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Newspaper Days

ISSUE:  Winter 1986
From Fact to Fiction: Journalism & Imaginative Writing in America. By Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Johns Hopkins.$24.50.

James M. Cain’s career—to take an example from many— was in a great tradition of American writing. Before The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, and his other popular thrillers, he was a journalist—reporter on the Baltimore Sun, where he began a close association with H.L. Mencken, editorial writer on the New York World under Walter Lippmann, managing editor of The New Yorker. Even with the big splash of his novels, written after he gave up journalism for Hollywood film writing, Cain still thought of himself as a newspaperman. Into his seventies, according to Roy Hoopes’ biography, he would have eagerly returned to editorial writing had a job been offered.

Cain’s career in journalism was long and successful and provided a lasting professional image of himself. For most writers who followed a similar route into imaginative writing, newspaper and magazine journalism was a transient affair entered into out of simple need—to write, to see the work in print, to be paid for it—and left behind with hardly a backward glance. Nonetheless, Cain’s pathway to the literary life was the favored route for generations of American writers—a tradition begun in print shops by Whitman, Twain, and Howells, reaching its zenith with turn-of-the-century realists like Crane, London, Norris, and Dreiser, and coneluded between the wars by Hemingway, MacLeish, and O’Hara. Writers like James Agee and Robert Fitzgerald continued to struggle with literary ambition while in the hire of Luce publications, and in the 1960’s journalists like Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese turned themselves into literary New Journalists. Writers still now and then emerge from newsrooms—Ward Just is a recent example—but with Cain’s generation of the 20’s and 30’s the tradition was nearing its end, finished off by the new professionalism of journalism and journalism education and the opening up of universities in the form of creative writing programs and tenured writing positions in English departments. Since World War II, the classroom more than the newsroom has been the source and refuge of literary ambition.

The changed situation is now and then lamented by literary observers. In The Literary Situation Malcolm Cowley thought English 209 meeting at three o’clock MWF a pale substitute for the experience of running down facts as a cub reporter. In the New York Review of Books Gore Vidal recently contrasted Howells’ experience of quitting school at 15 to become a printer with the contemporary writer’s experience of the classroom—a contrast clearly in Howells’ favor given the thinning out of life in novels of academic origin. But if there are fond backward glances at more robust times when writers had their newspaper days, there is little said about what was gained from the experience. Firsthand knowledge of the world usually comes up, and there is mention of simplifying effects on style and the salutary discipline of writing regularly and quickly. But beyond such obvious matters, what?

Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s book is the first broad attempt to shed light on the question. Charles Fenton’s The Apprenticeship of Ernest Hemingway is a close look at the link between Hemingway’s newspaper days and later fiction, and J.F. Kobler’s recent Ernest Hemingway, Journalist and Artist covers some of the same territory; there are articles by Joseph J. Kwiat on the newspaper experiences of Crane, Norris, and Dreiser and by Scott Donaldson on Hemingway’s work with the Toronto Star papers; there is a fine chapter on the journalistic backgrounds of the early realists in Larzer Ziff’s The American 1890s; and there are scattered treatments of the question in Ellen Moers’ Two Dreisers and other biographies. Yet, as Fishkin says, critics haven’t paid much attention to the “continuities” between journalism and imaginative writing in American literature.(There are, she says, “discontinuities” too, but more of this later.) She wants to redress the neglect by looking at five journalists turned writers—Whitman, Twain, Dreiser, Hemingway, Dos Passos—the idea being to pick writers who came out of various stages in the rise of the American press, from the penny press of the 1840’s through the multiplication of intellectual journals in the 1920’s and 30’s, showing how journalistic work affected their serious writing and, by loose extension, American writing in general.

But if the book’s angle is fresh, the result is thin, leaving the suspicion that critics have wisely given the subject only fleeting looks. Fishkin doesn’t have much more to say than, for example, Carlos Baker on what the young Hemingway wanted from the Kansas City Star: “He counted on the Star to polish his prose and on Kansas City to educate him in the seamier sides of human experience.” Or Tom Wolfe on how New York feature writers in the 1960’s viewed their sojourn on newspapers:

The idea was to get a job on a newspaper, keep body and soul together, pay the rent, get to know “the world,” accumulate “experience,” perhaps work some of the fat off your style— then, at some point, quit cold, say goodbye to journalism, move into a shack somewhere, work night and day for six months, and light up the sky with the final triumph. The final triumph was known as The Novel.

For comparison, here is Fishkin summarizing her findings:

This early apprenticeship in journalism exposed each writer to a vast range of experience that would ultimately form the core of his greatest imaginative works. It forced him to become a precise observer, nurtured in him a respect for fact, and taught him lessons about style that would shape his greatest literary creations. It taught him to be mistrustful of rhetoric, abstractions, hypocrisy, and cant; it taught him to be suspicious of secondhand accounts and to insist on seeing with his own eyes.

There is the same emphasis on experiences stored away for future fictions, on lean prose learned under no-nonsense editors, on a taste for the concrete rather than the high flown. All true perhaps, but it doesn’t much extend what others have said about the journalism-literature connection. In an article on Crane, Kwait found that newspapering “introduced Crane to vital subject matter” and “nourished an attitude which reinforced his respect for creative honesty and integrity.” It’s about what one would expect—and little more than the bland remarks writers themselves have offered when, on rare occasion, they have put in a good word about their newspaper days.

The main benefit of newspapering, in Fishkin’s view, is it encourages a taste for fact, and this in turn lends a hard and distinctly American edge to such imaginative works as “Song of Myself,” An American Tragedy, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and U.S.A. Whitman’s itinerant newspaper career taught him “the importance of the world of fact”; Twain learned a “respect for fact” and Dreiser a “deep respect for fact” (though his publishers grew accustomed to letters of complaint about his twisted facts); Hemingway developed a “concern for accuracy” on the Kansas City and Toronto papers; Dos Passos’ magazine journalism gave him “firm footing in the world of fact.” Fact no doubt has special appeal in American writing, but do American writers who come from newspaper backgrounds appear much different in this regard from those that don’t? O’Hara wanted to go to Yale and ended up on the Pottsville Journal; is his work the more grounded in fact for this reason than that of an old grad like Sinclair Lewis (who, it’s true, had a few newspaper days of his own after New Haven)? John Updike recently described the role of the real in his work this way: “For the creative imagination, in my sense of it, is wholly parasitic upon the real world, what used to be called Creation. Creative excitement, and a sense of useful work, have invariably and only come to me when I felt I was transferring, with a lively accuracy, some piece of experienced reality to the printed page.” One might think Updike’s interest in “lively accuracy” had been stimulated in a newsroom rather than the Harvard English department—or stimulated God knows where.

But even granting some link between newspaper days and a later taste for the actual, and granting as well that newspapering had some pleasant effects on style and now and then turned up substantial subjects for novels and poems, what exactly has been established? Again, not much—though fleshed out by Fishkin with more detail, especially in a strong chapter on Whitman, than we have had before. I’d suggest another way of thinking about the journalistic experience of American writers, one that looks more at the negative effect of marking time on a news beat or rewrite desk (the “discontinuities” Fishkin mentions but doesn’t pursue). In a study of Washington reporters Stephen Hess quotes an editor who liked to say that when the history of the newspaper business is written it will be about those who left it. I suspect there is as much to be learned in why writers abandoned journalism’s lively confines as in tracking down the few useful things they picked up within.

In passing, Fishkin asks why her writers eventually left journalism, and points to impatience with the “limits of conventional journalism” or (in Douglass Cater’s phrase) the “straitjacket of straight reporting.” But the writers she deals with were only rarely conventional journalists or straight reporters; the journalism that has some link with later imaginative work was done as columnists or editorial writers or feature reporters or on magazine assignments. Whitman did sketches of the urban landscape for the New York Aurora that bear some resemblance to “Song of Myself.” Twain’s letters to newspapers as a traveling correspondent prefigure the loose narrative form of his fiction. Dreiser’s experience as a discursive feature writer in Pittsburgh gave him, as he said, his “first taste of what it means to be a creative writer.” The Toronto papers encouraged Hemingway’s instinct for narrative and dialogue, for writing about people more than events, for stylistic experiment. Dos Passos’ fact writing was always for the more open journalism of magazines. Much of journalism’s drawing power for young writers was the freedom it once offered to tell stories, including invented ones on dull days, and tell them in varied forms at rambling lengths. When O’Hara entered journalism, Mencken, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, and Alexander Woollcott were writing for newspapers and Franklin P. Adams’ “The Conning Tower”— where O’Hara’s contributions were printed while he was still covering a beat in Pottsville—was the most influential column in the land. It was a time, and had been since Whitman and Twain, when the distinction between journalism and writing wasn’t as self-evident as it would become.

When young writers did find themselves in the straitjacket of straight news, they frequently failed. E.B. White had trouble with news reporting on the Seattle Times and thought it a lucky day when he was shifted to features. The editor, he said, “saw that his best bet was to keep me away from telephones and courtrooms and let me write feature stories in which you didn’t have to know anything except where the space bar on the typewriter was.” But even on features White failed. When he was finally fired he was told it was no reflection on his ability, his biographer, Scott Elledge, interpreting this as meaning that “Andy White had talent, wit, style, integrity, and devotion to writing, all of which might sometime make him a good writer, but not of the kind suited to the Seattle Times.” The episode suggests a more fundamental importance of newspapering to writers in that it may have helped them perceive, in the sharp contrast it provided with imaginative writing, the real work they wanted to do. In the struggle with the limitations of journalism, even storytelling journalism, the possibilities of imaginative writing may have become clearer, its forms and effects more apparent. If journalism had its uses for writers, in other words, the most useful instruction may have been the need to put aside most of what journalism values.

Although Hemingway was usually willing to grant that newspapering had been good training for him, he turned to the negative example of journalism to explain what he was trying to do in fiction. Journalism was simply writing for the moment, the “writing of something that happens day by day”; fiction was writing meant to last, and so truly serious writing. “In writing for a newspaper,” he said, “you told what happened and, with one trick and another, you communicated the emotion aided by the element of timeliness which gives a certain emotion to any account of something that has happened on that day.” But what he was after in fiction—”the real thing”—was to recreate what the “actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced” so that the account, without the crutch of timeliness, “would be as valid in a year or in ten years or . . .always.” Journalism also provided a way of explaining his steadfast commitment to the world of art. The only reason for writing journalism was the money it brought in; serious writing, on the other hand, aimed at the creation of “something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. This is why you write and for no other reason that you know of.” And there was the matter of memory. For the serious writer memory is essential, but in newspaper work “you have to learn to forget every day what happened the day before.” He added that newspaper work was only valuable “up to the point that it forcibly begins to destroy your memory. A writer must leave it before that point. But he will always have scars from it.”

Other writers have leaned on similar distinctions between journalism and writing. Lillian Ross, trying to describe her kind of literary reporting, pointed to the difference with writing for newsmagazines where they “may actually train you not to see, hear, or feel accurately and naturally and may also lead you to forget that you ever learned the meaning of the word “responsible.”” James M. Cain discovered that only when he put aside the voice he’d developed in journalism and adopted the first-person narrative of a low-life character could he make his fiction work. “If I try to do it in my own language,” he said, “I find I have none.” James Agee, trying to explain the stratum of descriptive truth he sought in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, elaborately separated himself from journalism. “Who, what, where, when and why (or how) is the primal cliché and complacency of journalism: but I do not wish to appear to speak favorably of journalism. I have never yet seen a piece of journalism which conveyed more than the slightest fraction of what any even moderately reflective and sensitive person would mean and intend by those inachievable words.”

The point is that for many writers with backgrounds in journalism, journalism may have most deeply affected their work through contrast with what they took to be serious writing. Such writing was simply everything journalism was not—lasting, drawn from memory, demanding a fresh sense of language and experience, in the service of the deepest truth. For writers free of classroom theorizing about writing, this influence coming from journalism may have been especially telling. For them the newsroom was a classroom, and one of its central lessons was that journalism wasn’t real writing. Subsequent generations could find the same message in books like Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, where the “problems of journalism—deadliest of the weeds on Crabbe’s Heath—in its relation to literature” are exactly noted. At one point Connolly quotes Somerset Maugham on journalism’s most debilitating effect:

There is an impersonality in a newspaper that insensibly affects the writer. People who write much for the press seem to lose the faculty of seeing things for themselves; they see them from a generalised standpoint, vividly often, sometimes with hectic brightness, yet never with that idiosyncracy which may give only a partial picture of the facts, but is suffused by the personality of the observer. The press, in fact, kills the individuality of those who write for it.

Journalists who survived to become writers must have instinctively known this. T.S. Matthews once said about Agee and a few others who came through the Luce empire with their individuality intact that “they were the seagreen incorruptibles who acknowledged no authority but some inner light of their own. These rarities were in journalism but never altogether of it.”


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