Monday, April 6, 2015

Columnists at their best

For newspaper columnists, their greatest challenge is their deadline. Whether their column runs daily, weekly or something in between, they still have to come up with an idea, something they can write the required number of inches about and that people will want to read about, and get it into shape by the time the clock ticks down to zero. That pressure can be terribly difficult to bear day after day, week after week, year after year.

Yet most of the columns collected in Deadline Artists: Scandals, Tragedies and Triumphs (2012), probably seemed to write themselves. Mostly they tell about significant events and important people, natural subjects for columnists. The writers just had to give form to the ideas as as they came.

And so we find H.L. Mencken writing about the Scopes-Monkey trial, Damon Runyan on the trial of Al Capone, Jack London describing the San Francisco earthquake, Ellen Goodman on the murder of John Lennon, Shirley Povich telling about Don Larson's perfect game, Grantland Rice writing on the Dempsey-Willard fight and so on. Some of the columns are great because they describe great events. Others were made great by great writing.

In this latter category I would place Nora Ephron's New York Times piece about being an intern in the Kennedy White House and NOT getting propositioned by the president. Lorena A. Hickok wrote a wonderful column for the Minneapolis Tribune in 1923 about most of the population of a small Iowa town staying up all night just to watch President Harding's funeral train speeding through. Jim Murray wrote a superb tribute to ball player Jim Gilliam. Regina Brett wrote an unusually fine column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer about recovering from cancer. The book includes several columns by Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-times, and each one is outstanding.

Editors John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis made excellent choices for this, the second of their "Deadline Artists" books. My only complaint is with how a few of the columns are categorized. Were the victory of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the defeat of Tammany Hall in 1961 and the persistent failure of the Chicago Cubs really tragedies? I can see placing William Laurence's column about the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki among the triumphs, but a postwar piece by Homer Bigart describing the terrible Hiroshima after effects seems more like a tragedy to me.

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