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Examining The Newspaper Column As Literature

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It's only a matter of time before the newspaper column takes its rightful place as a recognized and respected form of literature, every bit as vital as its more celebrated cousins, the short story and the novel.

The recognition should have happened a long time ago. An impressive list of literary masters honed their craft writing newspaper columns, including Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, O. Henry, Mark Twain and Damon Runyon. Generations of students have pored over Hughes's poetry, Twain's novels and O. Henry's short stories, unaware that the authors also tackled the issues of the day - death, war, sports, crime, politics - in thoughtful, delightful columns that often hold up remarkably well decades later.

Here is the start of "Chicago Gang War," that a young columnist named Ernest Hemingway penned for the Toronto Star in 1921:

"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.

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. A trail that has led through the penitentiary and out into the deadliest political fight Chicago has ever known."

That's great, solid writing, and an intriguing precursor to "The Killers," Hemingway's chilling 1927 story about a pair of mob assassins who visit a Chicago suburb in search of a prizefighter marked for death.

But it's remarkably difficult to find "Chicago Gang War" in print or online. 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. Only a few anthologies of newspaper columns have ever been published, and a great many are now out of print.

In most cases, columns get tossed with the newspaper - treated, literally, like yesterday's news. But every so often, a well-crafted column is clearly worth saving and savoring. Ernest Thayer's charming, lyrical baseball poem "Casey at the Bat," first published in the San Francisco Examiner, has inspired hundreds of variations, imitations and public readings.

The all-time most-often reprinted column, "Yes, Virginia - There is a Santa Claus," shows up in countless papers every December, as it has since it first appeared in the New York Sun in 1897.

But there are many more gems out there, and they are beginning to see the light of publication for the first time in decades.

Journalists John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and I assembled about 150 columns in "Deadline Artists" to help build awareness and appreciation of this great literary form.

The inspiration for the book was a conversation Avlon and I had with a friend and mentor, the late Jack Newfield, when the three of us worked as columnists at the New York Sun. John and I 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 who died in the ring from the perspective of the boxer who killed him.

It took months to find the column, which had not been anthologized since 1924, the year it was published. The opening line bowls you over:

"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."

John, Jesse and I hunted down hundreds of similarly great columns, mixing familiar names like Mike Royko, Dave Barry, Molly Ivins and Ernie Pyle with once-famous columnists that readers may have never encountered. We made some gestures toward trying to cover all regions of the country and a broad swath of history, but in the end our criteria was simple: the columns had to be beautifully written and published in an American newspaper.

There was extra weight given to writers who delivered power and beauty under the unforgiving pressure of a deadline. Even years after the fact, it's a special delight to see the wonderful play of words and ideas that great columnists execute even on days of monumental importance, disorienting confusion or crushing sadness - including the fall of Saigon, the assassination of President Kennedy and the day of the 9/11 attacks.

That is what Heywood Broun did in 1939, writing about the St. Louis, a ship carrying 937 desperate Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany that was denied permission to land in Cuba and the United States, and was forced to return to Europe:

"It is not an accident of nature but an inhuman equation which has put them in deadly peril. It is quite true that when the St. Louis gets back to Hamburg these 900, with possibly a few exceptions, will not die immediately. They will starve slowly, since they have already spent their all. Or they will linger in concentration camps - I refer to the men and women. God know what will happen to the children... Nine hundred are to suffer a crucifixion while the world passes by on the other side."

Here is Chicago's Mike Royko, who spent years chronicling and criticizing Mayor Richard J. Daley, penning an obituary within hours of Daley's death:

"If ever a man reflected a city, it was Richard J. Daley of Chicago.

In some ways, he was this town at its best - strong, hard-driving, working feverishly, pushing, building, driven by ambitions so big they seemed Texas-boastful.

In other ways, he was this city at its worst - arrogant, crude, conniving, ruthless, suspicious, intolerant.

He wasn't graceful, suave, witty or smooth. But, then, this is not Paris or San Francisco.

He was raucous, sentimental, hot-tempered, practical, simple, devious, big, and powerful. This is, after all, Chicago."

It would be a mistake to think the newspaper column is a relic of the days when most news was delivered on pulp. There are great columnists working today, including Kathleen Parker, Eugene Robinson and old-timers like Jimmy Breslin who are still on the job (Breslin appears Sundays in the New York Daily News). They do what columnists have always done - bring important information and views to the public with wit, wisdom and style - regardless of the medium.

The grace and power of the best columns offer a way out of today's polarized age, when crude, emphatic shouting often masquerades as meaningful public discourse, fobbed off on a public that is, increasingly, tuning out the rants and talking points of talk radio, cable news programs - and, yes, many newspapers.

The reading public has learned, over the years, to distinguish between solid novels and fluffy, throwaway junk. We know the difference between epic poetry and limericks. In much the same way, reviving and re-reading the finest columns of the past is the best way to remind people that they don't have to put up with predictable, run-of-the-mill newspaper opinion writing.

Our country has produced one generation after another of fresh thinking, passionate writers who have informed and entertained us day after day - and, at their best, delivered art on deadline. We deserve no less in the digital age.