Characters, characters, characters
What I learned from David Halberstam
It’s funny to think about a writer who routinely overwrote as having a sense of urgency, but that’s what it was like to read David Halberstam’s books. He was so curious, so desperate to truly understand a subject, so fascinated by his characters, that he wanted to take you to the same depth that he had traveled as a reporter.
This would have sabotaged a lesser writer’s work, but Halberstam’s training as a journalist taught him this lesson: You can write about anything if you know your characters well enough, and your readers will not abandon you if you can put them in the shoes of your subjects.
And so in the mid-’80s, when Halberstam wanted to tell the story of the decline of the American auto industry as a parable for America’s economic malaise, he told it through the biographies of two companies: Ford and Nissan. It is not an original technique but it was brilliantly executed. I was a “labor/workplace” beat writer when I read “The Reckoning,” and the lesson I took from it was that I could not write about this subject–a dry, if crucial topic–without making people my touchstones. Find somebody to tell your story through. Characters, characters, characters.
You gain a fine understanding from Halberstam’s factual reporting in “The Recokoning,” but as you come to the end of the book, angry at Ford’s historically stupid management, you are introduced to a guy who made union-scale wages at Ford when times were good, then got laid off and now finds manufacturing work for a third as much. And now you understand.
Characters. Characters. Characters. Paste the battle cry on your computer. Halberstam chronicled the 1950s as a decade full of marvelous social conflicts, rather than the stereotyped dullness. For a true understanding, you could almost feel his insistent, deep voice say, you must know about all these guys: FDR, Truman, Korea, MacCarthur. Then, and only then, could you experience the ’50s through the life of the first tract-home builder, the first discount store, the first motel chain, the first drive-through burger joint, the beats, the first TV star, the lone full-time civil-rights reporter in the South. Then, and only then, could you experience the better-known history of the ’50s: King, Rosa Parks, Elvis, J Robert Oppenheimer. These are people and social patterns that we think we know. But Halberstam was so consumed by fine detail, so determined to write with a voice of authority, that the institutions and issued he wrote about felt like different places. It was as though he converted each character to a domino and showed you each domino fell on the other, and what movement it created. He was pretentious enough to believe he could write the story of how the world worked. Without that arrogance, a journalist is lost. Without the ability to execute that conceit, a journalist is lost. Halberstam never got lost.
I remember sitting on a beach a decade ago and reading “The Making of a Quagmire,” published in 1965, when there was little opposition to the Vietnam War, and thinking: This guy was 29, 30 years old but smart enough to see the utter failure ahead, and moreover he was talented enough to explain it. If Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial” made you angry, try this. It foreshadows the nightmare ahead. It is not a history book. It is book-length journalism.
Let the tragedy of Halberstam’s death stand as a moment in which we forget about the cowards who are dragging print journalism into the ground, who are oblivious to the values Halberstam personified, and re-dedicate ourselves to stories told through the lives of people–characters, characters, characters–that let readers understand the world.