MLA 2024 Talk: Empathic Power: Literary Journalists’ Invitation to Understanding

This past summer, my book How the News Feels: The Empathic Power of Literary Journalists was published by the University of Massachusetts Press and my remarks this morning are drawn largely from that. 

I study literary journalism, that somewhat amorphous genre that, depending on who you’re talking to, goes by any number of names—narrative nonfiction, new journalism, reportage, longform, longreads, creative nonfiction sometimes, the list goes on. But regardless of what you call it, what draws me to the genre is the way that its writers go behind the headlines of major news stories to help readers feel connected to the subjects of those stories. In his 2001 book A History of American Literary Journalism (also UMass Press!), John C. Hartsock calls this ability of literary journalists to connect readers and subjects, “narrowing the gulf.” He writes that the aim of literary journalism is to “narrow the gulf between subjectivity and an objectified world.” He notes that this is “a narrative strategy opposite that of objectified versions of journalism,” which seeks to “engage the objectified Other.” In my book, I argue, that this foundational quality of literary journalism is a product of its origins in nineteenth-century sentimentalism, and to make the case, I spotlight forgotten or underrepresented women literary journalists from the nineteenth century and illustrate how their sentimental ethos and political voice—what I call their “empathic power”—has been carried on by writers through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Further, I emphasize the great capacity of these writers to bring to life the stories of women in particular who are often ignored or reduced to two-dimensional caricatures in objectified journalism. 

Even as women journalists rejected some aspects of early to mid-nineteenth-century sentimental culture—particularly those aspects that emphasized “a domain of privacy for women,” as Alice Fahs writes—they carried forward a moral sentimentalism, that is, an ethical framework that emphasizes empathy. Prominently featuring the work of women writers serves to amplify the role they played in the founding of the genre, as well as to highlight the centrality of moral sentimentalism and empathy in the origin story of literary journalism, thus enriching Hartsock’s theoretical framework of “narrowing the gulf.” As such, in my work I attempt to provide a novel theoretical approach to the study of literary journalism while also broadening its scope by making it more inclusive and representative of non-male writers who, over the past two hundred years, have told true stories—written authentic accounts—in an effort to engender empathy to “narrow the gulf between subjectivity and an objectified world.”

Both moral and literary sentimentalism are important to the study of literary journalism. The earliest examples of literary journalism, written when literary sentimentalism was the dominant mode, can be described as sentimental both in style and ethos. But even after aesthetic tastes changed and literary sentimentalism became what Jennifer A. Williamson artfully describes as “a label for melodramatic, flat representations that were deemed unrealistic, and un-literary,” moral sentimentalism remained a defining characteristic of the genre. That is, literary journalism has been and sometimes still is sentimental in terms of style, but it is always necessarily sentimental in terms of its ethos. Indeed, the trajectory of moral sentimentalism in some ways mirrors that of literary journalism over the past three hundred years. In his 2010 book Moral Sentimentalism, moral philosopher Michael Slote positions it as a broad category that encompasses the ethics of care, which Slote calls “perhaps the most influential and interesting form of sentimentalism now extant.” At the heart of Slote’s revival of moral sentimentalism is the concept of empathy, which Slote calls “the cement . . . of sentimentalism as a total, present-day theoretical approach to moral issues.” Slote’s moral sentimentalism is much indebted to Hume, including in the prominent positioning of empathy, though, Slote notes, Hume most often used the word “sympathy” to describe what is today called empathy. Slote offers a helpful disambiguation of the terms: “The difference between sympathy and empathy,” he writes, “corresponds to the distinction between feeling (sorry) for someone who is in pain and (like Bill Clinton) feeling their pain.” He further clarifies that “empathy involves having the feelings of another (involuntarily) aroused in ourselves, as when we see another in pain.” This affect Slote likens to an invasion, contagion, or infusion.

In many ways, particularly in his explication of the way the ethics of care fit into the overarching frame of moral sentimentalism, Slote relies on the work of care ethicists like Nel Noddings. Noddings’s definition of empathy is indispensable, particularly in light of the current talk. She cites The Oxford Universal Dictionary’s definition of empathy as “the power of projecting one’s personality into, and so fully understanding, the object of contemplation,” before noting that this is “a peculiarly rational, western, masculine way of looking at ‘feeling with.’” Her definition, on the contrary, “does not involve projection but reception.” Her notion of “feeling with” involves what she calls “engrossment.” She continues, “I do not project; I receive the other into myself and I see and feel with the other. I become a duality.” This notion of “duality” is important, and Slote picks it up in Moral Sentimentalism. Citing psychologist Martin Hoffman’s book Empathy and Moral Development, Slote notes that the kind of identification that empathy engenders “isn’t a total merging with or melting into the other: genuine and mature empathy doesn’t deprive the empathic individual of her sense of being a different person from the person she empathizes with.” Thus, empathy involves receiving the experiences of others into oneself while still remaining distinct from the other. There is obvious alignment here between this notion and Hartsock’s claim that literary journalism engages “the objectified Other,” but in moral sentimentalism, I see a clearer picture of what this engagement looks like—empathy. By reading literary journalism through the lens of moral sentimentalism, and empathy in particular, I align my work with Suzanne Keen’s theory of narrative empathy. Keen defines narrative empathy as “the sharing of feeling and perspective-taking induced by reading, viewing, hearing, or imagining narratives of another’s situation and condition.” In her work, Keen mainly focuses on narrative empathy in fiction and argues that “readers’ perception of a text’s fictionality plays a role in subsequent empathetic response, by releasing readers from the obligations of self-protection through skepticism and suspicion.” This is what Leslie Jamison calls “punctured sentimentality,” but as I argue throughout, literary journalism, by utilizing techniques from fiction writing to tell the stories of real people, effectively creates the circumstances for empathy to occur as well.

Reading literary journalism through the lens of moral sentimentalism not only affirms the notion that literary journalists narrow the gulfs between the subjectivities of writer, reader, and subject but also provides a theoretical framework for understanding how journalists do so. How does a writer engender empathy for their subject in a reader? For Slote, “When I empathize with a caring or benevolent agent, I register and reflect in myself the empathic warm concern that they are feeling towards others.” This empathic, warm concern, Slote says, is “approval . . . the empathic reflection of the warm empathic concern an agent shows towards others.” Thus, the act of reporting and writing a piece of literary journalism is an empathic act that, if well executed, engenders empathy in the reader as well. When readers read literary journalism, they witness an empathic act. If, in this act of witnessing, the reader feels “warm approval,” they too are engaged in an empathic act with the writer and subject. This feeling of approval is a recognition of “empathic concern for others,” or what Slote simply calls “moral goodness.” So, Hartsock was correct to identify “narrowing the gulf” as a distinctive quality of literary journalism, and moral sentimentalism provides a theoretical framework to explain what it means to do so.

Literary sentimentalism and moral sentimentalism are distinct entities, but they do spring from the same eighteenth-century well and they both prioritize the role of emotions and empathy in how one encounters and makes sense of the world. It is no accident that the most enduring works of nineteenth-century sentimental literature are those that attempted to appeal to readers’ feelings in order to affect some kind of social change. Indeed, Hartsock recognizes the affinity between his notion of “narrowing the gulf” and activism: “It should come as no surprise . . . that narrative literary journalists who did not ‘leave’ their material but instead engaged their subjectivities in it found themselves having to take sides.” While the style often associated with literary sentimentalism has changed, this moral sentimental ethos remains. Slote’s work on moral sentimentalism, taken in concert with the ethics of care articulated by Nel Noddings and Virginia Held, among others, helps underscore the point that sentimentalism is more than anachronistic literary style; it is indeed a foundational moral theory born in the eighteenth century and still very much alive today. Literary journalism, as a form with roots in the nineteenth century and composed by writers whose work was informed by the prevailing winds of sentiment, has for over two hundred years carried that ethos forward in the efforts of authors who continue to engender empathy—fellow feeling—to narrow the gulfs between the subjectivities of writers, readers, and subjects.

In my book, I provide eight linked case studies—all women and nonbinary writers who, through their literary journalism, work against a prevailing mainstream narrative to tell the story behind the headlines. In the time that I have left, I’d like to very briefly highlight the earliest examples as they most directly tie the moral sentimentalism that I argue is inherent in literary journalism to the literary sentimentalism that was so prevalent in the nineteenth century. My theoretical approach to “narrowing the gulf” in literary journalism begins with two women writers of the nineteenth century who I consider proto-literary journalists, Catharine Williams and Margaret Fuller. While both Williams and Fuller have experienced increased critical attention in recent years—though Fuller much more so than Williams—I pair them as among the earliest literary journalists and illustrate how they worked to help readers see and empathize with so-called fallen women. Williams and Fuller, alongside many other women writers in the nineteenth century, were caught in the conflict between the traditional, Victorian idea of separate spheres as exemplified in the “Cult of True Womanhood” and the emerging “New Woman” movement. Those who deviated from true womanhood were considered fallen, and newspapers—proliferating widely due to the advent of the penny press— were filled with sensational stories of fallen women who crossed from the private to public sphere and paid the price for their transgressions. Many of these stories ended with the woman killed or institutionalized, and an understanding that, had she stayed where she belonged, such tragedy would not have befallen her.

I argue that Catharine Williams’s 1834 book Fall River: An Authentic Narrative is, in its attempt to correct a sensational news narrative, one of the earliest examples of what would become literary journalism. Fall River tells the story of Sarah Maria Cornell, a factory worker who was murdered by Ephraim Kingsbury Avery, a Methodist minister. After a trial that lasted nearly a month in which Avery’s defense team portrayed Cornell as a quintessential fallen woman, Avery was acquitted. Williams’s book tells Cornell’s side of the story and salvaged her sullied reputation posthumously. As the subtitle of Fall River indicates, Williams wishes to offer “an authentic narrative,” and to that end she concludes her preface by writing, “With respect to embellishment in this book, no person acquainted with the facts, who has seen it, pretends to say there is any….” So, in its aim for veracity, Fall River embodies many of the hallmarks that have come to define literary journalism, and in its appeal to the fellow feeling of readers, it embodies both the style of literary sentimentalism and the ethos of moral sentimentalism. Fall River can be read as an early incarnation of and forerunner to contemporary literary journalism, a first knot in the tightly wound threads of literary journalism and moral sentimentalism.

Margaret Fuller’s columns for the New York Tribune, beginning in the mid-1840s, were a means of writing against the prevailing notions of separate spheres and they allowed readers to see people and places they might not have encountered, through Fuller’s eyes. Her descriptions of visits to women’s asylums and prisons where “fallen women” were housed pushed the boundaries of women’s roles in society. Asylums for women in New York were over-filled, packed both with women with legitimate mental ailments and those deemed insane for acting outside of the accepted norms of True Womanhood, again the so-called fallen women. This was an issue of great concern for Fuller. At her editor Horace Greeley’s urging, Fuller had the opportunity to meet some of these women firsthand at Blackwell’s Island, which in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was home to poor houses, asylums, and prisons. Fuller’s writing based on her visits is unabashedly motivated by her desire for reform. She is not an impartial spectator as we might expect a contemporary journalist to be in such a situation. Rather, in prose that is sentimental in both style and ethos, she calls on her readers to see the women in the prisons and asylums. Seeing is, in fact, a recurring trope in her writing from these early Tribune pieces. She is convinced that if readers could see those who are locked up or committed, if they could empathize with their plight, they would be moved to action. Seeing for Fuller is central to her ability to narrow the gulf between the subjectivities of her readers and her subjects.

So, by telling the intimate stories of women—their subjects or themselves—these proto-literary journalists allowed their readers first to see that another way was possible, and then to imagine transcending their separate spheres themselves. As such, Williams’s book and Fuller’s columns constitute an origin for the kind of sentimental literary journalism that would follow.

From these earliest literary journalists, in the book, I jump to the end of the nineteenth century, to Nellie Bly’s “stunt journalism”—she too visited Blackwell’s Island under different circumstances—then to Winifred Black, one of the so-called sob sisters of the early 20th century, ahead to Zora Neale Hurston’s reporting on the murder trial of Ruby McCollum followed by probably the most well-known woman literary journalist, Joan Didion and her essay “Sentimental Journeys” about the Central Park jogger case. Finally, I look at two contemporary literary journalists, Adrian Nicole Leblanc and her incredible book Random Family and New Yorker writer Alexis Okeowo who writes about war and conflict in Africa. They’re all brilliant, empathetic writers and I wish I had the time to talk about them all. I guess this is where I’m supposed to say, buy the book!

In conclusion, if the modus operandi of literary journalism is its practitioners’ efforts to “engage the objectified Other,” as John Hartsock writes, each of these writers provide clear evidence that not only have women been immersed in this practice since the beginning but that their sentimental ethos and political voice—their empathic power—in the nineteenth century formed a template for future literary journalists to follow. Literary journalism emerged from a swirl of influences, including this sentimental ethos held together by the moral glue of empathy. Deeply invested in empathizing with their subjects from the start, these writers discussed were instrumental in establishing what would become the hallmark of literary journalism, the moral imperative to narrow the gulf between the subjectivities of author, reader, and subject.

Citations available upon request and also in How the News Feels.