A History of American Literary Journalism: The Emergence of a Modern Narrative Form

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Book Reviews

Hartsock, John. A History of American Literary Journalism: The Emergence of a Modern Narrative Form. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. 281 pp. $17.95.

In striving for professional stature and academic recognition, journalism failed to lay claim to some of America's best told stories, argues former journalist John Hartsock. This book is an attempt to historically locate a modern narrative literary journalism or works by professional journalists that "read like novels or short stories." Using a timeline proposed by Thomas B. Connery, editor of A Sourcebook ofAmerican Literary Journalism, Hartsock charts the emergence of a modern American narrative literary journalism.In addition to the post-Civil War period, he relies on Connery's three timeframes - 1890's-1910's, 1930's-1940's, and 1960's-1970's - instead of the conventional categories of journalism historiography, which he finds less useful for focusing analysis on what can be termed the peaks of this writing form. He also relies on Norman Sims' Literary Journalism in the Twentieth Century, a familiarity with which is suggested by the volume at hand. Journalism overlooked or devalued literary journalism in order to advance itself as a field within the existing cultural paradigm, namely the scientific. On the academic side, journalism became part of mass communication studies during the shift toward empiricism. Both moves blinded journalism to what was being published in magazines and newspapers. Much as English studies showed that literature was worthy of study by distinguishing it from journalism, which it framed as lowbrow, so journalism attempted to rid itself of subjectivity as it embraced the behavioral emphasis of objectivity.

Yet it is this very subjectivity, when written through novelistic conventions such as description, that has given literary journalism its power to engage the audience and foster a better understanding of others. Acknowledging its subjectivity, literary journalism bridges the subjectivity of the reader and the story's subject, which, Hartsock argues, neither objective nor sensational journalism is capable of since these forms objectify their subject and alienate the reader from the experience. …

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