166. Nonfiction Prose
I'm working on a piece that depends on a claim that nonfiction prose slipped from being an integral part of histories of literature to near erasure by the start of the 21st century. A portion of the narrative that traces those claims is below.
Journalism Migrates from English Literature (and takes the essay with it!)
The nonfiction essay is not synonymous with journalism, but as journalism developed as a set of genres, it clearly came to represent a point of intersection with literary works. As teacher-scholars began to invest effort into the development of a literary curriculum, some were invested in seeing the literature of journalism in that canon. According to A. E. Flectcher, “One of the chief aims of an ideal newspaper would be to remove the reproach that journalism is not literature. It ought to be literature (“The Ideal Newspaper,” The Independent 52: p773). It derives, historically, from literature: T. H. S. Escott argues that “Journalism… like occasional verse or the lighter departments of belles letters generally, is but a branch of literature as the parent trunk” (“Literature and Journalism,” Living Age 273: p. 31). Because of these shared historical antecedents, in Littell’s Living Age, the editors advanced the claim that “one is conscious of a difference, but the two [journalism and literature] melt almost indistinguishably into each other” (“The Profession of Letters” Littell’s Living Age 174: p. 627). This position was a minority position.
Not all teacher-scholars at the turn of the 20th century were hopeful of the inclusion of journalism as a genre or a practice within the developing canon of literary texts. For example, an unnamed author with initials A. C. H. claims that “what keeps journalism from being literature is exactly what keeps much vers libre from being poetry” (“Lazy Criticism,” Poetry 9: 1450) – pointing to the formal features that defined some attempts to set a literary canon, and beginning to set up a hierarchy between literary canon and journalistic writing. Arthur Reed Kimball marked the distinction clearly: “journalistic work is exhausting, and to that extent unfits a man for literary effort” (“Newspaper Work as a Career,” The Writer 10.4: 45-48 [p. 47]). Journalism simply was not an elite activity, though literary work certainly was.
Some of the distinction was made based on an understanding that journalism tended toward objective representation of the world, while literature remained the expression of the individual. In “W. E. Henley and Journalism,” the claim is made that literature is “necessarily personal,” while journalism is “normally impersonal” (H. W. Boynton, Atlantic 92: p. 415). But those genre distinctions were already breaking down: Margaret Deland claims that “personal journalism is doing more to-day to injure the art of Literature than ever hunger and cold and neglect did!” (“A Menace to Literature,” North American Review 158 p.158). Personal journalism, it seems, was encroaching.
While some teacher-scholars argued for the hierarchy (and felt threatened if journalism challenged that hierarchy), others understood journalism as a unique product of American life. Journalism was not simply a discourse to be opposed to literary discourse (as, for example, later scholars would oppose literary and scientific discourse). It responded to its own historical exigences. In Library Journal, William H. Brett describes the relationship between journalism and literature: on the one hand, there was “journalism, strong, eager, careless,” while on the other, we find “literature, almost dragged along by the rough, good-natured handclasp of the big brother, goes stumbling and panting, but striving to keep up” (Library Journal 20: p. 12). To Brett, journalism was becoming an important set of discourses in the growing democracy of the United States, while literature, more traditional and resistant to change, was catching up. Under these conditions, journalism did not compete with literature; it was an invention to meet the needs of the need of the new republic: “democracy has added a new class of readers, or rather let us say a new kind of reading, and for them it provides not literature but journalism” (“Theodore Roosevelt as a Journalist” The Outlook 107: p. 643). Poetry and novels were not the discourses of democracy – at least, not in the same way.
For teacher-scholars like these, literature was not opposed to the work of the journalist anymore than it was opposed to the work of the farmer; there was no inherent contradiction between one and the other. H. W. Boynton (in Journalism and Literature, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co, 1904) argues that “journalism has, strictly, no literary aspect” (4)… a journalist is contemptible only when by some falsetto method he attempts to lead the the public into fancying that it is getting literature of him” (21). Law has no literary aspect and makes no claims to it; medicine has no literary aspect and makes no claims to it.
Lyman Abbott continues to claim that “Robert Louis Stevenson could never have been a journalist. Horace Greeley could never have been an essayist” (“Theodore Roosevelt as a Journalist,” The Outlook 107: p 642) – giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, if you will. For better or for worse, this way of thinking though the relationship between journalism and literature would come to dominate university curricula (ending in departments of journalism and/or mass communication). More importantly, it would make it difficult for decades to thoroughly think through some very powerful texts within traditional literary surveys. It became tricky to think through a way to keep (say) Joan Didion or Hunter S. Thompson within the American literary canon – were they, properly, literary essayists or journalists for curricular purposes?
By itself, these divisions and hierarchies would not have undermined the place of literary nonfiction in the developing canons. But at the same time or shortly thereafter, other scholars were building a competing canon of nonfiction prose.