PROF. GORDON GREB
Rounding Up the Great Columnists
103 of Americas Greatest
Columnists Then and Now
By PROF. GORDON GREB
Whos No.1? Who won? Whats the score?
Today huge numbers of Americans seem constantly focused on epic struggles for achievement in politics, sports, theater, movies, books and television but never seem satisfied. Weve become so fascinated with winners that we stay glued to TV sets awaiting the verdict of who will be the last person standing on a reality show.
So its no surprise that a new book has just come out called Deadline Artists: Americas Greatest Newspaper Columns (Overlook Press, $29.95) that puts the spotlight on some winners who have been overlooked for nearly 300 years. Maybe thats why Overlook Press decided to publish it. Credit for making this possible goes to three journalists who stepped forward, selected the candidates for this competitive event and then sat back to judge who won.
Look into any dictionary and youll find it says a columnist is a writer of a column in a publication, such as a newspaper. While English literature courses proliferate with anthologies of essays from magazines and historians long ago gave us a A Treasury of Great Reporting with eyewitnesses to history, nobody thought of assembling the best work of newspaper columnists until today.
Since newspapers began around the 15th century, something like this collection is long overdue. With hundreds of candidates possible, its something of a miracle todays editors were able to narrow their choices down to 103 writers and 168 samples of their best work. Other art forms have taken the spotlight for years and the time has come for columnists to take their turn.
Baseballs Hall of Fame, for example, has been with us for more than one hundred years. Hollywoods Oscars for 85 years, and Broadways theatre Tony awards for 65. So its hats off to three practicing journalists - John Avalon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis who began searching for the best work of newspaper columnists since Benjamin Franklin gave us his best advice in Poor Richards Almanack in 1732.
The task of making this selection was enormous. Since columnists have appeared in hundreds of newspapers over the years and their subject matter has dealt with everything from advice, criticism, opinion, gossip, humor, and food, the editors of Deadline Artists have organized their collection under the headings of War, Politics, Sports, Humor, Crime, Civil Rights/Liberties, Local Voices, Hard Times, Farewells, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Each column is a gem. In acknowledging that some of the greatest were written centuries ago, finding and recognizing them is an achievement in itself. Good examples of why some are still relevant today are Fredrick Douglass The Destiny of Colored Americans (1849), Ernest Lawrence Thayers Casey at the Bat (1888), and William Allen Whites Mary White (1921).
Among the 102 writers in the collection, whats unique about two of them -- New York Citys Jimmy Breslin and Chicagos Mike Royko -- is how often they pop up covering different aspects of life. Breslin has six columns in the book (two on crime, three on hard times, and one farewell) and Royko has four (one on politics, one on humor, and two farewells), thus demonstrating the breadth of their interests and capabilities.
The collection begins with columns on war. Ernie Pyle has three of his best from World War II here, including The Death of Captain Waslow that appeared in Scripps Howard newspapers in l944 and Pete Hamill recounts the sobering events of 9/11 with his ground zero account, Death Takes Hold Among the Living in The New York Daily News.
When it comes to the funny stuff, Dave Barry walks off with the prize if making the most number of appearances means winning. Three of his funniest humorous columns are seen here, with How to Argue Effectively at the head of the list. But once is enough when it comes to old champs like Mark Twain, who proves why his writing still appeals with The Dangers of Lying in Bed and Will Rogers again proves the same with Congress is Funniest When Its Serious. Closing the ranks are Art Buchwald and Russell Baker who are runner-ups, since each is represented with two examples of his best.
One dips into this book like its a candy box of goodies since it satisfies so many different tastes. If you need a good argument, look for the chews (David Brooks, William F. Buckley, Jr., Heywood Broun); want a sweet to lighten up your day, try these softies (Ambrose Bierce, Mike Royko, Molly Ivins); and ready to face the awful things to digest, choose a few nuts (H.L. Mencken, Westbrook Pegler, and I.F. Stone).
Read enough of these greats and youll probably learn why winning isnt everything. Since the career of the Smothers Brothers on CBS was built on the fact Tommy Smothers constantly complained to his brother, Mom likes you best, maybe winning isnt so important to our happiness after all. Sometimes extreme measures can wreck the game. Take the words of Theodore Roosevelt, for example, who wrote in his column more than 90 years ago:
The absolute prerequisite for successful self-government in any people is the power of self-restraint which refuses to follow either the wild-eyed extremists of radicalism or the dull-eyed extremists of reaction. Either set of extremists will wreck the Nation just as certainly as the other.
Writers like us appearing in cyberspace (www.thecolumnists.com) would like to see our best work preserved, too. But were too busy using the new tools of our trade -- handheld phones, i-pads, laptops, desktops, nooks, kindles, or e-books to worry about it. All we can do is hope. If what weve done is any good, someone in the future will find us resting on a cloud and say, Hey, maybe people ought to read this again.
©2012 by Gordon Greb. The caricature of the author is by the author. The book cover is courtesy of Overlook Press. This column first posted Jan. 16, 2012.
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