Academic journal article Journalism History

Reinventing the Feature Story: Mythic Cycles in American Literary Journalism

Academic journal article Journalism History

Reinventing the Feature Story: Mythic Cycles in American Literary Journalism

Article excerpt

Shapiro, Stephanie. Reinventing the Feature Story: Mythic Cycles in American Literary Journalism. Baltimore, Md.: Apprentice House, 2005. Ill pp. $16.95.

This slim volume offers as a key delight the opportunity to compare the judgmental voice of Puritan minister Increase Mather, the probing questions of Nellie BIy, and the Gonzo voice of Hunter S. Thompson. Author Stephanie Shapiro, a feature writer for the Baltimore Sun, ponders how these writers are linked by mythic cycles embodied in the exceptionalism of the American experience.

To assess literary journalism from the colonial days of America through the twentieth century, she uses a template of three stages of myths articulated by philosopher Philip Wheelwright. These stages, which Shapiro says do not have clear boundaries, are labeled: primary, romantic, and consummatory.

Shapiro assigns the primary myth category to the fire-and-brimstone preachers and earliest American writers "whose compulsive self-examination and search for true virtue became the model for the American heroic quest." Nineteenth-century journalists of the industrial age uphold the romantic myth. In the process, she says, "the heroic quest took the form of the rags-toriches myth." The New Journalists, as championed by Tom Wolfe in the 1960s, are assigned the realm of the consummatory myth. For the New Journalists, she maintains, this myth represented "the logical step away from the romantic myths they rejected as dishonest portrayals of American life."

As its model, the book chooses the feature story as an expression of literary journalism that Shapiro asserts is "primarily a gauge of societal need and a means of social control." The categories of myth provide a way to see how this works, she says. "By recogni/ing the themes that underlie feature stories as well as the stories' intended lessons, readers will be able to comprehend the profound role performed by literary journalism in defining and indoctrinating the American psyche." To that end, she draws from American Studies scholars such as Richard Dorson and Richard Slotkin, and that is a strength. There is, however, an admitted murkincss to the definition of a feature story, as a subset of literary journalism, which is defined as "a genre whose genesis is found in man's desire to shape and recount tales of human experience. …

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