A long-lost manuscript both complements and rivals a classic work of Depression-era documentary reportage
John Jeremiah Sullivan
by James Agee
$24.95 List Price
The more nonfiction you read, and from further back in time, the harder it gets to pronounce the word “new” in New Journalism with a straight face. I’m thinking partly here of pieces like Ned Ward’s “Trip to Jamaica,” 1698—Edward Ward, seminal Grub Street hack, writing sarcastically and in a detail-studded first-person prose, a reportorial style that pointed forward to Defoe while listening to Bunyan, about an actual trip he’d made to Jamaica with other prospective settlers. Sixteen ninety-eight—that’s early. When Ward published his dispatch, London’s printers were just emerging from under the so-called Licensing Act, which for half a century had restricted them to a limited range of material. Parliament let the act expire, or “lapse,” in 1695, sparking the Grub Street explosion of magazines and newspapers that helps mark the dawn of the eighteenth century. Modern English-language journalism begins New, and never really looks back.
Even if we were not to feel like going back so far, though, and wanted to stay merely with, say, the earlier twentieth century, there too lies a host of forgotten antecedents, foremost among them the experiments carried out by editor-magnate Henry Luce at Fortune magazine in the 1930s. Luce hired a bunch of poets and freelance literary-intellectual types to write ostensible economic journalism for him. Dwight Macdonald, Daniel Bell, Archibald MacLeish. The last did truly remarkable pieces for Luce. Fortune sent MacLeish to write about an automobile assembly plant. A pie factory. One of MacLeish’s finest pieces involved an imaginative but
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