Jeff Sharlet’s ‘Radiant Truths’: How Religion Shaped American Literary Journalism
Every era has its own “New Journalism,” but if there’s one thing that’s true about each New Journalism, it’s that it is never actually new. There was a New Journalism in the early 19th century, when printing costs became so low that newspapers could be sold to the working class for cheap; this gave birth to the “penny press,” which was labeled a kind of new journalism. And then, later in that same century, critic Matthew Arnold popularized the term as a derisive remark about what is often called “yellow journalism,” or sensationalism. And of course, in the mid-20th century, Tom Wolfe re-introduced the world to the New Journalism, but today we mostly call what he was talking about “literary journalism.”
But the origins of today’s literary journalism reach back to the 19th century and owe a lot to so-called “sensationalists” who, unlike tabloid journalists of today, actually reported true and important stories that the educated elite thought too base to be considered legitimate journalism. The sensationalists often had a reform agenda. Among these early reform-minded New Journalists, was William T. Stead, a writer who was likely to sermonize as he was to tell a story, and often did both in the course of a single article.
I had never heard of W.T. Stead until encountering his story “Maggie Darling,” an exposé of prostitution in 1890s Chicago, in Jeff Sharlet’s new anthology of literary journalism about religion, Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, & Other Essays on American Belief. Stead tells the harrowing tale of Maggie Darling’s life in and out of prostitution, but only after preaching a bit about the hypocrisy of Christians who don’t welcome sinners into their churches. In his introduction, Sharlet encourages readers to skip past the sermon in order to get to the actual story, but to return to it afterward. If you follow Sharlet’s advice, you’ll read a piece that could’ve been published today, and then get a clear sense of how contemporary literary journalism evolved from the reform journalism of the 1800s.
In his introduction to the book, Sharlet explains that literary journalism is a “mutant genre,” one that documents “a tension between fact and art, what is and our expression of it.” He goes on to say that literary journalism’s only essential truth is “the impossibility of perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise.” This, he writes, makes it “uniquely suited for the subject of American religion.” Stead’s story, and even his sermon, reflect the mutant nature of this genre, and Stead’s piece is just one of many from well-known, as well as a few lesser-known, writers that Sharlet includes in this collection.
Having these stories gathered into one eminently readable anthology makes Radiant Truths an important book. I know people say that a lot about all kinds of books, but this one really is important, particularly if you take into account a couple influential trends in American culture. The first, the broader trend, is that American religious identity, which has always been more fragmented than some like to believe, is becoming even more so. That is, religion has always been important to Americans, but it used to be possible to pretend that the United States was a “Christian nation.” But, as Sharlet and Peter Manseau showed in their 2004 religious travelogue Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible—an excerpt of which appears in this collection—it is completely ridiculous to talk in singular terms about American religion.
The other trend perhaps has a narrower reach; it has to do with changes within journalism in the age of the Internet. Though a decade ago everyone seemed certain that the nature of reading news online would all but guarantee that reportage would become shorter and shallower, in many ways, the opposite has been true. Of course, there are plenty examples of the short and shallow, but we are also seeing a trend toward “long reads,” in-depth literary journalism-type pieces published online and read and shared far beyond the reach of the print magazines who used to be the only place to find such writing.
As was the case in the 1800s, it is precisely the changes in the medium through which journalism is delivered that contribute to these trends. In the 19th century, it was the proliferation of the penny press and today it has a lot to do with the ubiquity of mobile devices. But Sharlet takes us back to 1863 in a piece by Walt Whitman, who, along with Thoreau (the second author in the collection) Sharlet sees as forming the “hybrid creation of modern literary journalism.” These pieces are perfect examples of the kind of writing that follows throughout the book, writers spanning centuries from the late 1800s up through 2011—from Whitman writing about the Civil War to a short piece by Francine Prose about Occupy Wall Street. In Whitman’s story we read gruesome and raw reporting on the Battle of Chancellorsville, interspersed with beautiful descriptions of nature, the kind you’d expect from Walt Whitman.
The kind of description and attention to detail that Whitman employs is what puts the “literary” in literary journalism. Other standouts include Mark Twain’s satirical piece about traveling the Holy Land with Christian “pilgrim enthusiasts,” a haunting first-person account of voodoo ceremony by Zora Neale Hurston, H.L. Mencken doing his best H.L. Mencken, a selection from Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, and one of my favorite recent pieces of literary journalism about religion, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Upon This Rock,” in which he describes attending the Christian music festival called Creation.
A good anthology is marked by being a launchpad, sending the reader out in a thousand different directions, and that’s exactly what Radiant Truths is. It has a particular importance to me; I’m preparing to enter a PhD program in the fall with the intention of studying literary journalism and religion and I found a dissertation idea on nearly every page. But there is great value in Radiant Truths even for those not already interested in the genre; by arranging the pieces in chronological order, Sharlet manages to map out the history of religious thought and practice in this country over the last couple hundred years. Though he acknowledges, by way of a footnoted apology in the introduction, that some religions and sects may be underrepresented, his anthology still ends up painting a pretty complete picture.
Sharlet introduces each chapter, filling in the blanks where selections from larger works require it, but mostly placing each piece in its context both in terms of time and importance. In his introduction to Zora Neale Hurston’s surreal and riveting piece “Hoodoo,” Sharlet gets right to heart of the book’s purpose. We “chase after literary journalism,” to learn to “see in more ways than one,” he writes quoting Hurston. Certainly that’s the nature of religion, concerning itself with evidence of things not seen, as St. Paul famously defined faith, but it’s also the nature of this kind of writing that lives in the space between fact and fiction, “half-report, half-story; half-ethnography, half-magic.”
The magic of literary journalism is put to a variety of uses, from the reform-minded journalism of William T. Stead, to the novelizing of historical events by Mailer, to the rare glimpse inside an Amish community offered by Matthew Teague. Radiant Truths features some of America’s best writers, well known and not, at the top of their game, attempting to explain the unexplainable. And Sharlet is an excellent guide showing how, in almost every case, the writers he showcases get close to that impossible goal of literary journalism, “perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise.”