Barging into the Whetstone branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library the other day, I was met by the penetrating gaze of a middle-aged man in a swimsuit who defied me to walk by without getting to know him better.
When I looked at that cover photo of Franklin Delano Roosevelt more closely, I let out a little “ooh” of delight. This was no ordinary presidential biography. This was The Man He Became, How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency, a new book by my friend James Tobin!
As I tucked the book under my arm, I thought first about the wheelchairs and other examples of Roosevelt’s disability that I saw during my visit to Springwood, Roosevelt’s Hyde Park, New York home.
Then, my thoughts turned to how much fun it was going to be to read the latest book by the sleek-haired historian who shares my love of literary journalism.
Jim and I both joined Miami University in 2006 – he as the Weipking Distinguished Professor in the journalism program and I as the Special Collections librarian who also served as the liaison librarian to the journalism program. When I met Jim at Miami’s New Faculty Orientation that August, our conversation quickly turned to literary journalism.
In this style of writing also known as narrative nonfiction, authors relay a true story, basing their narratives on thorough research and documented facts. Relying on storytelling techniques, they set scenes, develop characters and tell their tales in a compelling way. What results is something that reads like a fictional novel or short story, but actually is a report on real people and events.
As I earned my master’s degree in journalism at Ohio State, I learned how to report and edit for newspapers, write for magazines and practice public relations, but the quarter I spent immersed in literary journalism was the best of all. Beginning with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I progressed with page-turning alacrity through Tracy Kidder’s House, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and other memorable examples of this craft.
So when Jim taught “True Stories: Capstone in Literary Journalism” during the spring semester of 2008, I sat in on some sessions in order to discover some more examples of narrative nonfiction. Jim introduced me to The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup: My Encounters With Extraordinary People and The Orchid Thief, both by Susan Orlean; John McPhee’s The Survival of the Bark Canoe; Cynthia Gorney’s 1998 New York Times article, “How the Knee Became the Back,” and Michael Pollan’s 2002 New York Times contribution, “Power Steer,” among others.
Jim also shared an example of his own narrative nonfiction reporting: his special report in the June 4, 1995 issue of The Detroit News, “How a Woman Took a Chance for New Life,” about a doctor and a patient involved in a lung transplant. During his 12-year stint as a reporter for The Detroit News, Jim was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
In addition to literary journalism, Jim specializes in narrative history. His first book, Ernie Pyle’s War: America’s Eyewitness to World War II (1997), won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography. Great Projects: The Epic Story of the Building of America: From the Taming of the Mississippi to the Invention of the Internet followed in 2001. In 2003, Jim edited Reporting America at War: An Oral History, the companion volume to a PBS documentary on 20th century war correspondents. That same year, he published To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight. Jim also has two children’s picture books to his credit. He teamed with cartoonist Dave Coverly to create Sue McDonald Had a Book (2009) and The Very Inappropriate Word (2013).
What are the five things Jim thinks you should know about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, his affliction with polio, and his rise in politics? Watch his video here to find out. Then, see Jim in action, talking about the Wright Brothers in the University of Mary Washington’s Great Lives Lecture Series, here.
To read more about literary journalism, check out Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call; Literary Journalism, edited by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer; The New New Journalism: Conversations on Craft with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers, by Robert Boynton; and A History of American Literary Journalism: The Emergence of a Modern Narrative Form, by John C. Hartsock. Some of my other favorite examples of literary journalism include Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand; Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser; The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Erik Larson; and The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of The Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester.
If you’re in the mood for a field trip to Miami University’s Oxford campus, mark your calendar for two upcoming events there. Jim will talk about The Man He Became: How FDR Defied Polio to Win the Presidency on February 10 at 4:00 p.m. Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, another fine example of literary journalism, will discuss his work on March 18 at 4:00 p.m.