The opportunity and obligation of the newspaper columnist, Finley Peter Dunne once 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.
But what sets the newspaper column apart is its improvisational nature: the near miracle that stories composed on a daily deadline can resonate with beauty and power decades later.
A long list of literary masters honed their craft writing newspaper columns, including Ernest Hemingway, O. Henry, Langston Hughes, Damon Runyon, and Mark Twain. Generations of students have pored over works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and For Whom the Bell Tolls, unaware that their authors also tackled the issues of the day—war, crime, sports, politics—in thoughtful, delightful essays that hold their own alongside better-known works.
One example. Here is Hemingway, writing for the Toronto Star in 1921—years before he published his first short-story collection—displaying the punchy trademark style so many writers later sought to imitate:
Anthony d’Andrea, pale and spectacled, defeated candidate for alderman of the 19th ward, Chicago, stepped out of the closed car in front of his residence and, holding an automatic pistol in his hand, backed gingerly up the steps.The column, called “Chicago Gang War,” is as fine a piece of writing as you’re likely to find anywhere, and an intriguing true-to-life precursor to “The Killers,” Hemingway’s celebrated 1927 story about two hit men hunting down a doomed prizefighter in a Chicago suburb.
Reaching back with his left hand to press the door bell, he was blinded by two red jets of flame from the window of the next apartment, heard a terrific roar and felt himself clouted sickeningly in the body with the shock of the slugs from the sawed-off shotgun.
It was the end of the trail that had started with a white-faced boy studying for the priesthood in a little Sicilian town. It was the end of a trail that had wound from the sunlit hills of Sicily across the sea and into the homes of Chicago’s nouveau riche. . . . It is all part of the unfinished story of the gunman’s political war that is raging in Chicago at present.
But it’s remarkably difficult to find “Chicago Gang War” online or in print. The same is true for literally thousands of fantastic works of short nonfiction by great columnists that get published in newspapers, only to vanish forever the next day. Few anthologies of newspaper columns have ever been published, and a great many are now out of print.
This careless treatment is analogous to the way another distinctively American popular art form, jazz, was long viewed as disposable: background music in a bar or, at best, something to enjoy strictly in the moment during a dance party. Over time, the realization took hold that this improvised music was art—worth recording, remembering, sharing and studying.
Many years ago, John Avlon and I had a conversation with our friend and mentor, the late Jack Newfield, when the three of us worked as columnists at the New York Sun. We asked Jack to name one of the best-written columns of all time and he gave the same answer that Jimmy Breslin later gave us: “The Death of Frankie Jerome” by Westbrook Pegler. It describes the funeral of a prizefighter from the perspective of the boxer who killed him in the ring.
It took months to find the column, which had not been anthologized since 1924, the year it was published. Here is the first line:
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.To help build awareness and appreciation of this great literary form, John, Jesse Angelo, and I hunted down hundreds of similarly great columns and chose about 150 of them for Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns. Familiar names like Ambrose Bierce, H. L. Mencken, Ring Lardner, Mike Royko, Dave Barry, Molly Ivins, and Ernie Pyle are mixed in with columnists that readers have likely never encountered.
Some of the best newspaper columns are appreciations of everyday life: stories of love, loss, laughter, and faith—but the most memorable are often the words and ideas that great columnists execute on days of monumental importance, disorienting confusion or crushing sadness: Peter R. Kann on the fall of Saigon, Jimmy Breslin on the assassination of President Kennedy—Breslin’s “Are You John Lennon?” was completed less than three hours after the murder it described was committed, and Pete Hamill’s first-person account of the attacks on 9/11 was filed the same day.
On such days—and every day—men and women of great talent and inspiration take to their keyboards and strive to bring clarity, wit and wisdom to the situation, on deadline, in a few words. That it happens at all is a minor miracle. When the best columnists step forward, it’s art. We think Deadline Artists is the proof.
Also of interest:
- “This One Is Captain Waskow” by Ernie Pyle, a previous Story of the Week and one of the columns included in Deadline Artists
- “Ernie Pyle Still Sets the Style,” a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- “Gamalielese” by H. L. Mencken, from the Baltimore Sun, March 7, 1921