Skip to main content

A Girl Like You

The Other New Journalists

ISSUE:  Fall 2018

<em>Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion</em>. By Michelle Dean. Grove Press, 2018. 384p. HB, $26.</p><em>Love and Ruin</em>. By Paula McLain. Ballentine Books, 2018. 400p. HB, $28.</p><em>The Stories We Tell: Classic True Tales by America's Greatest Women Journalists</em>. Ed. by Patsy Sims. The Sager Group, 2017. 408p. PB, $27.95.</p>

In his introduction to the first New Journalism collection, published in 1973, Tom Wolfe lists a handful of reporters from the 1930s and ’40s as “Not Half-Bad Candidates” for the title of progenitors of the form, including John Hersey, A. J. Liebling, and George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway’s reportage from Europe. Subsequent anthologies and textbooks on twentieth-century literary journalism mostly agree—including, from the stacks I’d been browsing, The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, a family tree sort of account of “the new journalism revolution; the herculean anthology The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism; and True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism, which essentially unpacks the historical context for this writing.

I found these books while looking for a few women writers who, for the most part, aren’t included in them—roving journalists and foreign correspondents whose magazine bylines ran alongside the Not Half-Bad Candidates. In the prodigious output of Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, Emily Hahn, Virginia Cowles, and Dorothy Thompson—women whose work chronicled everything from the rise of the German Nazi party to the Central American civil wars of the 1980s—one senses an exuberant rebuke to the tedious story of women on the edges of literature and journalism alike, to the “girl reporters” in Vietnam whose scoops often went unacknowledged, to the dispiriting pie charts in annual VIDA counts, to Nieman Foundation reports on waning numbers of women atop mastheads. In their day, these women enjoyed large followings in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, the New Republic, and other mainstream publications. And yet, among the stack of books I found on twentieth-century literary journalism, I noticed only a brief mention of West and Gellhorn, with no trace of the others.

These women had written as New Journalists, more or less: as a persona, subjective and interesting, shaping reported information often acquired via full immersion. They had filed stories from around the globe during and between the First and Second World Wars; most kept at it for careers that lasted into the 1960s and ’70s, as Wolfe was crediting himself with the “discovery that it was possible in non-fiction, in journalism, to use any literary device.” Reading that introduction today, the authority he claims feels quaintly grandiose. Wolfe, as various pieces written after his death this year have noted, was a capable self-promoter. Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, Joan Didion, Truman Capote—they were all doing the same thing at more or less the same time, and their writing is included in that first collection. And yet the predecessors Wolfe named are those that are still recycled in anthologies and histories, on syllabi and in criticism. Wolfe’s assertion of the history of the genre has gone largely unchallenged in these nearly fifty intervening years.

West and Gellhorn have been somewhat popular recently, appearing as central and ancillary characters in books of history, literary travelogue, and criticism, as well as in an HBO movie and a forthcoming teen graphic novel. Whatever the format, they are nearly always assessed in proximity to either their lovers or other women writers. In Gellhorn’s case, she serves as the second ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway to narrate a novel about him by bestselling author Paula McLain. West, meanwhile, is a central figure in Michelle Dean’s group biography Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion. As for their female contemporaries (never mind their journalistic heirs who practiced after the 1940s), their absence from these collections provokes a different question: When do anthologies and textbooks publish the writing of women journalists at all?

Looking closer at their contents, a pattern emerges. A woman’s writing, in the form of longform reporting, is most often included when the subject is men, or when a reporter is covering conflict, as Gellhorn made a career of doing, where the fact of her role as a journalist in wartime, in a table of contents otherwise populated by men, raises the stale old question, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” More troublesome yet, her writing is included when her gender and race are essential to her reporting—Rosemary Mahoney’s writing on the changing social and sexual mores of Irish women, say, or African American reporter and editor Marvel Cooke going undercover among underpaid domestic workers in Jim Crow–era New York. 

Call the genre “creative nonfiction” and you find a few more inclusions of pieces written by women. Insert “travel” anywhere into search terms and that, too, increases the gender diversity of contributors, though not by much. The fact remains that in journalism—literary or not—women of all eras, no matter their popularity at their time of publication, are isolated and minimized by history’s retelling. 

I fell for West’s fiction and nonfiction—for what Dean describes as “her painterly, chatty way”— a few years ago, and then admired her more for the figure she cut. To me, she was like a patron saint, her travels and reporting unimpeded by her gender, her writing unconstrained by genre. I came to Gellhorn later, mostly because I’d only really heard of her as Hemingway’s third wife—enough for me to look past her as secondary to his genius. When I read her writing—her straightforward sensitivity to human need in wartime, her morally unflinching reportage—that elision felt like a betrayal. She’d feared being subsumed beneath the enormity of Hemingway’s persona and literary oeuvre, and that’s more or less what’s happened. 

I found different but equally instructive skills in each woman’s work, and in the work of other writers they led me to. In West I admired the immediacy of her characters, and how she could tell a reported story and a chunk of history with the same intimacy. Her generalizations and volubility that became monologue—that much I could do without. But her layering of the historical, journalistic, and subjective was (and remains) technically thrilling. Meanwhile, from Gellhorn’s writing I took the lesson of how to charge telling details with anger and compassion, of how an interaction with characters can reveal as much about the writer as her subjects. Her writing, in turn, led me to Vermont-born debutante Virginia Cowles, who reported alongside Gellhorn during the Spanish Civil War, and whose accounts of the war are, from the start, framed by her gender and what others make of it. Cowles, one of very few journalists to report from both sides of that conflict, called her reportorial strategy “looking for trouble”—a phrase she used for the title of her autobiography, which she stitched together using those and other pieces. Emily Hahn, too, was undaunted by risk. Her writing delicately animates international dispatches with underlying forces of gender, family, love. Her scenes can imply weighty thoughts and emotions and, at the same time, read lightly. As writing of the same era by Hemingway, Orwell, E. E. Cummings, and Somerset Maugham defies strict genre classification, so does the magazine reportage of Gellhorn, Hahn, and the others. 

In their writing, these women deploy the subjective narrative techniques of New Journalism with more subtlety than some of Norman Mailer’s near-incomprehensible stream-of-
consciousness or Wolfe’s whizbang tone. The writer is there, but so is the subject. In their biographies, one finds something different. They spent lives roaming and reporting as women writers, not wives (even if many were, in fact, married). In both the act of writing and in the work they produced, they blew past the expectations of their gender with panache. In their life stories, we see a charted course. 

It’s cheap and easy to link a writer’s personal life with her public or artistic persona. Dean avoids this conflation in Sharp by carefully blending biography, literary criticism, and cultural history. Her focus is a predictable group of mostly New York–based women critics of the relatively recent past, women with public personas united by a certain openly challenging attitude. She draws meaningful contrasts, deftly walks around things she can’t know, stays in the concrete. 

I understand why. Projection fuels a pseudo-
historical fiction like Love and Ruin, inserting an often diffident, uncertain Martha Gellhorn into the hands of American readers that looks little like the strong-minded, clear-eyed, vaguely manipulative woman I’ve found in her letters. Gellhorn’s biographer, Caroline Moorhead, noted a light thread of “loneliness, self-doubt, and sense of failure” running through her letters, stronger at the end, looking back. Love and Ruin implies that Gellhorn must have faced the shaping of her extraordinary life with insecurity from the start. 

And still, when I began to read these women, I felt a stark sense of relief. In Hahn’s writing I saw an empowering precedent for so much of what I’ve wanted to do as a writer and reporter. Where many have framed Gellhorn’s tendency to make and then leave homes in various countries as “abandonment,” I recognized the act of setting up a house as a shortcut to understanding the inner mechanics of an unfamiliar place. I respected Cowles’s determination to report on the regions and conflicts of great consequence of her time, even how she leveraged her social connections to get key access and interviews. These particular women wrote from within common tensions between wanderlust and safety, individualism and family, career and gendered constraints. They seem to have fully inhabited their impulse to roam. 

To me this makes them magnetic, a resource for instruction not only on writing but on living as a restless woman. My own restlessness is a value, one that shares equal importance with home and family, though it doesn’t necessarily exist in relation to them. I never expected to be cured of restlessness by finding a spouse or having children, and it does not increase or decrease as my commitments wax and wane. It has always existed. 

Women journalists have long been isolated and diminished—considered outliers, separate from a broader intellectual context, which is what Sharp pushes heartily against; or considered ancillary to men, which is really what propels the plot of Love and Ruin, for even when McLain’s Gellhorn chooses her career or independence, it is nearly always in relation or reaction to Hemingway. In both cases, travel usually shades into an emotional rather than an intellectual urge. McLain’s Gellhorn travels as a way to escape the constraints of an increasingly recriminatory marriage to a man who can’t fathom her intellectual or professional ambitions. And Dean writes that West went to Spain for a month to “recover her senses” after her first heartache over writer H. G. Wells, with whom she would eventually have a son. 

Nineteen-year-old West, as Dean details, wrote an agonized letter to Wells from Spain; she also wrote a suicide-fantasy short story, published in the New Freewoman, in which a terse Spanish doctor treats her narrator for a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Of his hostility, West wrote, sweepingly, “it may be that he was consumed by the anger that burns in many men when they see a woman experiencing any emotion with intensity.” Dean’s phrasing may well be correct; West may have needed to recover her senses. But maybe West’s impulse to get out of town was born of sheer restlessness, cloaked in the language of emotional need because it’s the surest way to evade too many questions. Maybe “emotional need” is a way for women to frame restlessness as something more comprehensible to men—to get what we want without having to make far more complex demands of autonomy and respect. To not have to ask, essentially, that the culture at large disentangle the act of staying in one place from notions of womanly duty. It seems to me that travel for any writer is usually an attempt to find invigoration through the unfamiliar, something strange to take in, a fresh context for reflection—to write outside of one’s own experience and spark the inquiry that is central to all reporting. 

Over and over, as I’ve read about these women, I’ve stumbled across the broad tendency to understand a restless woman through either a relationship with a man that ostensibly drives her travel, or through “feminine” emotions like insecurity, sadness, or doubt. In reality, ambition, caginess, intellectual curiosity, and sheer daring pervade the biographies of each of these women. Of a 1942 trip, lackluster in every way but the exhilaration of wandering, Gellhorn wrote, “My heart rose like a bird at once. It always did incurably, except in rain, as soon as I felt I had fallen off the map.” West, too, makes a strong case for travel as an intellectual compulsion throughout much of her writing. “I had come to Yugoslavia to see what history meant in flesh and blood,” she wrote in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon. Whether she was truly compelled to travel by thought or emotion remains a mystery. 

West and Gellhorn knew and admired each other in print and in person. In 1983, West wrote a letter to Gellhorn explaining why she disliked one of Gellhorn’s closest friends. “But please let me see more of you,” she wrote, “who are my idea of a perfect woman.” Gellhorn and Cowles traveled together and cowrote a play. West and Dorothy Thompson—who so infuriated Adolf Hitler that she was the first American correspondent expelled from Germany in 1934, whose brilliant 1941 Harper’s piece “Who Goes Nazi?” should be required reading today—were friends. Gellhorn looked Hahn up when she went on a reporting trip to Shanghai. If they were not all close, they formed a professional community, a mutual admiration society unbroken by the balkanization of being outnumbered in their field. 

Gellhorn, West, and Thompson have remained somewhat in the public conversation, perhaps aided by partnerships with famous male writers. Cowles’s and Hahn’s names are often mentioned, when they are mentioned at all, in conjunction with the adjectives “forgotten” or “little-known.” Despite writing fifty-two books and 181 New Yorker pieces over eight decades, filing from all continents, Hahn is today considered something of a literary afterthought. She “was always busy writing, or moving on,” Roger Angell wrote in her obituary, in 1997, describing her as “something rare: a woman deeply, almost domestically, at home in the world.” Adam Hochschild, who wrote about Cowles in his recent book on Americans in the Spanish Civil War, Spain in Our Hearts, has called her “the best English-language journalist on the scene…she wrote beautifully, and didn’t miss anything.” 

And still, most reviewers of Hochschild’s book applauded his fresh portraits of Orwell and Hemingway without mention of the many other figures he brings to light. The result is that a whole cadre of men whose careers teach me exactly nothing about my own have dominated the public sphere while their female peers flew beneath history’s radar—reporting, writing, publishing, moving on. 

I’ve never been to war, like Gellhorn—or Gloria Emerson, Janine di Giovanni, and many other journalists whose gender, especially in religious regions, may have granted them access to scenes that a male journalist couldn’t possibly see. That my own experiences as a reporter have felt only minimally gendered should denote its generally innocuous subjects.

Similar as the experiences of reporting may be, publishing reveals deeper differences. I stopped glancing at any and all online comments after publishing a piece about a group of young, mostly male punk rockers in Havana; too many readers had commented that if I was so interested in the boys, I must certainly have fellated them on the Malecón afterward (the specificity of these comments was startling). An essay profiling a young female sex worker in the same city (originally published in this magazine) was anthologized, but when the book on youth culture in Cuba—from which I’d drawn both pieces—came out, I received the same comment from more readers than I can count, all women: How I must have worried my family, slipping into such dicey situations! 

“I won’t be here to witness it, but won’t it be a fine day when [an] anthology specifically focused on women journalists won’t make any sense?” Adrian Nicole LeBlanc asks in a jacket blurb for The Stories We Tell: Classic True Tales by America’s Greatest Women Journalists. Really, I wish the stories would be included in a broader book, perhaps adding to the seven women authors included in The Art of Fact. In her review of 2005’s Journalistas, which, as far as I can tell, is the first anthology of journalism by women, Jill Abramson covered the reasons for skepticism of a book of reporting by women: the air of duty, the insult of seclusion, the implicit support for the dubious claim that women and men write differently. 

Editor and reporter Patsy Sims used another methodology for The Stories We Tell: She asked contributors to suggest three pieces of their own, after which she pulled a final selection. The resulting book glides through topics and around the US and the world. In some pieces—Joyce Wadler’s account of battling breast cancer, for example, or Jill Lepore’s remarkable twining of stories of Ben Franklin’s sister and her own mother—the writer’s gender is essential; in others—profiles of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, matador Cristina Sanchez, civil rights activist Kwame Ture—it’s irrelevant. Women write about women, about men, about income inequality, race, religion, law, murder, youth, death. As I jumped among the pieces, I became aware that I was reading equally for pleasure and for names and insight, to correct what my education had wrought and to try to understand what a reporter considered noteworthy or laudable within her own career. 

As West and Gellhorn have popped up in bookstores and on television, a concurrent smattering of nonprofits and collectives have appeared in the last five years or so to encourage women and nonbinary reporters: the Fuller Project, the International Women’s Media Fund, Women Who Photograph. But could it be true that the chauvinism these efforts seek to upend is equally, or possibly even more rooted in the misrepresentation of yesterday than in the sexism of today? Stories about the past give weight to the prejudices of the present. I wonder what would happen if we had a broader awareness of the many women of different eras who’ve already confronted challenges very similar to those we keep staring down, those dispiriting masthead numbers and pie charts, that stale “what’s a girl like you” stereotyping. Would it set those whose work is supported by such organizations on a more solid base, or sway some of those readers still skeptical that a woman’s writing is as good as a man’s in any arena? And like West, Gellhorn, Cowles, Hahn, and Thompson—Rather Good Candidates for New Journalism progenitors—how many other nodes existed underneath the mainstream history we take as fact? To properly situate the work and lives of these women and, I’m sure, many others—with analysis, critique, placement on syllabi and in anthologies—feels just as urgent as support for essential contemporary stories on bride prices in the Middle East and Somalia’s first and only female auto mechanic. 

Because when a group like the Rather Good Candidates are considered with seriousness in the context in which they actually worked—not as token inclusions, not with a critic’s kid gloves, but properly in the company of their peers—I don’t think an anthology specifically focused on women journalists will make any sense at all. I doubt I’ll be around to see that moment, either. 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading