Last week I heard that the management of the Asbury Park Press is going to lay off another 50 people. Two weeks earlier, the Star-Ledger — which for years had seemed like the last bastion of real journalism in New Jersey, a place where reporters could do their jobs without getting dicked around too much — announced it would have to lay off a couple of hundred nonunion employees or the paper would be put up for sale. Before that, the Record announced it would be forcing most of its reporters to work from their cars. And, of course, the newspaper industry as a whole has been suffering from declining circulation and a host of other troubles, made all the worse by three decades of management decisions that rival those of the American auto industry for short-sighted pigheadedness.
At times like this, I think of Kenneth Fearing and the first poem of his that I ever read. It’s in Stranger at Coney Island, the book that introduced me to Fearing’s work:
This charge was laid upon me long ago; Do not forget;
Remember these lives, that the world in turn will not forget –
Big John Marino, the terror of his district,
Where none were as strong as he, none as handsome, as cunning, as cruel,
Saying, before the state destroyed him:
“Tell them the truth. Tell them everything, so they will always know.”
Now always, therefore, the great, the ruthless and bold, the one and only Big John –
Do not forget the fabulous bankrupt, and the vivid fortunes that somewhere, surely, the years still guard.
Keep the memory of an heiress, flashlit favorite in a season that cannot fade;
Never let fade, altogether, the programs identifying those others, miscellaneous members of the cast –
Each of them unique, though now the names, faces and stories are obscured.
Each saying in words, or underneath the words, and some with their sealed eyes and cold lips
(But even so they were sure of themselves, still sure)
Urging always: “It is vital;
You must remember the fateful beginning, fully to understand the end.”
(Though of course there can be no real end);
To grasp the motives, fully, it is vital; to remember the stamp
of the mind,
Vital to know even the twist of the mind . . .”
You will remember me?
Do not forget a newspaperman who kept his word.
One of the reasons I like this poem so much is that aside from its plainspoken diction — Fearing’s verse reads like a meeting ground between Walt Whitman and John Dos Passos — it captures the sense of mission shared by most journalists. That may sound funny nowadays, after decades of conservative whining about liberal bias and corporate dumbing-down of newspapers, but it’s true. A lot if not most of the people who went into the newspaper business went into it because, like me, they wanted a job they could live for rather than off.
That’s what buoys you through the low pay and lousy working hours, that’s why you put up with a job that makes you a magnet for cranks and pests, that’s why you have straight-faced conversations with people you know are lying to you as a matter of course, that’s why you endure the corner-cutting, shoddy thinking and management game-playing. Your sense of mission requires you to capture what is happening and relay it to your readers. You are the one who knows the score, and you take pleasure in that. And on the day the bullshit finally crests whatever intellectual dike you’ve built for yourself and you think, The hell with it, I’m sick of fighting with these idiots, I’m just going to do my job and go home, that’s the day you start looking for another job. Because if newspapering no longer gives you that exhilarating sense of mission, why on earth would you want a job at a newspaper? Working at a newspaper is addictively romantic, right up to the moment it becomes unendurable drudgery.
Though he briefly worked for Time magazine, Fearing was never a journalist, nor was he ever a lumberjack, a millhand or a salesman, as he sometimes half-jokingly claimed. He was always a freelance writer, most seriously of poetry, though he was too self-deprecating to call himself a poet. He also wrote pulp fiction and softcore pornography under a variety of pseudonyms, and several novels under his own name. Born in 1902, Fearing came of age in the Roaring Twenties and clawed his way through the Depression, an experience that only heightened his innate pessimism.
As a writer, Fearing is not quite forgotten but not really well known. His novels, like his poetry, were praised by critics but sold poorly. Even the critics deserted him in 1942 when he published Clark Gifford’s Body, a fractured storyline littered with two dozen or so narrators and a timeframe that skipped back and forth across several years. His brief moment in the sun came in 1946 with The Big Clock, which ranks with Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest as one of the most perfect noir novels ever written, and suddenly big money came rolling in from Hollywood. Fearing, who had been a functioning alcoholic for most of his adult life, could suddenly afford to start drinking first thing in the morning, and it affected his work as well as his health. Failed marriages, loss of critical esteem, penury and even a brush with McCarthyism did nothing to lighten his final years, and he died of cancer in 1961.
Fearing probably wouldn’t have been surprised by his lingering semi-fame, but there’s no doubt about the continued durability of his best work. The Big Clock (as well as Clark Gifford’s Body) was recently reissued in a handsome paperback edition by NYRB Classics and (as Geoff will tell you) it remains as intricate, thrilling and surrealistically funny today as the day it was published. It has inspired two official adaptations — The Big Clock and No Way Out — as well as Out of Time, an underrated 2003 Denzel Washington vehicle with an unacknowledged debt to Fearing’s premise. The Library of America has a nice selection of Fearing’s verse, and the National Poetry Foundation has collected all of the man’s poems in a single volume for pretty much the same price.
As I said, Fearing was never really a journalist, though he put his time at Time to good use by making Henry Luce the model for the murderous publisher in The Big Clock. But his pessimistic temperament would have made him a perfect fit with many of the journalists I know: that strange combination of pride and self-abnegation that makes them ferocious in pursuing a story and passive in looking after their own interests. Their sadness — maybe I should call it their tragedy — is that their commitment is not mirrored by equal commitment from their employers. Reporters are spending the best years of their lives winning daily battles. Meanwhile, the generals have been hard at work losing the war. Kenneth Fearing would have understood.
The newspaper trade has always been an industry that takes more from its employees than it gives, but with this recent news I’m afraid many of my old newspaper buddies are looking less like journalists than abused spouses. It’s beyond sad. They kept their word. If only the business they work for would do likewise.