This Mutant Genre

1. Real Toads


Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, Yale University Press

. . . nor till the autocrats among us can be

            “literalists of

            the imagination”—above

            insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads

                     in them,” shall we have it.1

The title of the 1919 poem by Marianne Moore from which I’ve borrowed these lines is “Poetry.” But its paradox—imaginary gardens with real toads in them—is at the heart of literary journalism, the practice of using fictional techniques to write factual stories. This poem, for instance, is a fact, a real toad; my appropriation of it, my arrangement of the facts, is the garden.

Moore kept revising “Poetry” for five decades. The version she published in her 1967 Complete Poems did away with all of the above, leaving only three curmudgeonly lines.2 (Strictures of copyright law prevent me from quoting much more than “dislike it.”) Does that erasure make the real toads as imaginary as the garden? I don’t think so. But then, I’m a believer: I believe in the so-called art of fact.


2. Something Brought You Here

Over the years I’ve written about churches, temples, and Buddhist centers, reported on exorcisms (individual and group), prayer cells, and prayer rallies, squinted at my notebook among thousands of teens thrilling violently to the Book of Judges. There were quieter moments, too: kitchen table shabbat takeout chicken with the last Yiddish writer; late night mojitos with a born-again Bible editor considering rebirth, third time’s the charm; whiskey with Mormons; tea before a shrine to an anarchist martyr’s slingshot. I’m most interested in the subset of religion known as belief, and that interest sometimes leads me to people who might reject the term religion altogether: I’ve marched in Spain with Jewish-American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, whispered with cadres of the Revolutionary Communist Party (certain that any Brooklyn café I proposed for a meeting must be “wired”), and steamed with “primitivists” who insisted on nudity as a precondition for our conversation, the better to be honest with one another. As a writer I practice participant-observation, so, with as clear-as-can-be disclaimers—“Look, I don’t really share your beliefs . . . ”—I’ve often joined in. I’ve eaten holy dirt and shoveled it, too, wrestled with “spiritual warriors,” and prayed with actual warriors that Jesus should grant them righteous aim. I’ve called down the moon with half-naked witches and laid hands—spiritually speaking, of course—on whoever asked me to do so, even knowing that my touch was most likely profane. “It’s no accident that you came here,” someone always tells me, here being her church, his coven, their compound, the midnight mass in the graveyard. “It’s like something brought you here.”

If you write about religious people, even your friends may start making certain assumptions about the state of your soul. That is, they’ll imagine that you’re either a scholar or a seeker. That you write about religion for the sake of scientific inquiry or that you write about religion because you’re searching for one. That you’re devising a theory, or pursuing a process of elimination. That, sooner or later, you’ll arrive at an answer.

I prefer the questions posed by anthropologist Angela Zito. “What does the term ‘religion,’ when actually used by people, out loud, authorizein the production of social life?” she asks in an essay called “Religion Is Media.” The production of social life—that’s the kind of phrase anthropologists use to draw attention to the ways in which we compose “the stories we tell ourselves in order to live,” as literary journalist Joan Didion famously wrote in The White Album. We are so busy living these stories that we rarely consider their fabrication, a term I use literally: Every story is “made up,” to the extent that stories exist only if we make them. “Most of us do not notice it happening,” writes Zito, circling around the “it,” a matter of “self-making” and meaning-finding with yet more questions she finds within that single word, religion, questions about remembering and forgetting, facts and fictions. What do we set in motion when we say religion, out loud? “What acts can then possibly be performed?” Zito asks. “What stories can be told?”3

The stories collected here, which are about what happens when we say “religion” out loud, begin with Walt Whitman at war and end with Francine Prose driven to tears by the sight of Whitman’s words. A neat enough trick, but don’t let it fool you. There’s an argument to be made for the chronology of this book, and by God I’m going to make it, just as I’m going to apologize for all that is missing. (Sorry, Mormons!)[*] But periodization and demographic representation aren’t my concern here. I could murmur about religious pluralism or preach religious literacy—both really terrific, I wholeheartedly endorse them—but this book is not your key to either. This book is an anthology. A selection. A matter of choice. Which is to say, as believers and unbelievers so often do, it’s personal.


3. The Immediate World

“‘For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it,’” James Agee writes in his 1941 masterpiece of literary journalism Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, “and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science, or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.”4

“Roar in the heart of itself as a symphony”: That is the imagined, the revisive. We are as bound by the imagined as by the flesh, and “the cruel radiance of what is” includes metaphor, the translation of light into sound into language. Wendy Doniger, a historian of religion, a scholar of myth, points to the common roots of those two terms, metaphor and translation: “English derivatives from related Greek and Latin words for the same thing: ‘bringing across.’” If a simple definition of literary journalism, perhaps we can at least state its ambition: “bringing across.”5

Eugene Jolas, the editor of an influential early-twentieth-century journal called transition, wrote in 1935 of his desire for a new kind of writing. His description cuts close to that idea of “bringing across”: “The literature of the future will probably express the irruption of the supernatural, the phantastic, the eternal, into quotidian life.” Although he published mainly fiction and poetry, he was dismissive of such forms. “The short story, the novel, the poem, etc.,” would not do. He proposed instead the “paramyth”: “a phantasmagoric mixture of the poem in prose, the popular tale of folklore, the psychograph, the essay, the myth, the saga, the humoresque . . . a mirror of a four-dimensional universe.”6

Literary journalism is something like that. The name itself is a mashup: literary and journalism, art, or that which critics call art, vs. antiart, belles lettres vs. the who-what-where-when-why. In 1887, the critic Matthew Arnold called such writing “a new journalism”—“full of ability, novelty, variety, sensation, sympathy, [and] generous instincts”—anticipating the name by which the genre would come to be known during the 1960s.7 New, then, is too old. Some prefer the label creative nonfiction, the name with which the National Endowment for the Arts, beginning in the early 1980s, and the academy, even now, paper over discomfort with journalism, considered vocational, crass. Creativenonfiction, then, is a term of bureaucratic finesse, its adjective too vague, its noun a negation. There’s the seemingly more modest narrative nonfiction, but its adjective too tightly dictates form. It excludes the fragment, the argument, the found and the collaged. There’s a term, increasingly in vogue, which contains all of these: lyric essay. Pretty. But it lacks creative tension. “The lyric essay,” writes its most nimble champion, John D’Agata, “doesn’t care about figuring out why papa lost the family farm, or why mama took to drink. It’s more interested in replicating the feeling of that experience rather than reporting it.” But reportage is replication; and I’m more interested in “the feeling of that experience,” including the foreclosure notice on papa’s farm and the data points of mama’s despair, than I am in excluding information for the sake of form.8

To be fair, D’Agata, writing with his former teacher Deborah Tall in 1997, defined the lyric essay only as a subgenre. And yet, within “creative nonfiction” as an academic field, the lyric essay so thoroughly displaced other possibilities that ten years later, D’Agata lamented the claims he’d made for the lyric essay at the expense of “memoir . . . criticism, journalism, all narratives, etcetera.” That didn’t mean he’d abandoned what he and Tall had termed the “primacy” of “artfulness.” “Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?” D’Agata asks in the introduction to his 2009 anthology, The Lost Origins of the Essay. In answer, he argues for a “clear objective”: art, “an alternative to commerce.” And yet, says the cliché of our digital age with at least some truth, information wants to be free; and art has ever been sold.9

Perhaps all we need is essay, or Michel de Montaigne’s sixteenth-century essai—French for “attempt.” Perhaps it is enough just to try. “A loose sally of the mind,” Samuel Johnson famously defined the term in his eighteenth-century dictionary. “An irregular, undigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition.” Such a definition has much to recommend it, not least its appeal to indigestion: an essay, we might say, is a piece of writing that doesn’t go down easy. It’s suitable fare only for those who can stomach contradictions, such as this one from the contemporary Belarusian literary journalist Svetlana Alexievich: “Art may lie but a document never does.” That is, a document may be full of lies, but its existence is a fact. As soon as we present it, however, we’re on the “irregular” terrain of art. It’s from this difficult country that I’ve selected the essays, the documents, that in this volume I choose to call literary journalism. I looked for pieces that “essay” these contradictions, true tales that recognize that the wrinkle in any truth is always the truth teller herself, essays that attempt to become documents and take stock of their failures to completely do so as an inevitable part of the story.10

In 1926, a young critic named John Grierson translated the French term documentaire, which referred to travelogues—or, as he later put it, “shimmying exoticisms”—into a new English word, documentary, which he later defined as “creative treatment of actuality.” He envisioned and went on to practice documentary film as an art comprising “the blazing fact of the matter,” its poetic power derived from its faithfulness to observable reality. Fact—or, really the dream of fact, the ideal of perfect accuracy—redirects the artist’s imaginative power from the skirmishes of genre toward the endless question of “what is,” radiant or opaque or even shimmying. Fact liberates art from the requirement of form. The literary journalist need be loyal only to the facts as best he or she can perceive them. Not structure or antistructure or tradition or innovation. Only perception.11


4. But-but-but

I explain this to my students through a story about a collaborative piece I wrote with the novelist and literary journalist Peter Manseau. Our subject was the performance of a song. The facts of the situation were remarkable: a serial killer in a church van had murdered a young woman, a soloist in another church’s choir. The killer had been caught and convicted. The victim’s church declared “Victory Day,” to be observed through the wearing of red, the color of the blood of the lamb. And, maybe, that of the killer they wanted to see given the electric chair, a sentence they sang for with an old gospel standard, “Power in the Blood.” Peter and I attended one of the killer’s hearings. In Peter’s first pass at the story, the killer wore a red suit to his hearing. Only, he hadn’t. It’d been beige, a jumpsuit, prison-issue.

“Red is better,” said Peter. He was then mainly a novelist.[†]

“But-but-but,” I said, with great eloquence. What I meant to say was that red isn’t better, it’s only more symmetrical. It’s a ready-made that never was, a symbolic reality dropped in rather than revealed. Such symbols, imagined but not perceived, obscure the smaller truths that constitute literary journalism.

We settled on this: “Every day of the trial he’d worn a new suit, but now he wore a prison-issue coverall, beige. It rounded his shoulders and made his chest look hollow, but still he smiled, even for the prosecutor, just as he had smiled at the reverend when the reverend had sat in the gallery, praying for justice and power and blood.”12 It was our fight over “red” that sent us back to our notebooks, where we discovered the smile.

Maybe the distinction is this: Fiction’s first move is imagination; nonfiction’s is perception. But the story, the motive and the doubt, everything we believe—what’s that? Imagination? Or perception? Art? Or information? D’Agata achieves paradoxical precision when he half-jokingly proposes a broader possibility: “that genre known sometimes as ‘something else.’”13


5. “American” and “Religion”

American and religion are no less problematic terms, a fact this book not only acknowledges but also embraces. It’s a tight squeeze, too, and at times uncomfortably so. It’s easy to argue that Ellen Willis’s journey to Jerusalem in pursuit of a brother who has made aliyah is an extension of the American imagination, but my inclusion of Amy Wilentz’s sojourn in Port-au-Prince pulls Haiti under the American banner. But so, too, does the long history of U.S. interference in the affairs of that nation, casting a heavy shadow over its religious life. Religion, meanwhile, as used by scholars, encompasses far more than this book could hope to, from the mundane to the supernatural, and at the same time, perhaps, less. Norman Mailer’s epiphanies at the 1968 exorcism of the Pentagon are clearly as religious as they are political, but Meridel Le Sueur’s tale of her conversion to the cause of a strike is so purely political that it becomes religious. The most uncomplicated, sincere expressions of American religion to be found in what follows is that of a group of Hmong immigrants who don’t distinguish between their spiritual practice and medicine. Religion, or science? Laotian, or American?

The argument I believe emerges from this collection of voices, this cacophony choir, is that this something-else genre, literary journalism, is uniquely well suited to the documentation and representation of the strange category of American religion. Americans worry over religion, argue about religion, tell stories about religion, not just because of our ambiguous First Amendment (which promises both freedom of and freedom from religion) but because American identity—and American democracy—depends on a constant renegotiation of terms. The problems inherent in attempting to speak about “American religion” are integral to the development of literary journalism—a genre with roots around the world and deep in the past but which came into its own here in the United States as those states sought to separate, notably in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, one of the most splendidly misshapen testimonies of nineteenth-century American writing.

It’s a hurdy-gurdy piece of work, lurching and swinging, tabulating and testifying with no concern for the conventions of structure. Whitman seeks a more sublime pattern, that of a reality in which the facts of darkness and light are topsy-turvy, at times black and white, at times interchangeable. “Following, I give some gloomy experiences,” he warns in a note to the first page, and there is indeed gloom in his account of the Civil War, but breaking through the darkness every now and then there is also the moon. “So white, so marbly pure and dazzling, yet soft,” Whitman writes in an entry titled “The White House by Moonlight”: “—the White House of future poems, and of dreams and dramas, there in the soft and copious moon—the gorgeous front, in the trees, under the lustrous flooding moon, full of reality, full of illusion—”14

That paradox—“full of reality, full of illusion”—and the means by which Whitman arrives at it—a self-conscious immersion in a light that reveals even as it enchants—contains within it the dilemma of documenting “things unseen.” It might also be said to contain the whole of literary journalism, a tightrope between “evidence”—the first half of the Apostle’s Paul’s formulation, the facts—and the imagination that conjures it into a story. The anthropologist Michael Taussig, who sometimes doubles as a literary journalist, expands on the paradox in theoretical terms: “To see the myth in the natural and the real in magic, to demythologize history and to reenchant its reified representation: that is a first step.”15 Taussig is writing about Joseph Conrad’s 1902 novel The Heart of Darkness, but in this book that “first step” belongs to Whitman, who forty years earlier sought a formless form with which to represent what he experienced as the paradox of civil war in America: the truths we hold to be self-evident, marching against one another.

*          *          *

The rest of Whitman’s note is an explanation of his method that is as good a starting point for literary journalism as any I know:

I commenced at the close of 1862, and continued steadily through ’63, ’64, and ’65, to visit the sick and wounded of the army, both on the field and in the hospitals in and around Washington city. From the first I kept little note-books of impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory of names and circumstances, and what was specially wanted, &c. In these I brief’d cases, persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bedside, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead. Some were scratch’d down from narratives I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes. I have dozens of such little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil’d and creas’d livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten’d with a pin. I leave them just as I threw them by after the war, blotch’d here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, sometimes at the clinique, not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march. Most of the pages . . . are verbatim copies of those lurid and blood-smutch’d little note-books.16

In Memoranda During the War, the Civil War journal he self-published before grafting it into Specimen Days, he calls these “the convulsive memories.”17

As Joan Didion writes in “On Keeping a Notebook”: “It all comes back.”18


6. It All Comes Back

Usually literary journalism is defined by a list of techniques. In his valuable anthology The Literary Journalists, Norman Sims offers “immersion,” “structure,” “accuracy,” “voice,” “responsibility,” and “the masks of men,” or “symbolic realities,” as literary journalist Richard Rhodes puts it.19 Tom Wolfe, in his anthology The New Journalism, narrows it down to four: “scene-by-scene construction,” “dialogue,” “third-person point of view,” and “status details,” Wolfe’s version of Rhodes’s symbolic realities. Wolfe’s definition of “status details” is a brilliant list of its own: “This is the recording of everyday gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, modes of behaving toward children, servants, superiors, inferiors, peers, plus the various looks, glances, poses, styles of walking and other symbolic details that might exist within a scene.”20 That is, the metaphors of daily life, along with the literary techniques with which to render them as a story.

But it’s not as simple as a method. Wolfe locates the origins of these “devices”—or, at least, their development into tools to be reinvented by literary journalists—in the nineteenth-century realist fiction of Balzac and Dickens, the “unique power” of which, he writes, is “variously know as its ‘immediacy,’ its ‘concrete reality,’ its ‘emotional involvement,’ its ‘gripping’ or ‘absorbing’ quality.”21 That tips the scales too far toward the fictive, plot-driven side of Whitman’s formulation, “full of reality, full of illusion.” The term immediacy, when applied to a story made up of printed words—literally mediation, these symbolic little squiggles of ink—is a deception, a veil that obscures the constructedness of the story, the quality of having been made.

Absorbing, a term better left to advertisements for paper towels, implies only a passive position for the reader, soaked up by illusion alone. That’s neither realist fiction nor journalism, but rather what screenwriter Ed Burns, in an episode of the television series The Wire—the greatest Victorian novel of the twenty-first century—mocks as “the Dickensian aspect.”22 It’s fact manipulated into sensation, sensation stripped down to sentiment and dressed up again as a too-familiar tale. The results—the work of Wolfe’s lesser imitators, fake memoirs, reality TV—are grotesques, reminders that literary journalism is not the product of a technique but the documentation of a tension between fact and art, what is and our expression of it.

Which returns me to Whitman. It’s not Whitman’s poetry but his meditation on the piety of the term literary that provides us with an essential clue to the creation—or, creation myth, as the case may be—of literary journalism. Piety, so intimately bound up in our idea of religion, is ultimately a more fundamental term, broader than its colloquial religious application. Piety is a form of gratitude, “the proper acknowledgment of the sources of our existence and progress through life,” writes the philosopher Jeffrey Stout.23 But it’s more often aped. In religion we call this sanctimony; in literature, we call this, well, literature. Writing thought worthy of reverence unto segregation, shelved in big-box bookstores separately from the rabble of ordinary “fiction.”

In Democratic Vistas, the long essay he published in 1870–71 as his prose companion to Leaves of Grass, Whitman searched for a more vibrant piety, a wisdom that could be kept alive without sacrificing democracy. He did not disown the past, he set it in motion, “all the best experience of humanity, folded, saved, freighted to us here” in the “tiny ships we call Old and New Testament, Homer, Eschylus, Plato, Juvenal, &c.” Whitman loved the “old undying elements,” but the art he dreamed of for America would “adjust them to new combinations,” “into groups, unities, appropriate to the modern, the democratic, the west, and to the practical occasions and needs of our own cities, and of the agricultural regions.” Art for farms; stories for new cities. A nationalist project, to be sure, but one for an imaginary nation.24

The democratic dilemma Whitman tried to solve was how to liberate his writing from piety’s conventions without losing piety’s wisdom. Pious in this true sense is how we might describe Whitman’s own most undying elements to me, his little ships are his prose, not his poetry, and, for all of Democratic Vistas’ eclectic grandeur, his simpler experiments with description. The reports; the “blood-smutch’d notebooks,” timeless because they are so “rooted in the invisible roots,” in the specificity of time and place and actual people.25 Whitman’s clichés—his other paradox, magical universalism bound to racialized nationalism—intrude, but in his journalism they only shade the lens through which he looks. They don’t curtail his vision, “the radiation of this truth,” the generosity with which he attempted to see “what is.”26

Whitman’s poetry, with its impious rejection of form, gestures toward literary journalism. But has American literary poetry—until Whitman mostly bound by European forms, and afterward written and read for the most part within well-versed enclaves—ever been a really democratic medium? Our “chants democratic,” for better and more often for worse, have been journalistic. Journalism supposes that you can understand a thing by going out and gathering facts about it; that you can, and more important, have a right to detect motive in others by asking them impertinent questions; that you are entitled to gather your facts and arrange them as you see fit and thus define the world. It’s not social science, though, because journalism rejects any too-tight methodology and looks with some suspicion and regret on its own late–twentieth-century entombment within the academy as a discipline rather than a democratic practice.

Perhaps that formalization was inevitable, a calcification bound to settle into any practice that puts on objective airs. The idea of objective journalism—the belief that it is possible to stand apart from the world—cuts close to the more obviously religious doctrine of infallibility. The collapse of the old business model of journalism, that of big, centralized media organizations supported by advertising, may also be restoring journalism’s democratic impulses, returning the power of questioning to the curious and the untrained. Maybe that’s why an undertaking such as this book seems to me timely.

But I’m not making a case for conventional journalism here, as it has been or could be. I said it’s been the genre of our chants democratic mostly for the worse because it so often deliberately eschews wisdom as dangerous to the collection (or, really, cultivation) of facts. Which leads us to the creation of the compromise, arguably an American genre: literary journalism. To say that one adopts the techniques of fiction for the sake of a factual story—as contemporary literary journalists say they do, and as Whitman and other earlier writers simply did—is first to acknowledge previous form and second to say that there is something worth learning from it. Piety, in short, married to the deliberate impiety of journalism. Literary journalism, creative nonfiction, lyric essays, this mutant genre, can never be wholly democratic any more than it can be fully pious. It cannot be just one thing. “Not that half only, individualism, which isolates,” writes Whitman, since “there is another half, which is adhesiveness or love, that fuses, ties, and aggregates.”27 Pulling apart, pulling close: the little ships are always moving, often in the “wrong” direction, away from plot and toward a story, trued, like a wheel, by the writer.

Which is why the “second step” in this book, after Whitman, belongs to Henry David Thoreau, who with Whitman, I think, is half of the hybrid creation of literary journalism. Not at Walden Pond, certain of nature’s supremacy, but at his most un-Thoreauvian, hightailing it down from his aborted ascent of Mount Ktaadn, where his transcendentalism crashes into the cold hard stone of the mountaintop, and crying, not preaching, “Contact! Contact!” even as it overwhelms him. That “failure,” literary journalism’s only essential truth—the impossibility of perfect representation of reality, visible and otherwise—makes it uniquely suited for the subject of American religion, so often struggling to be one or the other, pious or democratic, communal or individual, rooted or transcendent. The story of this struggle is that of the selections I’ve made: American religion, a history in pieces.



1. I’m indebted for my reading of Moore to Jeff Allred, American Modernism and Depression Documentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 13–14. I’ve taken this passage of “On Poetry” from the version in Alfred Kreymborg, ed., Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse (New York: Nicholas L. Brown, 1920), 131–32.

2. The shortest version of “On Poetry” may be found in Marianne Moore, Complete Poems (New York: Penguin, 1994), 36.

3. Angela Zito, “Religion Is Media,” The Revealer: A Daily Review of Religion and Media, April 16, 2008,

4. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1941), 11.

5. Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 4.

6. Eugene Jolas, ed., Transition Workshop (New York: Vanguard, 1949), 29.

7. Matthew Arnold, “Up to Easter,” Nineteenth Century 21 (1887), 638. Despite his praise, Arnold was not an admirer; he consider “new journalism” to be excessively democratic and thus “feather-brained.”

8. John D’Agata, “Finding Love at Thirty: An Interview with Seneca Review on the Occasion of its Thirtieth Anniversary,” Seneca Review 30, no. 1 (2000), 9.

9. Deborah Tall and D’Agata offered a more formal definition of the lyric essay in 1997: “These ‘poetic essays’ or ‘essayistic poems’ give primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information. They forsake narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation. . . . It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic”; “New Terrain: The Lyric Essay,” Seneca Review 27, no. 2 (1997), 7. John D’Agata, “Introduction,” Seneca Review, 37, no. 2 (2007), 9; John D’Agata, ed., The Lost Origins of the Essay (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2009), 3.

10. Phillip Lopate, “The Essay, an Exercise in Doubt,” New York Times, February 16, 2013, accessed February 17, 2013,; William Bentinck-Smith, The Harvard Book: Selections from Three Centuries (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 98; Svetlana Alexievich, “A Search for Eternal Man,” Svetlana Alexievich: Voices from Big Utopia, accessed March 1, 2013,

11. John Grierson, “Flaherty’s Poetic Moana,New York Sun, February 8, 1926. William Stott, in his Documentary Expression and Thirties America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), wonders whether Grierson’s coinage wasn’t so much the translation he’d later cite as appropriation of a sociological term, documentary value. Stott argues that Grierson’s original, didactic ambitions for the genre as providing “the information necessary to organized and harmonious living” evolved away from a form for information alone. “The way of information will not serve,” Grierson would conclude; “it is too discursive. And the way of rational explanation will not serve, because it misses the corporate life we are dealing with”; quoted in Stott, Documentary Expression and Thirties America, 9–11. Grierson refers to “shimmying exoticisms” in his essay “First Principles of Documentary,” in Forysth Hardy, ed., Grierson on Documentary (London: Faber and Faber, 1966), 145.

12. Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet, Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible (New York: Free Press, 2004), 112–13.

13. John D’Agata, ed., The Next American Essay (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2003), 7.

14. Justin Kaplan, ed., Whitman: Poetry and Prose (New York: Library of America, 1996), 745.

15. Michael Taussig, Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 10.

16. Kaplan, Whitman, 713–14.

17. Peter Coviello, ed., Walt Whitman’s Memoranda During the War: Written on the Spot in 1863–’65 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 4.

18. Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem (New York: Noonday, 1990), 141.

19. Norman Sims, ed., The Literary Journalists: The New Art of Personal Reportage (New York: Ballantine, 1984), 8–22. Given the confusion over this mutant genre, anthologies and analyses that seek to identify distinct features are particularly valuable. Among those I consulted are John S. Bak and Bill Reynolds, eds., Literary Journalism Across the Globe: Journalistic Traditions and Transnational Influences (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011); Robert Boynton, The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft (New York: Vintage, 2005); Patricia Foster and Jeff Porter, eds., Understanding the Essay (Buffalo, NY: Broadview, 2012); Lee Gutkind, ed., In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction (New York: Norton, 2004); John C. Hartstock, A History of American Literary Journalism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000); John Hellman, Fables of Fact: The New Journalism as New Fiction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981); Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda, eds., The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (New York: Scribner, 1997); Michael L. Johnson, The New Journalism: The Underground Press, The Artists of Nonfiction, and Changes in the Established Media (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1971); Dwight McDonald, Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain (New York: New York Review of Books, 2011); Bill Roorbach, ed., The Art of Truth: Contemporary Creative Nonfiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); David Shields, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (New York: Knopf, 2010); Norman Sims, True Stories: A Century of Literary Journalism (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2008); Norman Sims and Mark Kramer, eds., Literary Journalism: A New Collection of the Best American Nonfiction (New York: Ballantine, 1995); Patsy Sims, ed., Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Ronald Weber, The Literature of Fact: Literary Nonfiction in American Writing (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980); Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, The Mythopoeic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976);

20. Tom Wolfe and E. W. Johnson, eds., The New Journalism (New York: HarperCollins, 1973), 31–32.

21. Ibid., 103.

22. Ed Burns, “The Dickensian Aspect,” The Wire, season 5, episode 6, directed by Seith Mann, aired February 10, 2008.

23. Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 9. I came to think about piety as a literary quality through a long series of conversations with the cultural critic Cornel West for a profile in Rolling Stone, mostly held in an office the bookshelves of which are lined with book covers featuring the faces of his heroes and inspirations. “Bessie Smith smiles between Herman Melville and Flannery O’Connor,” I wrote then. “The radical black crime novelist Chester Himes looms beneath a tiny portrait of Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French pioneer of modern architecture.” It was West who directed me to Stout’s work; a similar concern, with reference to Whitman among others, pervades his The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989) and even more urgently his Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1982).

24. Ed Folsom, ed., Democratic Vistas: The Original Edition in Facsimile (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010); “Tiny ships”: 51; “Old undying elements. . . . regions”: 46–47.

25. Ibid., 58.

26. Ibid., 16.

27. Ibid., 24.


[*] Apologies also to Roman Catholics (23.9 percent of the American population, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life), underrepresented here in terms of story selection, though maybe not in actual word count, or power of those words; and to Old Catholics, in all your fascinating retrenchist glory; and to Protestants, whose significant presence still does not equal your demographic profile (51.3 percent); and to American Muslims (0.7 percent, says Pew, a disputed number), though a complication of widely-held American conceptions of Islam is included herein; and to Orthodox Christians, Greek, Russian, or otherwise (you total 0.6 percent, says Pew); and to Hindus (0.4 percent), and to Jains, Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baba Lovers, Five-Percenters, Twelve Tribers, Animists, Odinists, Scientologists, Unificationists, graduates of est and the Landmark Forum, Raelians, Pastafarians, and all those decreed by pollsters—with no justice—as “Other.” May you nonetheless find some glimmer of yourselves in these pages.

[†] He’s still a novelist, but he’s since become a scrupulously accurate literary journalist as well, a fact I note here with apologies to Peter for cherry picking a story from our collaboration in which I just happened to be right. Imaginary gardens, indeed!

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).