Underwood, Literary Journalism in British and American Prose

2023-2 | Download PDF

Underwood, Doug. Literary Journalism in British and American Prose: An Historical Overview. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2019, 286 pp., $55 (paperback). Reviewed by Erika J. Pribanic-Smith, University of Texas at Arlington, epsmith@uta.edu.

In Literary Journalism in British and American Prose: An Historical Overview, Doug Underwood aims to examine British and American literary journalism and its contributions to the history of English prose—both independently and intertwined. Focusing on a select group of representative journalist-literary figures, Underwood explores how journalists have served as literary critics and contributed to fiction and nonfiction literary genres.  He counters literary scholars’ views of “mere journalism” as an inferior discipline while demonstrating that journalism has provided a literary outlet for a diverse range of historically marginalized voices.

After an introduction that outlines the various definitions and forms of literary journalism, the book consists of seven chapters exploring the topic semi-chronologically. The first two chapters focus on British journalism, beginning with the origins of literary journalism in the eighteenth-century British Isles before moving in the second chapter to the “golden age” of British literary criticism, from the mid-eighteenth to late-nineteenth century. American journalism first appears in the third chapter, where Underwood traces more than two hundred years of American literary journalism compared and contrasted with its British counterpart. The remainder of the book takes a more topical approach encompassing literary journalism on both sides of the ocean, exploring literary journalism as a forum for marginalized individuals, the interplay between literary journalism and the fictional novel, the contrast between high-brow and popular literary journalism, and literary journalism as an academic discipline. The epilogue summarizes the complicated relationship between journalism and the literary canon. Underwood concludes that journalists “have created important literary works in both fictional and nonfictional narrative forms—but they also have served as important critics of those works and participants in the debates about what literature should be treated as canonical” (196).

Underwood largely synthesizes and builds upon a plethora of secondary works on literary, journalism, British, and American history, including his prior books: The Undeclared War Between Journalism and Fiction, Journalism and the Novel: Truth and Fiction, 1700-2000, and Chronicling Trauma—the latter being an examination of how American and British journalist-literary figures drew on their own experiences with trauma and violence over three centuries. Underwood knows his subject area well and has written on it extensively, which begs the question of what is new in his latest offering.  Indeed, the books’ discussions of journalists’ fiction and narrative nonfiction writing overlap. However, Literary Journalism in British and American Prose adds ample discussion of reviews and criticism as a form of literary journalism. Underwood argues that the most recognized critics “greatly influenced the cultural life of both regular audiences and the high literary community” (41) as moral commentators, political advocates, and arbiters of literary taste.

Furthermore, the chapter on marginalized voices is welcome at a time when journalism historians are making greater efforts to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Underwood identifies the push for women’s and civil rights as a catalyst for expanding involvement in journalistic ventures. He highlights writers from marginalized populations, publications dedicated to those populations, and journalism and literature as outlets to discuss issues affecting marginalized groups. Women receive the greatest attention; Underwood devotes a small section of the chapter to Black and LGBTQ journalists as critics and literary figures—a discussion that could be greatly expanded. Underwood does not confine diversity and inclusion to chapter four, however. For example, while outlining the origins of British literary journalism and discussing the democratization of the periodical press in chapter one, Underwood notes that the publications of many journalist-literary figures “were allied with the push for greater opportunities for people who had been excluded by class, religion, or domestic status” (30)—particularly women.

Underwood’s writing is geared toward a scholarly audience, employing some language that may not be accessible to a general audience and hiding long passages of valuable contextual information in the endnotes. However, those who venture to the back of the book will find three helpful appendices. Appendix 1 spans twenty-eight pages with a list of British and American journalist-literary figures identified as discursive, narrative, imaginative, diverse (encompassing women, minority, and multicultural), LGBTQ, reform/radical/investigative, and humor/satire journalists. Appendices 2.1 and 2.2 list journalist-literary figures and their works that appear in anthologies and canon assessments, first alphabetically by author and then chronologically by publication date. The latter list identifies the type of writing as apologue, biography/memoir, discursive, theatre, parody, or poetry, or by the extent to which the writing is fully fictional, mostly fictional, half fictional, semi-nonfiction, or fully nonfiction.

The appendices make the book beneficial for anyone interested in literary journalism. Literary Journalism in British and American Prose also provides valuable background for scholars interested in literary history or journalism history—especially narrative journalism, critical journalism, journalism as a political tool, or diversity and inclusion in journalism. As such, the book would be a welcomed addition to the syllabi of any graduate courses covering those topics.