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With a Little Help from 100 Fellow Columnists

by on January 07, 2015 6:45 AM

It's prep week for us PSU profs and I'm about to teach a class I've never taught before so I'm prepping my brains out.

Fortunately, it's a class in the art of opinion writing, an activity I've been teaching myself how to do for the past 25 years.

So I ought to know something about it. Or is this a classic case of "those who can't, teach?"

Maybe so, but I'm not teaching this class alone. I'll have the help of 100 columnists whose work has been gathered in a book called "Deadline Artists: American's Greatest Newspaper Columns."

Some of the columnists, it must be said, are dabblers: Teddy Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Orson Welles, Woody Guthrie. Some are more famous for their other literary endeavors: Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, O. Henry, Mark Twain.

Here are columns blasting the folly of war and praising the heroism of warriors. Here are hard-boiled crime reportage and tearjerkers about crime victims. Here are columns that crusade for civil rights in the '50s and '60's and for gay rights in the '90s.

Here are mockery of politicians and mockery-in-the-mirror, in which the columnist pokes fun at himself. Here are experiments: columns in the form of verse, of letters, of lists, of imaginary conversations.

And here is Dave Barry at his LOL funniest: "Seriously, a tax audit is not the end of the world. All that happens is, you take your financial records to the IRS office, and they put you into a tank filled with giant stinging leeches. Many taxpayers are pleasantly surprised to find that they die within hours."

Great stuff. Still, I had second thoughts about this book after I chose it. You don't see too many collections of columns in bookstores because the form has the shelf life of a bagel – fresh today, stale tomorrow. Case in point: a 1988 column by Hunter Thompson about a sex scandal engulfing televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Assuming you know who Swaggart was (my students won't), there's still Thompson's last line to parse: "Maybe Alphonse Karr was wrong."

I confess I didn't know bupkis about Alphonse Karr and therefore had no idea what he might have been wrong about. Turns out he's the 19th century French writer who coined the immortal phrase, "plus ça change, plus ç'est la même chose" – a bit of literary trivia well worth knowing.

The columns are full of now-obscure references to once-prominent people. But even the ones about some of the great events of the past century or so would, I feared, baffle most undergraduates, whose knowledge of history is, shall we say, something less than exhaustive.

Consider the contribution of the extraordinary Dorothy Thompson, a rare woman in the men's world of pre-World War II column writing. Among her claims to fame: She was the first American journalist to be booted out of Nazi Germany and in 1939 Time magazine considered her second only to Eleanor Roosevelt among influential American women.

Thompson's column in "Deadline Artists" is about the agreement that allowed Germany to bite off a chunk of Czechoslovakia in 1938. Today, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's misguided attempt to "appease" Adolf Hitler is routinely invoked when an American president fails to stand up to one of the world's bullies. Obama's inaction in the face of Syrian President Assad's use of chemical weapons in his country's civil war drew such comparisons.

But Thompson saw what a disaster this move was at the time. This wasn't the peace that Chamberlain had hoped to maintain, she wrote, "but the initiation of a terrific world crisis."

My first thought when I read this column was that students would not have sufficient background to grasp its significance. My second thought: What a terrific way to learn about this pivotal moment in world history. Into the syllabus it went.

I had to think my way past similar qualms about a column by Joseph and Stewart Alsop on the subject of loyalty oaths administered to State Department employees in the midst of the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s. In those days, even to have read a book by someone with left-leaning ideas was cause for suspicion.

"If this country wants a government service in which ignorance is at a premium," the brothers Alsop wrote, "it will doubtless get what it deserves."

My first thought: I'll need more words to explain what the Alsops were talking about than they needed to write the column in the first place.

My second thought: It's worth it.

"Deadline Artists" is full of such twofers: For the price of one column you learn about some world-changing event and you learn about the art of column writing.

The other valuable lesson of "Deadline Artists" is that you don't have to be an expert to be a columnist. You just have to be insightful, do your homework so you can support your arguments with facts, and write lovely sentences.

Make no mistake: It will be a challenge to teach this class. Good thing I'll have a legion of role models to help me.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for StateCollege.com won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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