, societal roles and success and achievement loomed large. Journo-novelists were among the first, in the United States, to probe the darker side of the human condition. Was life, journo-novelists posited -- albeit often cynically -- governed by fatalism, extententalism, or by the bleakest reality of all, cruel nihilism?

Journo-novelists favoured facts 'speaking' for themselves. Stylistically, their writing was 'tight,' or minimalist. Sentence structure was crisp and declarative, driven by precise, strong nouns and verbs. Paragraphs were short. Dialog -- fashioned after the idiom of 'real' speech -- often paced and advanced plot development. Style, structure, and themes were interlocked.

Created was a hybrid literary style that injected rudimentary journalistic tenets into otherwise basic literary forms. Literary narrative was reinforced with an eye to journalistic detail and colour. 'Word pictures' created tone, mood,and atmosphere. Dialog and dialect, supplementing characterisation and theme, often powered exposition. Narrators frequently appeared in the text via the first person. Conjoining this way, the writing structure and themes of journo-novelists offered American readers their first taste of realism as a literary genre.

The journalist to novelist is not a unique transition; the progression being common in literary coteries in many Western cultures. But US journo-novelists claimed special attention by representing some of America's most established, legendary, and finest novelists. And most successful. In its embryonic state in the 19th century, leading-lights as Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), Walt Whitman, and Stephen Crane invigourated the nascent form.

The tradition's roots run deeper, with Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) as a prominent precursor. Franklin's writing pedigree was journalistic; he first entered the field as an apprentice at The New England Courant in Boston. Franklin went on to establish his own newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette in Philadelphia.

Though never strictly a novelist, a small body of Franklin's work did indeed involve fiction. The light-hearted and homely Poor Richard's Almanack, a well-known example, was a popular favourite. More serious were Franklin's contributions to the Busy-Body Papers, essays underscoring literary technique and creating personal characterisation in a 'conceit.' In this genre, they consisted of fictional 'weekly letters.' (This expository format was influenced by Jonathan Swift; Sir Richard Steele; and Joseph Addison, founder of The Spectator in London; among other 18th century British writers who have laid claim to being the 'fathers' of the modern essay).

As modern American journalism took root in the 19th century, professional distinctions and characteristics setting fiction apart from non-fiction became increasingly more apparent. That clarity was not always evident in the work of writers who bridged the 18th and the 19th centuries. Still, Washington Irving (1783-1859), a turn-of-the-century Romanticist, heralded the transition in the two forms, subtly coupling his fictional and non-fictional narratives.

Irving quickly became his country's leading -- and most popular -- writer. As important, he was the first American writer with an international (that is, British) reputation. (In prepubescent literary circles in the new land, Old World validation, especially Britain's critical imprimatur as the established brand, was still vital).

Irving's early-career contributions to the Morning Chronicle and The Corrector were mostly satirical pieces. Around this time, Irving also collaborated with his elder brother Peter Irving (1771-1838), a New York City newspaper editor, in producing what was to become among Irving's most memorable works, Salmagundi; or, The Whim-Whams and opinions of Launcelot Langstaff, Esq., and Others.

Irving turned to the non-fiction essay later in life, prompted by travels to England, France, and Spain. Today, Irving's most enduring legacies are the comic character Diedrich Knickbocker; the hibernating Rip Van Winkle; and New York City's earliest nickname, 'Gotham.'

Soon into the new century, many of he anecdotal features of modern journalism took form. Feature articles, personality profiles, and humour essays were getting their first try-outs. Equally important, they were getting their first airing in literary forms -- in books, lectures, and in dinner speeches -- by arguably the period's greatest writer, Samuel L. Clemens (1835-1910). (Clemens first used the pseudonym 'Mark Twain' in 1863 when he was a news reporter on the Virginia City, Nevada, Territorial Enterprise).

Clemens' journalistic schooling is particularly salient in two of his most notable achievements, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Both books are episodic, rich in idiom, and in Western humour. They are also platforms for egalitarianism, populism, democracy, and social justice -- constant American literary themes.

Clemens' use of idiom in dialog consolidates and dignifies character. In the following passage, Huck, the son of the town drunk, and the slave Jim are reunited after their raft sinks.

'Why didn't you tell my Jack to fetch me here sooner, Jim?'

'Well, 'twarn't no use to 'sturb you Huck, tell we could do sumfn --but we's all right now. I ben a-buyin' pots en pans en vittles, as I got a chanst, en a-patchin' up de raf' nights when -- '

'What raft, Jim?'

'Our ole raf'.'

'You mean to say our old raft warn't smashed all to flinders?'

Clemens clung to his journalistic roots. Throughout his life, he was a chronicler of his times. He observed. He detailed. (Because of such observations and details, Clemens' works are often referenced by historians). Clemens never feared recording his highly idiosyncratic impressions in print.

In San Francisco, Clemens came to know Bret Harte (136-1902), whose 'The Luck of Roaring Camp' had already catapulted him to national renown. (The short story appeared in Overland Monthly, which Harte was editing at the time). Harte had moved to San Francisco from his native Albany, New York, in 1854, and he quickly developed local fame as a journalist for the Golden Eye and the Californian. Thanks to his fiction, Harte bears the coveted title as founder of the American Western genre.

Ohio native Ambrose Bierce ((1842-1914?) also carved out a successful journalistic career in the Far West. Unlike many journo-novelists, Bierce never dedicated himself exclusively to fiction. Returning to northern California in 1876 after a four-year stay in England, Bierce joined the staff of the Examiner in San Francisco. Then, and in the future, as a Washington-based correspondent for Hearst-owned newspapers (the Examiner being one), Bierce juggled a dual career as reporter and author.

Despite strong Western representation in the field, Eastern writers such as Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen Crane were also making their mark as journo-novelists. Unlike the Western regionalists, the Eastern writers were neither humourists, nor myth-tellers. Crane's major novel, The Red Badge of Courage, is emblematic; a work of brutal realism that turned the Romantic notion of war on its head.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), a perennial in the top tier of American poets, had a varied career as a journalist, first editing the Long Islander and later overseeing two of his hometown's most important newspapers, the Brooklyn Eagle and the Brooklyn Times. Whitman was sensitive to mystical experiences, and he was not loath to instill his erudition in his greatest work, Leaves of Grass.

As the United States expanded west -- its 'Manifest Destiny' now put the country's population at nearly 40 million -- Whitman spoke of the Common Man who was settling the vast expanses. Whitman's Everyman was uniquely conditioned; his mettle tested by the developing notions, mythologised in the culture of the brash American experience, of rugged individualism and democracy for all. These virtues are celebrated in 'Song of Myself.'

Whitman also understood something about modern promotional techniques. Whitman's poetry was wide published and praised -- often, not surprisingly in the very newspapers he edited.

The designation of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) as a horror writer and as a pioneer in mastering the modern detective story is well known. His novellas and short stories, including 'The Purloined Letter;' 'The Cask of Amontillado;' 'The Masque of the Red Death;' and 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' are classics of macabre, and were mostly written while the author was toiling at Philadelphia and New York newspapers.

In the West, Bierce and Hart were avid readers of Poe's works, and their own writing was influenced by Poe's Gothic Romanticism. (True, often leavened by stark realism, as well). Poe's personal anguish (he was a hopeless drunk) enveloped his work. His last words captured his despair . 'My best friend would be the man who blow my brains out with a pistol.'

Stephen Crane (1871-1900) pushed the boundaries of new realism the farthest. Clemens and Whitman were instrumental in introducing the form. Crane established it as a fixture in modern fiction. As important, the canon of these new realists, from Clemens to Crane, resonated for the first time with a truly authentic American voice. Even spelling became 'Americanised,' buttressing the portrayal of American speech patterns with a new orthographic landscape. (Nineteenth-century lexicographer Noah Webster, an advocate of 'American' spelling, beat out fellow philologist Joseph E. Worcester, a strict constructionist, in the 'dictionary wars' of the time).

After stints at the New York Herald and the New York Tribune, Crane captured his first book, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, the coarse reality of New York street-life. Could the lurid truth of the story, which Crane witnessed first-hand as reporter, have been the stuff of journalistic expose? Perhaps. Yet the young author discovered that such reality, even masked as a novel, did not excite publishers about its commercial appeal. Crane wound up publishing Maggie himself.

Crane's Red Badge of Courage, the era's best example of literary realism, was not born from the author's personal experience. Crane had never been to war, nor, at the time, reported as a war correspondent. Still, Red Badge showcased war's ferocity like no other work of the period. America's divisive Civil War established a setting in which Crane examined behaviour -- be it noble or putatively cowardly -- as determined by external stress. Crane's 'Everyman' is a hapless infantryman. With sharp description and detail, encased in simple, declarative sentences -- journalistic structure at its best -- Crane is terse, vivid, and cuts to the bone. Consider the following:

'The din in front swelled to a tremendous chorus. The youth and his fellows were frozen to silence. They could see flag that tossed in the smoke angrily. Near it were the blurred and agitated forms of troops. There came a turbulent stream of men across the fields. A battery changing position at a frantic gallop scattered stragglers right and left.'

Crane experimented with another literary form, symbolism. He also shrouded his work with an overt pessimism rooted in, essentially, his fatalistic view of life. Crane's mature work pushed realism over the edge to primitive naturalism. In the struggle between Man and Nature, Crane argued forcibly in the short story, 'The Open Boat,' Nature always vanquishes.

Crane foreshadowed the 'moderns,' early 20th-century figures like Ernest Hemingway and James T. Farrell to authors such as James Jones and Norman Mailer, authors who were prominent in the century's later half. Realism and its variants were quick to make an indelible impression on these modern journo-novelists.

Like Bierce, Crane never gave up on journalism as a livelihood. Late in short life, he served as a war correspondent in Greece and Cuba. 'The Open Boat' had its genesis in the sinking of the Commodore in Cuban waters. Active Service, a satirical novel, was based on Crane's exploits during the Greco-Turkish War.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the population of the United States soared by 35 million. By 1900, the country was populated by more than 75 million. In that expansionist climate of Manifest Destiny, American literature entered a new phase, at its most robust -- and raw.

Many of the new century's most influential authors -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner (in the first half) and John Updike and John Cheever (in the latter half) -- broke away from the tradition of journeymen journo-novelists. These writers had little or no prior journalism experience. Other prominent authors of the period, in keeping with the now firmly-established pathway to success, had worked their way up from their hack roots. Eastern and Hollywood regionalist John O'Hara and Chicago playwright Ben Hecht had extensive knowledge of the reporting field -- but their permanent stamp on American literature was marginalised by their work's limited conceptual scope.

Awakening in the 20th century was America's ethnic voice. Catholics and Jews joined the literary fray for the first time in representative numbers. In the 19th century, there as little tradition of ethnics -- more to the point, minorities --crossing from journalism to literature. Black anti-slavery advocates Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington were always journalists first and biographers, second. Conversely, the singularly prominent 19th-century female author Harriet Beecher Stowe, largely known today for her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, was first and foremost an anti-slavery propagandist.

Few African-American 'cross-over' writers emerged in the next century. Key black literary figures in the century's first half such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin never plied the newspaper trade. In the second half, nor did such eminent writers as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. African-American exclusion from mainstream journalism was the result of racism, and racial minorities, if they worked in the business at all, worked for back-staffed newspapers.

Early in the 20th century, merging artistic circumspection paralleled a growing political introspection -- part of America's trenchant, lingering flirtation with Isolationism. In the mid-West, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, Carl Sandburg, and Vachel Lindsay bloomed within the 'Chicago Renaissance,' a movement that cast a gimlet eye on the putative virtues of small-town America.

For the most part, the era's journo-novelists were influenced by more cosmopolitan forces. The Great War dispirited many of the brightest young writers. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, among them. From her Paris salon, Gertrude Stein, who multi-tasked as author, playwright, and poet, famously branded US expatriate writers -- forlorn by America's inward-looking parochialism -- as the 'Lost Generation.' In Paris, far from American hamlets, it was said, literary themes could be more expansive and universal. As important, the received truth of the American status quo could be freely challenged.

In America, John Steinbeck, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser invited readers to recast their thinking about social justice. James T. Farrell, a one-time reporter, uncovered the tenderloin of Chicago's Southside ethnic slums. Erstwhile Chicago Daily News editor Ben Hecht (1894-1964) took a more romantic, sentimental turn, as evidenced in the play The Front Page, co-written with Charles MacArthur.

In New York, post-World War I journo-novelists found more urbane, accommodating surroundings by feasting at the literary table d'hote of the Algonquin Hotel. The Algonquin 'Roundtable,' as the salon was known, was a figurative place, as well as a restaurant dining table where some of New York's literary lions chowed down and tossed bon mots like so many bons bons. These merry wits included Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott, as well as other New Yorker luminaries such as former journalists E.B. White and James Thurber (1894-1961).

As a reporter, Thurber learned his lessons well. Once a desk editor, dissatisfied with a 'lead' Thurber had produced, opined that the story's introduction should be more dramatic. Thurber was accommodating: 'Dead. That's what the man was when they found him with a knife in his back at 4 P.M. in front of Riley's Saloon at the corner of 52nd and 12th streets.'

One of The New Yorker's most prolific contributors was John O'Hara (1905-1970), a gifted former reporter from Pennsylvania whose journalistic training provided the groundwork for his enormously successful career as a novelist, short-story writer, and as a playwright More 'social historian' than realist, O'Hara filtered his fiction through an unswerving loyalty to fact. Like Clemens, O'Hara's use of precise idiom in dialog created life-like characters. His gentry were characterised by manners and appearance. Such signposts as a Yale education, a Pierce-Arrow automobile, or a Brooks Brothers suit were telling symbols of class and position. For frequent O'Hara readers, no glossary was required.

In The Ewings, two of O'Hara's characters measure the merits of university fraternities, another yardstick of status.

'A Psi U is a Psi U. They're all alike. They're as bad as the Betas.... A girl's reputation is safe with them....'

'Oh, you hear the same thing about any fraternity,' said Edna.

'But mostly about the Psi U's and the Betas.'

'You hear it about the Kappa Sigs and the Phi Gams,' said Edna.

In later years, O'Hara returned to journalism for the 'quick fix,' exercising his wit and wicked tongue -- largely to assert a growing conservative outlook on life -- as a newspaper columnist for Newsday and the Trenton Times, a paper nearby to his home in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ring Lardner (1885-1933) followed a notable career as a sports writer at the Chicago Tribune, becoming, after a move to New York, first a short-story writer and, despite native Michigan roots, second, a regular laugh-riot at the Roundtable. His 'trade,' as Lardner referred to his writing, was taking cynical, ironic potshots at the banal lives of 'ordinary' people.

Two major movements shattered America's literary consciousness after World War II. The 'Beat Generation,' in the 1950's, with twinned epicentres in New York and San Francisco, injected a bohemian upheaval, unraveling accepted notions of form, as well as content. The 'Beats' cast a broad net, encompassing poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and other such leading lights such as Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller, and William S. Borroughs.

Norman Mailer (1923-) -- at best, with tenuous credentials as a member of the movement -- agitated within journalistic circles. Mailer was co-founder of The Village Voice, the New York weekly that for many years was the gold-standard of the alternative press. Mailer's turned to fiction -- albeit, realistic, autobiographical fiction -- in his own work, as was the case with his block-buster debut novel The Naked and the Dead.

In the 1960s, Mailer experimented with a form of 'fictionalised' non-fiction. (Marilyn, about the late movie queen Marilyn Monroe, and The Executioner's Song, about capital punishment, are early examples). Mailer inaugurated this new wave with an unlikely cohort, Truman Capote (1921-1984), a New Yorker writer and the celebrated author of the frothy novella, Breakfast at Tiffany's.

In contrast to Mailer's macho swagger was Capote's gay swish. Despite this counterpoint, both men pioneered what was to become, in the 1960s, the 20th century's second post-War movement, 'New Journalism.' Its seminal work was Capote's In Cold Blood, a blood-curdling tale of murder on a Kansas farm.

New Journalism sparked the imagination of 1960s writers. The form turned on its head the technique that journo-novelists had previously known. Rather than investing their fiction with journalistic method, New Journalists fueled their non-fiction with literary craft. Most important, they created an omniscient eye for observation and internal psycho-drama for motivation. Mailer's work of fiction about the Central Intelligence Agency, Harlot's Ghost, features a four-page bibliography.

At the New York Herald Tribune, reporters Tom Wolfe (1930-) and Jimmy Breslin (1930-) were particularly smitten. Pete Hamill (1935-), another New York newspaperman, also came under the spell. As these and other reporters moved to fiction, they remained indebted to New Journalism as a playpen for form.

Twentieth-century writers were also indebted to arguably the most potent force of their lifetimes -- not a movement, but an author among them. The work of Ernest Hemingway (1898-1961) cast a long shadow, and Mailer, Hamill, and Breslin felt the defining heat as acolytes. As a journo-novelist, Hemingway's enduring legacy has never been surer. Of all modern American writers, his work maintains a dominant place in the national consciousness.

Hemingway was a purist in form. The works of no other journo-novelist embodied the structural tenets of literary journalism as did those by Hemingway. Despite world-wide adulation and acclaim for his fiction, the Nobel laureate never abandoned pure journalism as a channel of communication.

In the early stages of his career, Hemingway's livelihood depended on handouts for work his undertook from the Toronto Star Weekly and the Toronto Daily Star. As a mature author, Hemingway continued reporting for Esquire and the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA) syndicate. Like his fiction, his reporting was fact-based, gritty, and concise. Themes of realism, extententalism, and nihilism emerged in both forms. Hemingway wrote of war as novelist.

Like his artistic forebear Stephen Crane -- the bloodline is uninterrupted -- Hemingway was an enthusiastic war correspondent, covering he Spanish Civil War and World War II. Consider the following passages. One is fiction; the other a reporter's despatch.

  • 'Sometimes in the dark we heard the troops marching under he window and the guns going past pulled by motor-tractors. There was much traffic at night and many mules on the roads with boxes of ammunition on each side of their pack-saddles and grey motor-trucks that carried men, and other trucks with loads covered with canvas that moved slower in the traffic.'

  • '...[T]he noise came as a heavy coughing grunt from the green pine-studded hillside opposite. There was only a gray wisp of smoke to mark in the insurgent battery position. Then came the high inrushing sound, like the ripping of a bale of silk. It was all going well over the town, so, out there, nobody cared.'
The first passage is from A Farewell to Arms. The second, a NANA despatch filed by Hemingway 11 April 1937 from Madrid.

(The above, in a slightly different form from that which was originally commissioned in 1999, is appearing here, on the Web, for the first time).

No comments: