"A wounded deer leaps the highest "— Emily Dickinson
Like a red thread, themes of violence, suffering, pain and loss run through the greatest works of literature. Many of the most admired writers of American and British literature were also journalists and, for many of them, the experience of physical and emotional trauma in their work and personal lives shaped their most honored works.
A sampling of these wounded masters reads like a who’s who of literary icons: Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Graham Greene, George Orwell, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer, Sherwood Anderson, Ambrose Bierce, Jonathan Swift, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, Kurt Vonnegut, Mark Twain.
Hemingway may be the most well known fiction writer who also worked as a reporter and whose writing was deeply affected by traumatic events from early childhood losses (suicide of father, distant mother) to war (ambulance driver in combat in World War I, serious wounds, combat reporting) to relationship problems (failed marriages) to job losses (journalism) to substance abuse (alcoholism) and to depression and finally suicide. Hemingway was also influenced by other writers whose work grew out of trauma from Dickens and Twain to Sherwood Anderson.
Hemingway ended his story with a shotgun in Idaho at age 61. To University of Washington communications professor Doug Underwood, Hemingway may be an extreme example of a writer whose past injuries fueled his art, but he is not an exception among journalists who also wrote acclaimed literature.
In his groundbreaking new book, Chronicling Trauma: Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss (University of Illinois Press), Underwood details the trauma suffered by 150 American and British writer-journalists from the past three centuries and offers a framework for understanding how trauma affected their work. He draws on psychological studies, history, and literary criticism to explore the role of trauma in the careers of these writers who won fame, but often at the cost of their health and tpersonal lives.
Underwood has taught journalism at the UW since 1987. Before that, he was the chief political writer for The Seattle Times; a a reporter forthe Gannett News Service’s Washington, D.C., bureau; and a labor and government reporter for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. His other books include Journalism and the Novel (2008), From Yahweh to Yahoo! (2002), and When MBAs Rule the Newsroom (1993).
Underwood’s interest in journalism and trauma didn’t grow out of exposure to extreme trauma in his own work as a reporter.“Traumatic coverage was not a major part of my experience. I was a political reporter. Some people would say that’s traumatic. But,” he added, “trauma was part of my environment because anyone working on a newspaper is around it.”
While teaching, Underwood became more attuned to the significance of trauma in journalism. He found that his UW reporting students were deeply influenced by re-enactment of traumatic events in class, which was part of his effort with his UW colleague Prof. Roger Simpson, a former director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, to include the study of trauma into the communications curriculum.
He also began to realize how trauma connected to his earlier book Journalism and the Novel on how journalists became fiction writers. “I put together an appendix of about 300 journalist-literary figures in American and British history [and] I couldn’t help but notice how much traumatic experience showed up in their lives, (and) how they often didn’t write about it until they moved into fiction writing or had the stature to write their memoirs. That connected with my interest in literature, so I started exploring that specific topic, looking through the lens of how trauma influenced writers historically.”
He also studied the expanding research on trauma since the Vietnam War. The recognition of post traumatic stress disorder in returning soldiers also prompted increased study of trauma in other fields, such as journalism.
The research for Chronicling Trauma evolved as Underwood studied the literature. “I came across a book, The Trauma Artist, on the experience of trauma in the works of [Vietnam veteran and one-time journalist] Tim O’Brien, and how his traumatic early life issues combined with his Vietnam service led to a major break-down when he came home. When I read it, I found a whole connecting literature that had been heavily explored on the literary studies side. Literary scholars were interested in the effect of trauma on a range of literary personalities like Charles Dickens and Rudyard Kipling and Edgar Allan Poe and others who had started out their careers as journalists.”
Underwood wanted to expand his book's scope beyond the usual academic work that goes narrow and deep. “I wanted to explore the issues of trauma as they connected to a large number of writers associated with journalism can make the point that many of these people share these experiences and attributes, it’s more powerful than if you explore one artist’s life in great depth.”
In Chronicling Trauma, Underwood focuses on writers who moved out of journalism to fiction to take readers beyond the shallow news coverage of real human pain and sorrow. “The industrialized newspaper uses trauma as its grist. If it bleeds, it leads, but it has to be presented in a way that doesn’t disturb the audience. It has to entertain or intrigue or be packaged so the reader can keep the traumatic experience at arm’s length. These writers wanted to take you into the experience, and many had to move into fiction or higher literary writing or memoir if they wanted to do that.”
“There wasn’t an avenue to express [the depth of trauma] in journalism. You can find a lot of evidence of that in their lives,” Underwood said. “Mark Twain went to his editors at the San Francisco Morning Call and asked to write about a Chinese man who had been stoned by an Irish gang, but his editor said no, it would offend Irish readers. Twain was really upset by that. Erskine Caldwell wasn’t allowed to write about a lynching he had witnessed at the Atlanta Journal; he ended up later using some of the material in his novel, Trouble in July. John Steinbeck couldn’t get any major press outlets to use his reporting on the miserable conditions of Dust Bowl migrants in California during the Great Depression; he had to turn it into the themes of The Grapes of Wrath. A Canadian researcher studied what she called “assignment stress injury” where journalists have a story to tell that has had a powerful impact upon them, and the story doesn’t get told, and they then feel traumatized themselves.”
In his study, Underwood goes back long before Freud and other scientists studied trauma. “I could see, for example, that Jonathan Swift had family issues that affected the texture and tone of Gulliver’s Travels on what it was to be lost in a world that he didn’t understand. Daniel Defoe’s experiences being thrown in prison for his journalistic writings can be connected to his novels about renegades and reprobates and people marooned on deserted islands. Bret Harte never wrote about the dark side of frontier life again after he was run out of town for reporting how the locals had massacred a band of Native Americans while he was a journalist in California. Walt Whitman’s experiences nursing dying Union soldiers put an end to his optimistic poetry. All these folks were journalists before they became great literary figures, and all suffered lots of trauma in their lives.”
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