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Opinion Columns: It is a great American art form, read by millions every day.

Opinion Columns: The best of them rise to the level of literature

Taped on refrigerators and tacked up over desks, its wisdom is folded in wallets and e-mailed among friends. The best of it rises to the level of literature: balancing the urgency of news with the precision of poetry.

Deadline Artists is a celebration of the American newspaper column—a reminder that compelling stories told by engaging personalities can resonate beyond their era. Newspaper columnists are their Opinion Columns readers’ advisers, advocates, and confidants, helping them make sense of current events while subtly defining the spirit of the age. They hold a special place in people’s hearts. When the iconic Chicago columnist Mike Royko died, his memorial service was held at Wrigley Field. San Francisco Chronicle mainstay Herb Caen—credited with coining the terms “Beatnik” and “Hippie”—was memorialized in one of the largest public gatherings in the city’s history.

That’s because columnists speak in a voice readers understand—their own, but just a bit better. It is the voice of the bar room, the locker room and the smoke-filled back room. It is a voice that comforts https://insideopinions.com/will-judge-dearie-save-the-american-economy/ and confronts. A great column is both a witness and a work of art—helping people understand the world around them while making them feel a little less alone.

This book began with a simple proposition: it was the book we wanted to read. As young journalists, we wanted to mine it for inspiration, education, and entertainment. To our surprise, we found that a comprehensive anthology of America’s greatest newspaper columns had never been compiled.

Two of us—John Avlon and Errol Louis—were working as columnists for the New York Sun at the time and asked our colleague Jack Newfield about his favorite columns. He and his friend Jimmy Breslin named the same column as among the very best—“The Death of Frankie Jerome” by Westbrook Pegler, published in 1924. It had not been anthologized since, and hunting it down took months. Reading the opening line Opinion Columns made it clear that this was not just a newspaper column—this was a short story:

Opinion Columns
Opinion Columns

A yellow-haired kid with a mashed nose and scalloped lips dipped his fingers in the holy water fount of St. Jerome’s Church, crossed himself with the fist that killed Frankie Jerome and went to his knees on the cold marble to pray when all that was left of the little fellow was wheeled up the aisle to the altar yesterday for the funeral mass that preceded the journey to the grave.

Opinion Columns

And so the process of putting this book together began. The inclusion of some columns were matters of clear consensus, such as Breslin’s classic profile of JFK’s grave-digger, “It’s an Honor,” and Ernie Pyle’s “The Death of Captain Waskow.” Conversations with journalism professors and research through books and microfilm were helpful, but the best suggestions came from columnists themselves. In all cases, great writing was our guide.

The emergence of the popular newspaper column we now take for granted has been centuries in the making. Historians of journalism date the first American multi-page newspaper to Boston’s Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick in 1690. It lasted one issue before being shut down by the government. Next came the Boston News-Letter, in 1704. It lasted for two decades, during which period other newspapers began to pop up among the coastal colonies.

The influential publishers and pamphleteers of the Revolutionary era, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, offered insights and incitements that became enduring American wisdom. The Federalist Papers—penned by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay—first appeared in the pages of New York’s Daily Advertiser and other newspapers as anonymous columns arguing for the ratification of the Constitution.

In the evolutionary slog from pamphlets and unsigned editorials to the signed column, the mid-1800s began to see the regular publication of local voices like “Fanny Fern”—the pen-name of Sara Willis Parton, the best known and best compensated chronicler of her time, earning an un-heard of $100 a week for her column in the New York Ledger. Humor and light verse printed alongside editorials were also popular early versions of the column. The newspaper column as we know it today emerged gradually, taking more defined shape by the late nineteenth century with pioneers of first-person literary journalism like Richard Harding Davis, who became not just a chronicler but a character in contemporary dramas, a national figure in his own right.

The common denominator shared by all columns is personal perspective, combining observation with opinion. As newspapers proliferated across the United States at the turn of the last century, each sought the competitive advantage that a marquee columnist could provide. As Professor Hallam Walker Davis’s 1926 book, The Column, confidently asserted, “With the public, the successful columnist bears the same relation to the rest of the newspaper force that a predatory home-run hitter bears to the rest of a winning baseball team.”

For well-known public figures, writing a newspaper column became a prestigious and profitable sideline: Theodore Roosevelt, O. Henry, Will Rogers, Woody Guthrie, Orson Welles, Eleanor Roosevelt, Langston Hughes, and Hunter S. Thompson all wrote regular newspaper columns, at least for a time. In general, however, these celebrity voices don’t compare to the workaday professionals whose columns still set the standard for excellence: H. L. Mencken, Damon Runyon, Dorothy Thompson, Murray Kempton, Jimmy Breslin, and Mike Royko. In our time, voices like Peggy Noonan, Tom Friedman, Carl Hiaasen, Mike Barnicle, and Steve Lopez carry on this tradition.

The opportunity and obligation of the newspaper columnist, Finley Peter Dunne once famously said, is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Columnists are supposed to be truth tellers—literary private eyes working for the public good.

We have sought to create a broad anthology, taking into account different eras, perspectives, and places. In cutting down the columns to a manageable number, we have undoubtedly excluded some worthy voices from a list that could never be anything but subjective. We don’t consider it definitive—we consider it a start.

In the process of reading many hundreds of columns, it has been striking to see which pieces endure. Those centered around storytelling and historic events best retain their power—the more original reporting, the better. But what might be called the “Mount Olympus” column, in which the author-analyst surveys the nation and passes policy pronouncements down from on high, tends not to age as well. Likewise, early columns that rely too heavily on dialect or homespun tales often grow stale.

A once-popular form of column seemed to borrow its style from the telegram—staccato riffs, bits of gossip and innuendo alongside breaking news, all strung together. This style was frequently used by influential figures like Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, but without much narrative structure, they don’t read as well today or merit reprinting. (The iconic Winchell’s work is included here, however, with “Waiting for Lepke,” a first-person account of a wanted criminal turning himself in, to the columnist.)

The columns in this book give readers the chance to see history first hand—to storm the beach at Normandy on D-Day, to cheer Bobby Thompson’s pennant-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” at the Polo Grounds, and to wrestle the gun from Sirhan Sirhan in the chaos of the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It is a chance to be there at the moments when America changes, for better or worse.

But our goal is not to give a history lesson. Some of the best columns include appreciations of everyday life: stories of love, loss, laughter, and faith—struggles against the odds and long shots that come in. In these pages are the sound of celebrations and the echoes of a wake. Most of all, we want to share great writing. With an average length of eight hundred words, these morsels are tailor-made for today’s short attention spans and never-ending travel schedules. And the vast majority are not available online.

We are living in a time of transition in the news media, when obituaries for newspapers are being written every day. In our Internet age, there is a danger that the classic reported column is becoming a lost art. Search engine research is no substitute for getting out from behind the desk and knocking on doors. Before the rise of television, reporters and columnists had to make a scene come alive in the mind of a reader. The result was vivid descriptive writing, aided by more actual reporting—making much of the current opinion crop seem like mere typing in comparison.

This is not to say that the future is bleak for opinion journalism—it’s potentially brighter than ever, with a broader array of perspectives and wider access to publication, both digital and print. The classic craftsmanship of these columns can inspire some healthy competition between the generations and serve as a source of durable inspiration for today’s columnists and bloggers—opinion writers, all—looking to learn from the best of their predecessors.

A final word about our selection process. Because Deadline Artists is an anthology of newspaper columns, legendary magazine columnists, feature writers, and accomplished authors of the occasional Op-Ed piece are not included. It can be argued that magazine columns are not inherently different from newspaper columns except in their day-to-day deadlines—but that, as our title suggests, is the key consideration.

The improvisational nature of the newspaper column is what sets it apart, the near-miracle that stories composed on punishing daily deadlines can resonate with beauty and power decades later. Jimmy Breslin’s “Are You John Lennon?” was completed less than three hours after the murder it described was committed, while Pete Hamill’s first-person account of the attacks of 9/11 from lower Manhattan was filed the same day. These Deadline Artists beat the odds and created something transcendent in a disposable medium.

Whether it’s a game-day riff off “Casey at the Bat,” the way-to-wealth aphorisms of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard, or the wise kindness behind “Yes, Virginia—There is a Santa Claus,” the greatest newspaper columns continue to resonate. They have worked their way into the language of everyday American life.

By reading beloved but half-remembered columns that were gathering dust in libraries or moldering on microfilm, you are joining a conversation across the generations. Flip to the subjects that interest you, or seek out the writers you already know and love. We know you will find powerful writing—clear voices offering wit, wisdom, and some unforgettable characters. Enjoy.

 

 

I: WAR

 

In wartime, columnists serve as witnesses on the front lines, trying to cut through the fog of war to bring a bit of truth to those back home.

Richard Harding Davis was one of the first great war columnists in our history, covering the Spanish-American War and the First World War with first person journalism, as when he captured the terrible beauty of an oncoming assault as German troops crossed into Belgium: “Like a river of steel it flowed, gray and ghostlike.” The archetypal American war columnist is Ernie Pyle, the “GI journalist.” He covered the Second World War from the perspective of his beloved “God-Damned Infantry” and ultimately lost his life in the process.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt penned her syndicated “My Day” column from within the walls of the White House the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. Sometimes columnists seek to warn us of a conflict to come. Dorothy Thompson dedicated herself to speaking out against the rise of Nazi power in the Herald Tribune, deriding Neville Chamberlain’s naïve hopes for “peace in our time.”

The Vietnam War lacked the self-evident moral clarity of earlier conflicts but resulted in some enduring journalism. Pete Hamill’s dispatches from the front honored the soldiers as they struggled to do the right thing in firefights fraught with ambiguity. Art Hoppe expressed his horror at finding himself rooting against our side in the war while Peter Kann penned an obituary for the South Asian nation fifty-seven thousand Americans died trying to save.

The end of the cold war brought celebrations—such as William F. Buckley’s “Hallelujah!”—along with the hope for a new era of peaceful and prosperous globalization. Those hopes were crushed on a blue Tuesday morning in the fall of 2001. Pete Hamill was again a witness on the front lines, now to a new war unfolding in the streets of his hometown. The Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts captured the fury and defiance of the nation in his column that day, which inspired twenty-six thousand e-mailed responses and was read aloud by congressional leaders as a way of expressing our grief and outrage.

The New York Times’ Thomas L. Friedman is a globe-trotting chronicler of globalization and its discontents, while Nicholas Kristof has kept the tradition of the front-line columnist alive, reporting from war zones in Africa and around the world. His columns amplify the voices of remote villagers while stirring our collective conscience to help stop a slaughter before it begins.

The best columns filed from a combat zone bring out the humanity obscured by the savagery of war.

 

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