Book Reviews -- the Journalist as Autobiographer by Howard Good
McDonnel, Robert, Journalism History
Good, Howard. The Journalist As Autobiographer. Metuchen, New Jersey, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993. 180 pp. $25.
Perhaps more than any other class of writers, the journalist has seized the genre of autobiography as a way to make sense of a life history and a mad profession. Although historians have pillaged journalists' autobiographies for the useful anecdote and ostensible fact, the study of the journalist-as-autobiographer has remained a marginal, if not altogether untouched, subject for journalism historians.
Howard Good's the Journalist As Autobiographer is a groundbreaking study that explores this relatively uncharted terrain. His research is sound; his analyses and conclusions are both challenging and original. Using the approach of the cultural historian, he asks why journalists have been drawn to the autobiographical form and "what sort of identities they have carved out for themselves within it."
Good believes that autobiographies are literary creations, "experience filtered through memory and imagination, and shaped into anecdotes, narratives." The autobiography, asserts Good, is an imaginative act, relying on memory, intuition and imagination--all of which overlap. He reminds his readers that "memory uses the past rather than simply stores it." Although the narrator of the autobiography may be an unreliable one, so to speak, "all the errors and distortions in an autobiography do not negate its purpose for the author or its human interest for the reader." Drawing on other scholars who have written on the genre--Starobinski and Allport, for example--Good remarks, "What interests us most...are the patterns the autobiographer creates. Out of imagination and language and fragments of memory, he makes something perhaps more precious...than the truth; he makes meaning."
Good analyzes the autobiographies of eight journalists, all born between 1849 and the turn of the century. His first chapter is an excellent critical foundation for the topic and provides the needed context for his analysis. The autobiographies include Jacob Riis's The Making of an American, Elizabeth Jordan's Three Rousing Cheers, Vincent Sheean's Personal History, Agness Underwood's Newspaperwoman, and H.L. Mencken's Days trilogy, as well as the autobiographies of Julian Ralph, Samuel Blythe, and Joan Lowell. Why these journalists? All were moderns, says Good, and as autobiographers "they shared traits" and were alienated in the face of technological change and urban growth. Furthermore, Good writes, they all equated their identity with their jobs as journalists. "These were men and women who passed through a personal or historical upheaval and then wrote their autobiographies to plug the sudden cracks in their identities. …