Ordinary people, and the extraordinary journalists who write about them | On Media | Chicago Reader

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Ordinary people, and the extraordinary journalists who write about them

For some writers, respect for your subject means being 'repulsed' by yourself


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When former Tribune columnist Anne Keegan died last May her husband, Leonard Aronson, decided to create a journalism award in her memory. The challenge was defining the kind of work the award would honor, in language that would inspire journalists to want to win it.

Keegan was not a self-effacing person, but she stayed out of her stories, and this deference to her subjects was essential to her reporting. That's what Aronson and a small group of friends—among them myself—had uppermost in our minds as we wrestled to describe the award. In the end, the language we turned in to the Chicago Headline Club—which will oversee the Anne Keegan Award, and has allowed us to present it at the club's annual Lisagor Awards dinner—went like this:

"The Anne Keegan Award for Distinguished Journalism Reflecting the Dignity and Spirit of the Common Man. This award will be presented to the print journalist who tells stories of ordinary people in extraordinarily well-reported and well-written prose. Distinguished by compassion, character and courage, these stories will give voice to the voiceless while muting the voice of the reporter, benefit from the 'eye' more than from the 'I' of the reporter, and touch the human heart."

That was the easy part. We won't be able to judge entries just by counting I's and measuring the decibel level of the reporter's voice. Some actors act to lose themselves and others to find themselves, yet they comfortably share a stage. Some reporters introduce their subjects to their readers and leave the room, others stay to gently manipulate the conversation, and still others stand on a podium and direct it. Yet all can serve their subjects, even when those subjects are "ordinary people." Like any other award, I suppose, the Anne Keegan Award will ultimately be defined by the work submitted to the judges.

Aronson and I belong to a book club, and the last book we read was Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, written by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evans. Great swaths of this strange book, Agee's account of the lives endured by three white sharecropper families he lived among in southern Alabama in 1936, are pretty much unreadable. Someone in our group said the way to approach the book was to read it as a poem, preferably out loud. But 400 pages is a long poem.

Is Agee's "eye" keen? Indeed—his descriptions of the clothes the families wear, the food they eat, and the shacks they live in are obsessively detailed. But does he give voice to the voiceless? His families rarely get a word in. And is his own "I" muted? No. Agee is in despair, and he never lets us forget it. "I'll do what little I can in writing," he announces in the first few pages. "Only it will be very little. I'm not capable of it: and if I were, you would not go near it at all. For if you did, you would hardly bear to live."

Though the quest must be attempted, it's sure to fail, because the message is so vital: "namely, that these I will write of are human beings, living in this world, innocent of such twisting as these which are taking place over their heads, and that they were dwelt among, investigated, spied on, revered, and loved, by other quite monstrously alien human beings, in the employment of others still more alien." In one breath, Agee champions his subjects, patronizes them, exalts himself for what he's set out to do, and reviles himself for doing it.

Keegan might have wanted to punch him.

So is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men a clear example of what we Keegan Award judges are not looking for? That's the rub. For all its faults, it's a profound assertion of the reporter's duty to seek out ordinary people and write of them without cliches; 70 years later it's still in print, a landmark in the annals of inquiry by immersion. It even inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning sequel, And Their Children After Them: The Legacy of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: James Agee, Walker Evans, and the Rise and Fall of Cotton in the South, which was published by the writer Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson in 1990. Last June Maharidge and Williamson published Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression.

I asked Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here, if he'd read Agee's book. "I did read it, years ago," he replied—"but it's not an easy read. I've picked it up since on a number of occasions, and find it tough to wander back into. It feels closer to prose poetry than it does to journalistic storytelling, but the conceit behind it has of course been inspirational, the idea that people along the margins (those Studs called 'the etceteras of the world') have something to say. That the way they live their lives, the way they carry themselves can inform us. Evans' photos are as much at the heart of that book as Agee's writing. There's something respectful, even dignified about them. As if to say, these are our neighbors, and despite (or in spite of) their economic hard times, they, like the rest of us, dream and laugh and mourn and celebrate. And they manage—and do so with some dignity intact."

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