Excerpt: How the News Feels by Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

The following is a short excerpt from the introduction of Fitz’s new book, How the News Feels: The Empathic Power of Literary Journalists (University of Massachusetts Press, 2023). Authors who would like to promote their books of or about literary journalism in the newsletter can email us at literaryjournalismsubmissions [at] gmail.com.

Literary Journalists’ Empathic Power

“Looking for literary journalism in the nineteenth century seems daunting,” writes Norman Sims in True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism, “but it was incubating and would emerge in the large-circulation urban newspapers at the end of the century.” This challenge opens Sims’s chapter on nineteenth-century newspaper sketches, which he points to as a possible origin of literary journalism, and with broad brushstrokes he describes a transition from the often-fanciful newspaper sketch to the kind of realist literary journalism of today. While Sims correctly asserts that the roots of literary journalism lie in the nineteenth century, his origin story only hints at a much more complicated set of circumstances that set the stage for what would become literary journalism. Most notably, Sims’s history—and by extension most histories of literary journalism—largely elides the important role that women writers played in the genre’s genesis. This omission applies as well to what is still rightly considered the most comprehensive history of literary journalism, John C. Hartsock’s 2001 book A History of American Literary Journalism. Hartsock’s history is indispensable, but one cannot help but notice that in his survey of the earliest literary journalists—including Stephen Crane, Lafcadio Hearn, Abraham Cahan, and Theodore Dreiser, among others—Hartsock focuses almost exclusively on male writers. And yet, within Hartsock’s bedrock study sits the key to seeing the important role of women literary journalists in the genre’s origins and their continued centrality through the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Hartsock writes that the aim of literary journalism is to “narrow the gulf between subjectivity and an objectified world.” He notes that this is “a narrative strategy opposite that of objectified versions of journalism,” which seeks to “engage the objectified Other.” While this notion of literary journalism “narrowing the gulf” has become widely accepted in the field since Hartsock introduced it over two decades ago, few have examined the way women writers specifically, from the nineteenth century to today, have used literary journalism to help readers empathize with their subjects. Indeed, as I argue, this foundational quality of literary journalism is itself a product of its origins in nineteenth-century sentimentalism. This book, therefore, aims to spotlight forgotten or underrepresented women literary journalists from the nineteenth century and illustrate how their sentimental ethos and political voice—what I call their “empathic power”—has been carried on by writers through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Further, I emphasize the great capacity of these writers to bring to life the stories of women in particular who are often ignored or reduced to two-dimensional caricatures in objectified journalism. Even as women journalists rejected some aspects of early to mid-nineteenth-century sentimental culture—particularly those aspects that emphasized “a domain of privacy for women,” as Alice Fahs writes—they carried forward a moral sentimentalism, that is, an ethical framework that emphasizes empathy. Prominently featuring the work of women writers serves to amplify the role they played in the founding of the genre, as well as to highlight the centrality of moral sentimentalism and empathy in the origin story of literary journalism, thus enriching Hartsock’s theoretical framework of “narrowing the gulf.” As such, this book simultaneously provides a novel theoretical approach to the study of literary journalism while also broadening its scope by making it more inclusive and representative of non-male writers who, over the past two hundred years, have told true stories—written authentic accounts—in an effort to engender empathy to “narrow the gulf between subjectivity and an objectified world.”

A Theoretical Approach to “Narrowing the Gulf”

While my intervention hinges on an argument about the origins of literary journalism—that women writers working with a sentimental ethos played a significant but largely unrecognized role in the formation of the genre—what follows is not a comprehensive historicization. Indeed, the contours of the genre’s history have been well-mapped by John Hartsock, Norman Sims, Thomas B. Connery, and others. Rather, by tracing the genre’s origins to what Sims calls literary journalism’s “incubation” in the nineteenth century, I link the predominant descriptor of literary journalism as narrowing the gulf between subjectivities in an objectified world to the work of women journalists writing about women in a sentimental mode. That is, scholars have long accepted Hartsock’s formulation without seeing the role that women writers played in the genre’s origins. Digging down to the roots of literary journalism in nineteenth-century sentimental writing achieves these goals. Further, my focus on non-male writers serves not only to correct for a centuries-long omission but also to show how they have been particularly adept at using moral sentimentalism to supplement, and in some cases correct, mainstream media narratives. This is what I refer to as their “empathic power.”

It is important to say here at the outset that I have no intention of essentializing women writers as somehow inherently sentimental or even more sentimentally inclined than men. Indeed, in the nineteenth-century men and women writers alike wrote in a sentimental style and mode. And yet, I am aware, as Suzanne Keen acknowledges in Empathy and the Novel, that “popular culture represents empathy as . . . a typically female trait.” Keen turns to research on empathy in other primates, male and female, to discredit this essentializing representation. Martin L. Hoffman in his book Empathy and Moral Development argues for the universality of empathy, stating, “Empathy must be considered a prime candidate for being a universal motive base for prosocial moral behavior when humans observe others in distress.” Moral philosopher Michael Slote notes that moral sentimentalism as an ethical framework was originated by male philosophers like David Hume and Adam Smith and argues that the ethics of care, the contemporary manifestation of moral sentimentalism, is “nothing less than a total systematic human morality, one that may be able to give us a better understanding of the whole range of moral issues that concern both men and women.” Thus, in my reading, empathy is not a gendered quality; rather it is a universal and fundamental means by which all humans understand and apply a care-based ethical code.

Moral sentimentalism, which I discuss in detail in chapter 1, is built into literary journalism, from the genre’s origins through today. My focus here on non-male writers is not to claim that women and nonbinary writers are by nature more empathetic than men but rather to illustrate how a male-oriented historicization of literary journalism that favors realist prose written primarily by men misses the important contributions of other writers who, from the nineteenth century on, set the standard for a literary journalism concerned with narrowing the gulfs between the subjectivities of writers, readers, and subjects. I argue throughout that the sentimental ethos that undergirds literary journalism is effective at working against the objectifying and sensationalizing impulses that have marred mainstream, objectified journalism at various points in U.S. history.


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