Chronicling Trauma: Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss

Chronicling Trauma: Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss

by Doug Underwood

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To attract readers, journalists have long trafficked in the causes of trauma--crime, violence, warfare--as well as psychological profiling of deviance and aberrational personalities. Novelists, in turn, have explored these same subjects in developing their characters and by borrowing from their own traumatic life stories to shape the themes and psychological terrain of their fiction. In this book, Doug Underwood offers a conceptual and historical framework for comprehending the impact of trauma and violence in the careers and the writings of important journalist-literary figures in the United States and British Isles from the early 1700s to today.

Grounded in the latest research in the fields of trauma studies, literary biography, and the history of journalism, this study draws upon the lively and sometimes breathtaking accounts of popular writers such as Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Graham Greene, and Truman Capote, exploring the role that trauma has played in shaping their literary works. Underwood notes that the influence of traumatic experience upon journalistic literature is being reshaped by a number of factors, including news media trends, the advance of the Internet, the changing nature of the journalism profession, the proliferation of psychoactive drugs, and journalists' greater self-awareness of the impact of trauma in their work.

The most extensive scholarly examination of the role that trauma has played in the shaping of our journalistic and literary heritage, Chronicling Trauma: Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss discusses more than a hundred writers whose works have won them fame, even at the price of their health, their families, and their lives.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252036408
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Series: History of Communication Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Doug Underwood is a professor of communication at the University of Washington. He is the author of four books, including From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press.

Read an Excerpt

Chronicling Trauma

Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss


Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-252-03640-8

Chapter One

Stories of Harm, stories of Hazard

Childhood Stress and Professional Trauma in the Careers of Journalist-Literary Figures

"No man knows he is young while he is young." —G. K. Chesterton

Many people would call it a nervous breakdown when Sherwood Anderson, a thirty-six-year-old owner of a mail order paint company and editor of a series of business publications, walked out of his office in Elyria, Ohio, one day in 1912. He was later found wandering the streets of Cleveland, haggard, disoriented, and muttering confusedly of his grievances against the world. Anderson, however, came to see the incident as a matter of artistic escape—as the moment when he turned his back on the life of a Rotarian and business journalist to set off to fulfill his dreams of becoming a great artist and writer.

The fact that Anderson—raised by an economically harried harness maker and house painter father in small town Ohio and filled with emotional turmoil rooted in unresolved childhood psychological conflicts—fulfilled his ambitions to become a celebrated novelist and short-story writer is perhaps less notable than it might seem. He is only one of a procession of journalistic writers who have overcome childhood hardships, early life family distress, and stressful experiences in journalism to succeed as novelists and literary journalists. The external and internal turbulence that helped to shape their literary vision can be seen in Anderson's capacity to turn the negatives of his "mid-life crisis" into an artistic virtue. In Anderson's case, his break from his small-town businessman's and editor's existence toward a Gauguin-like reach for the artistic life rose to legendary proportions, at least among Anderson scholars and in his own cultivation of his triumphal life story. However, in interpreting the "pervasive psychological motifs" found in a letter mailed to his wife by Anderson during his disoriented wanderings, Irving Howe, one of Anderson's biographers, interprets Anderson's inner issues (violent aggression against his role as an adult male, a regression to early levels of childhood, a resentment at too sharp withdrawal of maternal attentions, and a general confusion as to sex role and paranoia at imagined feminine assaults) as representing something more profound than anything in Anderson's autobiographical writings ever revealed.

At the time of his crisis, Anderson had been dabbling in business journalism, and he was motivated to exit his small-town life, in part, by his frustration at having to express himself within the cant and the boosterism of the business world. As much as it made Anderson feel ashamed after his rise to literary success, his provincial business and journalistic experience proved instrumental in helping him to probe and transmit the mentality of small-town Americans in his early writings, as did his earlier work in the advertising industry, which helped to shape his view of the psychology of the American consumer and citizen. In fact, Anderson's manifestation of psychoanalytical themes—both in his personal life and in his literary works—puts him at the forefront of the many modern writers who have shifted the territory of artistic exploration into the Freudian recesses of their characters' psyches and made the examination of abnormal mindsets, traumatic experiences, and dysfunctional behaviors a feature of their literature. Anderson was an advertising executive in the days when Freudian concepts were becoming widely accepted throughout society, and he had come to recognize that people's repressed fantasies, sexual longings, and complicated inner lives could be exploited to sell them products no matter where they lived. In his own case, he came to think of himself as "before" and "after" personalities—the before person a Chicago advertising copywriter who became a small-town business owner and editor; the after personality a seeker of artistic freedom who divorced his first wife, moved from one big city to another, and searched out the company of journalists, artists, and bohemian types, often without having a residence more permanent than a hotel room.

Anderson's masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is widely recognized for its portrayal of small-town people as anything but the stock and shallow characters of much bucolic fiction. The rustics, urban exiles, and village characters in the novel are far from being narrow, conforming, or self-satisfied, on the one hand, or wholesome people to be sentimentalized and treated nostalgically. Instead, Anderson's small-town "grotesques," as he called them, are a parade of eccentrics and the emotionally undone who harbor shadowy grievances and strange but lost dreams and who express their loneliness in bizarre but poignant ways. In the novel, Anderson explored the despair among his small-town characters through his fictional town reporter, George Willard, who moves among them listening to their stories. Anderson's strange, incoherent, often tortured characters reflect intense inner turmoil, guilt, regret, fear, confusion—namely, many of the emotions that Anderson himself experienced when his "badly splintered personality" led to his breakdown and the beginning of his artistic odyssey. His searching out of "lonely and deformed souls" both in his art and in his companions left him feeling a profound sense of sympathy for the stricken, the helpless, and the unloved in any human setting and made him the model for the contemporary novelist who recognized the power of life's traumatizing events to forge life's destiny.

In Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson's "grotesques" become so, as he put it, because they confront the "truths" of their traumatized lives in sharp and distressing moments of emotional insight or in revealing confrontations with others. These painful epiphanies and keenly felt revelations were conveyed in a series of character sketches that can be interpreted as fitting the pattern for what psychological researchers would identify as sources of traumatic emotion: death of a parent ("The Thinker") about a depressed boy with a deceased father and a dependent mother who feels cut off from the life of the town and cannot access his feelings except as they may affect his mother's; growing up with a mentally ill parent ("Mother") about a psychologically troubled woman who becomes fixated on her confused son's future and her hopes that he will break away from the circumstances of her own constricting life and unhappy marriage; abandonment ("Adventure") about a woman whose life and emotions become frozen in time while she waits vainly for the return of a lover who took her virginity; sexual abuse ("Hands") about a former teacher who grows increasingly neurotic and obsessive after having been accused of inappropriately touching his students; wounding of a narcissistic parent ("Godliness, Part Two") about an emotionally disturbed and violently unhappy woman who was unwanted in her childhood and the effect on her son when he goes to live with his grandfather who had rejected her. Typically, Anderson ended each vignette with a powerful revelation, as happens with Alice Hindman in "Adventure" after she is possessed with the desire to run naked through the streets before crawling back mortified to her bedroom ("turning her face to the wall, [she] began trying to force herself to face bravely the fact that many people must live and die alone, even in Winesburg").

In his Freudian-inspired accounts of the stunted lives of Winesburg's citizens, Anderson chose to present journalism as a dubious device for the exploration of truth and his central character as a catalyzing figure in the confessions of the town folk and their strange and perplexing behavior (such as the spinster Kate Swift in "The Teacher," who bursts into the Winesburg Eagle's office one evening and lets Willard take her in his arms, before pounding his face with her fists and fleeing). Anderson's sensitivity to the impact of trauma working in the lives of average people—combined with his belief in the power of the American Dream to combat it—was reflected in the ways that he used Willard's role as the town reporter to comment on the disingenuous nature of American public discourse. Willard's "discoveries" about Winesburg's citizens, confounding as they are to him, could never be printed in a small-town newspaper, and there is no evidence in the novel that they ever are. The unreported secrets that are revealed to Willard demonstrated Anderson's recognition of fiction as a superior device for expressing the symbolically rich and emotionally layered psychological material that Freudian-oriented character development requires. However, Anderson's sympathy for Willard's ambitions for himself—and his contrasting the young reporter to the defeated figures he encounters throughout the novel—reflected Anderson's own release of buried emotions when he made his artistic break. Anderson's romantic faith in life's possibilities and his lifelong search for the ideal lifestyle can be seen in his upbeat editorials and other writings in the small-town newspapers that he purchased in 1927 and edited near his Virginia retirement home—and which brought his own life odyssey full circle in its return to its provincial and journalistic roots. Unlike in his early business journalism, where he was forced to traffic in hackneyed slogans and boosterish bromides, Anderson wrote his most impressive journalism after he had published his most highly regarded novels, when the harsh conditions of the Depression led him to take on the journalist's mantle in the nonfictional Puzzled America with its exposés about joblessness and economic deprivation. At the same time, Anderson's declining fiction-writing talent and his persistence in producing poorly received novels were apparently what brought him back to the small-town life that his character, Willard, forsakes when he leaves behind the traumatized citizens of Winesburg and heads off for the big city. Willard's pretense of energetically looking for news items in a town of disfigured souls is reminiscent of the entrepreneurial young Anderson hustling odd jobs around town while coming to grips with his hard-drinking father's failings as a breadwinner and the emotional tensions of his family life. The many ironies involved in Anderson's writing career—first experiencing the falseness of promotional journalism, then using fiction and its portrayal of journalism's truth-telling limitations to explore the hidden stories of traumatic experience to be found in a small town, and finally finding refuge in country journalism as a means of escaping the traumas of critical rejection—illustrated the complex but powerful union that the intermingling of fictional techniques with the lessons of journalism can have in addressing the effects of traumatic experience as they play out in the hidden recesses of the American psyche.

Since the rise of the modern commercial periodical in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, journalism has held out great hope for bright, talented young people with aspirations to become literary figures. Generations of writing hopefuls like Anderson—often without family connections and little formal education but with a powerful ambition to rise above their circumstances—have made up a notable cadre of literary figures whose experiences in journalism have helped to shape their literary vision and the literary canon in the United States and the British Isles. In a remarkable number of cases, these journalist-literary figures endured in their early lives stressful events and in their journalism jobs traumatic experiences but managed to use positions in print shops or as neophyte journalists to educate themselves about writing and literature, to bootstrap themselves onto better jobs, and then to move into fiction writing when they found themselves hemmed in by the formulaic writing practices at the news organizations where they worked. The frustrations encountered by this group, who often had a strong need to express their sense of humor, irony, or anger at what they felt were journalism's inauthentic portrayals of the world, were based on their recognition that the so-called objective or neutral methods for treating events on the news page often disguised a whole system of self-serving news judgments, self-dealing business practices, and toadying to the settled ways of the establishment. Novel writing, on the other hand, offered to free them from the commercial, social, and legal restraints of conventional journalism, even if they had to fictionalize their stories (sometimes only slightly). The circumstances of the journalist on the typical commercial publication—along with the higher status that artistic literature has come to occupy with critics and scholars—helps to explain the ironical situation in which so many well-known writers, schooled in the methods of so-called factual journalism, gravitated toward fiction writing in order to express their "honest" vision of life. This was particularly the case when a writer wanted to explore the impact of trauma on human beings beyond the stock conventions of newspaper crime-and-violence reporting or to probe the traumatic foundations of his or her own emotional struggles outside of a journalistic culture that had come to be dominated by callous and case-hardened thinking, emotional denial, and cynical views of human nature.

What could novel writing do that journalism did not in terms of conveying the emotional impact of traumatic experience?

• The use of imaginative storytelling forms as a means to woo audience attention was recognized early on by the pioneering writing figure Daniel Defoe, who is studied as one of the first great modern periodical editors and as a founder of the genre of the novel in English prose. Defoe's production in 1722 of a volume of nonnarrative journalism, Due Preparations for the Plague, and his semifictional novel of the same year, A Journal of the Plague Year, was based on the research that Defoe did in municipal archives as a means to warn the public of a possible reoccurrence of the plague that hit London in 1665. Although both works use municipal records and statistics as their foundation (such as figures about the number of burials in the city each day, orders of quarantine for affected homes, trade restrictions on ships coming into harbor, infection rates in various regions of the city), A Journal of the Plague Year was constructed around the chronicle of a fictionalized survivor of the plague who presents in vivid fashion its impact on regular people as Defoe imagined it, whereas Due Preparations for the Plague is a largely didactic treatise with little narrative appeal. In showing the protagonist of A Journal of the Plague Year wandering London and recounting scenes of suffering and death, Defoe dramatized the plague's horrors so that no reader could miss the personal implications in his warnings. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the novel elicited a stronger public response than did the journalistic account (even though Defoe was accused with both of fear-mongering for spreading his warnings about the plague, which was dying out on the European continent and never materialized again in England). Although he was writing in a period before the genres of journalism and the novel were defined in the modern sense, the opportunistic and entrepreneurial Defoe saw the benefits of using his imagination to embellish a tale for dramatic purposes (although he continued to maintain in disingenuous fashion that his novels were "just histor[ies] of fact," as he described Robinson Crusoe in the book's preface). Interestingly, as journalism, Due Preparations for the Plague was a major advancement in the use of investigative reporting techniques to illustrate the factual underpinnings of an important story, whereas A Journal of the Plague Year is a crude and embryonic example of a novel, with its disjointed narrative; its desultory use of dramatic techniques borrowed from stagecraft, journal writing, and early biographical forms; and its lack of serious character development. But the narrative form that most informed the novel—the use of brief but powerful vignettes of human drama and suffering—was drawn from the journalistic techniques developed by Defoe (whose innovations in the London Review included the leading article, the foreign news analysis, and the gossip column) and other editors of the time, most notably Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in their Tatler and Spectator newspapers, whose witty and stylish short narratives and satirical personality sketches can be seen as forerunners of the modern short story.


Excerpted from Chronicling Trauma by DOUG UNDERWOOD Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Introduction. Trauma, News, and Narrative: The Study of Violence and Loss in Journalism and Fiction....................1
1. Stories of Harm, Stories of Hazard: Childhood Stress and Professional Trauma in the Careers of Journalist-Literary Figures....................24
2. Trafficking in Trauma: Women's Rights, Civil Rights, and Sensationalism as a Spur to Social Justice....................79
3. Trauma in War, Trauma in Life: The Pose of the "Heroic" Battlefield Correspondent....................114
4. Depression, Drink, and Dissipation: Dysfunctional Lifestyles and Art as the Ultimate Stimulant....................161
Epilogue. New Challenges, New Treatments: Trauma and the Contemporary Journalist-Literary Figure....................192

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