The Journalism of Religious Experience

An interview with Jeff Sharlet, editor of Radiant Truths.
By Ted Scheinman,
(Photo: STILLFX/Shutterstock)

The description is both arresting and familiar: “a new journalism ... full of ability, novelty, variety, sensation, sympathy, [and] generous instincts.” The speaker is not Tom Wolfe, nor Hunter Thompson, nor Joan Didion—it's Matthew Arnold, that most Victorian of Victorian critics, and Arnold, writing in 1887, was not a fan of this new hybrid genre. Its practitioners were upstarts, its morality a dangerous relativism, its methodology “featherbrained.”

In short, Arnold did not approve of William T. Stead's hobnobbing with prostitutes and alleycats in the name of social justice, never mind that Stead's work among the “modern Magdalens” would help define rape in the U.K. and empower legislation that raised the age of consent from 13 to 16. The subjectivity of the “new journalism,” with its elevation or sacralization of society's untouchables, was an affront to the age that F. Scott Fitzgerald would derisively dub the “time of order.” Investigative reporting, having commandeered the tools of fiction, wrought very real disruptions in the late 19th-century British idyll, 70-odd years before Tom Wolfe's landmark 1973 anthology The New Journalism. Nothing is new under the sun, except in arrangement.

In Radiant Truths: Essential Dispatches, Reports, Confessions, and Other Essays on American Belief, Jeff Sharlet has collected a brilliant series of case-studies in literary journalism about things unseen. Beginning with Walt Whitman and ending with Francine Prose, the volume makes a strong case that we can better understand the paradoxes of “creative nonfiction” by interrogating literary representations of belief, superstition, and ritual—a realm of experience inaccessible to the straight news-writer and more democratic than anything we might expect from the personal essayist. The excerpt from Whitman's Specimen Days invites us, quite reasonably, to consider Whitman qua poet and Whitman qua journalist as extensions of the same consciousness, as he writes his way into the nighttime soul of a Union soldier during the Battle of Chancellorsville. Meanwhile, in Maine, Thoreau meets a nature that offers him no sanctuary; Twain decries the tomb-desecration of pilgrims in the Holy Land; Stead writes the remarkable story of a holy prostitute named Maggie Darling; in 1903 Sara Duncan discovers an Irishman who has renamed himself “Oo-Dhamma-Nanda” and taken orders as a Buddhist monk; in 2011, Francine Prose visits Zuccotti Park, summons the ghost of Whitman, and weeps.

"It's like you find these little artifacts that show you the world you live in did not have to be this way. That there were these really powerful imaginings going in other directions, and they were abandoned, they were dropped, they were lost."

One of the book's chief pleasures is the way it foregrounds under-read (even exhumed) gems by women writers, from Jane Addams' portrait of superstition in “The Devil Baby at Hull-House” (1916) to Meridel Le Sueur's soi-disant “three-dimensional reporting” in the depression, to Zora Neale Hurston's reporting on voodoo in New Orleans—“half-report, half-story; half-ethnography, half-magic,” as Sharlet calls Hurston's “Hoodoo.” Later, we find the brilliant Ellen Willis arguing sexism with rabbis in Jerusalem for Rolling Stone; Amy Wilentz in Haiti in 1989; Barbara Grizzuti Harrison with Pope John Paul II in Denver in 1994; and Anne Fadiman among Hmong immigrants in 1997. Throughout, Sharlet’s glosses of each selection emphasize the mechanisms by which literary journalism defines, defends, and develops itself in the face of the holy, the profane, the unknown. Radiant Truths shines largely because it is something far more personal than a simple “anthology”—something between a carefully crafted commonplace book and a course packet for a pretty amazing non-fiction class.

I reached Sharlet by phone recently to discuss the ethics of the genre, Stead's notion of “government by journalism,” Muscular Christianity, and why Henry James was such a boor to Sara Duncan.

What separates Radiant Truths from something like Best Spiritual Writing?

That's where this came from—I had a smart editor, Jennifer Banks at Yale, and her critique of Best Spiritual Writing was simply that the series has been pretty resolute in avoiding huge realms of experience. She said: What if you did a best religion writing, and you're open to Web pieces and everything? And I recognized the Nixonian impulse in myself because my first thought was, oh, all the people I can not include! How wonderful. The scores I'll settle! And then I thought, well that's not a good impulse. So we talked about what would be more useful. I don't mind saying this—Best Spiritual Writing has a little bit of a pattern: Commentary, First Things, Orion, New Yorker, repeat. I read a lot of anthologies to prepare for this thing. I skimmed the history of Best American Essays, went through them all. Somewhat surprising what ones are good and what ones are bad. You know, David Brooks' was much better than most, and Susan Sontag's had to be the worst. Susan Sontag, she basically asked only people whose apartments she could walk to within 20 minutes on the Upper West Side.

So you're filling something of a void?

A void of my own imagining. Yale wanted to fill a void, and then I proposed something that would be a little more peculiar to my way of thinking—more of a book than a collection. An anthology, after all the effort, feels to the compiler, though not to the world, as intimate as your own book, and in some ways more intimate. You can be a person with good taste who makes bad books, and in fact most people make bad books. But when you make an anthology, you're putting your taste on the line, and if people deem the taste wanting, well, there's not much left for you.

W.T. Stead asks for a “government by journalism.” What does that mean?

I don't know, it would be horrible!

It's a very provocative phrase and I'm still not sure I can wrap my mind around it.

Stead was before that generation of muckrakers, and overlapped with it, and for him “government by journalism” would mean this sort of constant engagement with the facts. On the one hand, government by journalism has all the democratic implications of journalism, especially skepticism toward the authority of inherited expertise; government by journalism would in Stead's mind challenge an emerging technocratic ideal.

In reform-minded journalism, the newspaper or magazine story, there's a little bit of this idea that fundamentally the system is sound, and journalism must be constantly patching it, and literary journalism I think is not invested one way or another in the soundness of the system. It is not necessarily suited for government, and I think the author you see in Maggie Darling is not suited for government: When Stead sat down to write and report, he was really interested in finding out who this person was, and imagining her, and listening to her, and you see reformist ideas move a little to the background. And you have to imagine the incredible empathy for a person of his standing at that time—to communicate with her as fully as he seems to have done, there had to be a lot of abandonment of authority. He allows Maggie space. I think Stead ultimately would have been unhappy with government by journalism. In his best work, you can see him undoing it.

The book also tells a story about gender—e.g., Henry James inveighing against Sara Duncan and the “frequent fault of women's work.” I'm wondering whether you see a shift in the way that women write religion or are written into religion over the course of the 20th century.

I did my best to imagine one. I'm not sure if that shift is there. I think a lot of those assumptions, certainly the assumptions of Henry James, are as present now in literary journalism—in the present day you hear these big publications saying, “Well gosh, we'd love to hire women writers but we just can't find any!” If you looked under “spiritual autobiography,” you'd find lots of women writers—even some women who don't conceive what they're doing as spiritual autobiography, like Ellen Willis or Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, who is an absolutely fierce reporter and really first-rate public intellectual. She's writing about herself, about her Catholicism, and she's doing all the work of a reporter. If this book can help resurrect Harrison's memory then I will be very, very happy.

Ellen Willis was one of the great rock critics. I'm guessing if we went on name-recognition between Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Ellen Willis, who were contemporaries, we would find much, much less recognition for Ellen Willis. And that goes right up to the present. I mean, you've got Amy Wilentz, that excerpt from The Rainy Season, an astonishing book; she just won the National Book Critics' Circle award for Farewell, Fred Voodoo, and I couldn't find Fred Voodoo in my local independent bookstore. Now, there are other things at play here. In that case, one of the reasons she's not nearly as widely read as she should be has to do with the fact that she's writing about Haiti. But there's also a gender issue.

When you ask about representations of women and religion, I do think you see this interesting thing, and this goes back to the autobiography question: There's much more space for women to write about their own religious identity than there is for women to go out and report on the world. That's probably true in a number of areas but maybe more so in religion because religion, especially in the U.S., is historically understood as a domestic sphere, a women's sphere, an emotional sphere.

You're reminding me of that passage in Alexis de Tocqueville where he speaks about women as the keepers of religion in America—but he wasn't talking about journalism; he was talking about the hearth, right?

Yes, and here you also get into the history of “muscular Christianity,” this British import to America in the late-19th, early-20th century, and the great anxiety that this compassionate Christ figure might not be manly enough.

Now, we can dismiss that idea as caveman fundamentalism, but I think you find the same impulse in a lot of modern literary journalism, that sort of bro-ish nature of a lot of magazine stories, a lot of manly adventure-writing. I like plenty of adventure writing, don't get me wrong. But even now you can go to your local Christian bookstore and get all sorts of figurines: Christ hitting a home run, Christ as quarterback, and so on, that people get for their little boys so their boys won't be steered toward homosexuality by the awful specter of a man in a dress saying, “Let's show our emotions for other people.”

"There's also no Tom Wolfe, which is very deliberate. I don't want Tom Wolfe in my book. There's no Joan Didion, and there's plenty of Didion stuff that would have worked. But you can get your Didion elsewhere."

I'm glad you're talking about this because when I went through all these anthologies, I was astonished by how many people are really pretty fucking comfortable putting out a book there and it'll be all men! It's usually all men plus Joan Didion or all men plus Susan Orlean or, crazily, maybe both. And you can imagine the sort of bro-ish response to Susan Orlean: “Chick. Writes like a dude.” I love Joan Didion too, but there is a way in which Didion slips through because she writes with, say, manly vigor. See how James tackles Sara Duncan: Essentially, “the little woman is not capable.”

I wanted my anthology to reflect the other half of humanity. We pay attention to all the reporting that's going on in Jane Addams' work, and we pay attention to Meridel Le Sueur, and we look at Zora Neale Hurston's non-fiction not as corollary to her fiction but as central. And Ellen Willis—I was at the MacDowell writer's colony, just perusing the library of work by past residents; I hadn't known Willis—opened it up and started reading this unsentimental, really radical utopianism, and I was practically moved to tears. It's like you find these little artifacts that show you the world you live in did not have to be this way. That there were these really powerful imaginings going in other directions, and they were abandoned, they were dropped, they were lost.

About the ethics of the enterprise: Whitman doesn't explicitly apologize for what he's doing, but he's clearly scared of profaning the experience; Twain talks explicitly about “tomb-desecrators”; throughout there's an anxiety about trespassing on religious ground, and in the excerpt from your own piece with Peter Manseau, you discuss the color of the jumpsuit, the difficulty of hewing to strict fact, a central question for literary journalism. “Am I profaning this ground by stepping on it?”

It's always there, that anxiety, it's certainly there in Whitman, although of course he tells you all the things one could never do and then goes on to do them. And you even get the sense that it's there in Mencken. Mencken's the only real selection in this book that I'm not really crazy about, but you can't do a book like this without Mencken.

In Meridel Le Sueur, you see the struggle: How do I treat these people with respect? I march with them. It's there in all those pieces, maybe less so in Mary McCarthy, who was supremely confident in the ability to manage reality; but I like what you say about the fear of profaning the facts, and I think that's a good way of thinking about it. That's actually why I included the short excerpt by Peter and me—one, because when you're making an anthology, adding things to the canon, you think, “Hey I'll slip myself in there”—vanity, vanity, all is vanity. But also because I thought it served a useful purpose, of a practical nature: If you're reporting about religion, you don't want to profane the facts. At the same time, you don't want to be sanctimonious. You don't want to go to this place that you don't know, that you don't understand, and assume this pose of high piety that prevents you from being the fool that you are, being the sinner that you are, being the whatever that you are, inviting the subjects to respond to you, or to push back, and to be human together. And when you do that, then you have to be really, really honest about that interaction.

That's what the red suit was about; I don't hold with making things up. Polishing the story, yes, I think it's kind of profane, and I think of Agee's line about the “cruel radiance of what is”: that is what you are attempting to do. You're attempting to do this work of seeing completely and fully another human being, and of course you're going to fail. But to be cynical in that attempt, that's not failure, that's—the language overtakes me and I was about to call it sinful; but I find nothing more revolting than that kind of cynicism of a writer who tries to improve the story. That is grotesque. Profaning the facts—that's a good way of putting it. You are wrestling with the facts, and that is the work; the religious metaphor serves us well.

These are some of the hardest things to get on paper; can we say the book is as much concerned with a genre, an art, as it is with the history of American religion?

More the former, probably, yes. Religion as a lens through which I can approach journalism, and I think I can arrange the facts fairly in a way to say that there's something really important and helpful in thinking about the development of the genre through its attempt to represent the evidence of things not seen. What literary journalism has always attempted to do is go beyond the facts.

But having said I think these modes are related, remember that a very personal anthology is always a way for a writer to work his or her way up to the present in which he or she writes. This is a genealogy, a useful genealogy to draw on. But then you go back and say, well, what I'm really trying to figure out is my own—theory is too grand a word, but my own genealogy of literary journalism that makes sense, that I want to teach, that I want to practice, that I want to read, but there's also stuff that hits that older, democratic impulse—Ellen Willis makes you cry for awareness of what could be.

You said you had to include Mencken. Excepting the intro, there is no James Agee. Too obvious?

It's because Agee's estate wanted $2,500. That's all it is. Zora Neale Hurston's estate also wanted a lot, and I thought, everyone already knows James Agee in literary journalism, and not everybody knows about Zora Neale Hurston's investment. A lot of readers don't think of her in that way. And in compiling this volume you have to remember, OK, I'm not responsible for listing all the great things; I'm responsible for drawing a line that works.

This is not the canon; this is my personal selection of stories. (I'll tell you this: Simon & Schuster is trying to make me pay to use my own work here.) There's no Joseph Mitchell, who actually wrote a great deal about religion. There's also no Tom Wolfe, which is very deliberate. I don't want Tom Wolfe in my book. There's no Joan Didion, and there's plenty of Didion stuff that would have worked. But you can get your Didion elsewhere.