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.