ÒReporting Across Boundaries: The Political, Social and Cultural FrontierÓ


David Samuels

Harper's Magazine



Northwestern University ÒLiterature of Fact Lecture SeriesÓ

February 23, 2009



IÕm not really a public speaker or performer. I spend most of my life either in a room by myself or with the other people doing something. So to have you all gathered here is an honor, itÕs real intimidating, and thank you all for coming.


Journalism schools occupy a special place right now. Not just because weÕre turning out young journalists who will be the future of our profession; but because the profession and its forms are changing so fast that we need somewhere to remember that this is a craft with a history, that the forms have changed over time, and will continue to change, and yet thereÕ s something about it that stays the same, and is recognizable from moment to moment that allows us to read journalism from the 19th century and recognize it as akin to what we do today. I think I want to talk a little bit about this form, the thing that I do, literary journalism, or whatever it is, fact based narrative, and why it became important to Americans. Because this is, I think, the one authentically American literary form. ItÕs literary form that was invented here. Its great practitioners have been American, or in the case of writers like Rebecca West, people who came and wrote for American magazines, and it serves a very special function for us as a culture, and thereÕs a reason why we evolved this form, why we read it, why we produce it, and why I think weÕll continue to read it, and produce it - because it speaks to questions that are peculiarly American.


The thing that I wanted to start out with is the American relationships to the past. The past that weÕve been forgetting because itÕs one of the main concerns of my work and I think it also explains part of what we want from longer form narrative, fact-based narrative. IÕm avoiding a word – nonfiction – because I hate it. ItÕs just this negative non-fiction – itÕs a non-dog. Look, Meow, meow, meow, meow. It just doesnÕt tell you that much. And the forms of so called non-fiction, especially in America, are very close to the forms of fiction. The dominant mood in American fiction has been a realist fiction, a lot of it is based on history. So early the best non-fiction makes active use of the sort of characterization and narrative techniques that come from fiction and so I see these two things as much closer to each other than sort of polar opposites. And if fact if you look at the great, not all, but most of the great American writers, have at one point in their lives been newspaper and magazine reporters, and thereÕs a reason for that. Hemingway was a reporter, Melville became famous for writing non-fiction, Whitman was a reporter. And again, the boundary between these things is uniquely fluid here.


So I want to start out by sort of talking about abolishing the past, which is both the great American strength, the great American weakness. The founding act of American identity of course was to sever the countryÕs connection to Great Britain and to its historical past, and to begin again from a sheet of paper, the U.S. constitution, that would create a new people in a new country, with new rules, for no better reason than because we said so. Which at the time it happened it was really quite a bizarre way to establish any kind of polity. And I would argue that that founding act of self-invention has characterized our national life, our lives as individuals. ThereÕs no other country where you meet so many people who are divorced, who have multiple spouses, who have several different families living in separate parts of the country, who failed in business one, two, three, four or five times, then rise up and start again. ItÕs a particular kind of American criminality, but itÕs also a particular kind of American promise that we can start again, untouched, even by the greatest crimes that weÕve committed as a nation. Whether itÕs the crime of slavery, whether itÕs the crime of foreign wars that America fought and the hundreds of thousands of people who died. We have an ability to draw a line and go on and tell ourselves and to tell others that weÕre new and different people now, and that we donÕt carry the burdens of our past with us. And the amazing thing is that we believe it, and weÕre able to act on that basis.

In most of the rest of the world, the opposite is true. People live partly in the present and partly in the past. In many countries, people live partly in the present and mostly in the past. IÕm a first generation American – if you come from another place, youÕre very familiar with the idea that the past is more real and more powerful than any little thing people want to do right now in the moment. YouÕre very small, and the past is very big and in the end donÕt change it. Americans believe the opposite and itÕs why the American idea is both hated and loathed throughout the world, and also the focus of so much desire and admiration by people who leave their countries and their home cultures to come here and become part of a society that tells people something very different about their relation to the historical past. IÕm not arguing that what we believe is true or not true any more than IÕm arguing that the past in other cultures is more or less real. ItÕs what we tell ourselves about the past that interests me and we occupy a certain extreme position on the continuum of how peoples and nations have imagined their connection to what came before. And so we see this in our national life, we see it in individual life, and we certainly see it when it comes to America acting abroad.


We see this immediate flash between our idea that itÕs possible to start again, that thereÕs a new beginning right around the corner, that ancient realities can be remade on new and more just or more exciting basis overnight because we wish it to be so. These things seem like second nature to us. Well, why canÕt the Iraqis have a democracy in which everybody votes and there are no more tribes and religious divisions between people? Why canÕt the Israelis and Palestinians settle their problems in a way that makes everybody happy? Why canÕt Russia leave the Ukrainian? And all these things that seem so natural to us seem completely idiotic to people who actually come from different cultures and who do not share our belief that the future is real, and that the past is imaginary. They believe the exact opposite – the past is real, the future is a fiction usually used by unscrupulous people trying to get money from you. And this inevitable sort of cultural flash clears all of our best efforts to understand how other people think and to anticipate the effects of our actions on the lives of people who live very different circumstances than we did.


The dark side, IÕve spoken about the hopeful side, of this ability to start again, this ability to believe that youÕre not bound by your past, that youÕre not bound by tradition, that youÕre not bound by ancient ways of doing things, just because one class of people hasnÕt enjoyed rights in the past doesnÕt mean you canÕt enjoy rights now. Just because people used to be poor doesnÕt mean we all canÕt be rich tomorrow. We believe these things, itÕs a source of enormous strength. I think itÕs fair enough, thereÕs a dark side to that belief in constant self-invention and the possibility of making the rule new and each and every moment. The dark side of that you see in the alienation that people feel when they have no sense of the past and no attachment to anything that seems stable in their lives. You see it in the movement bust cycles of the American economic life where suddenly you wake up one morning and realize that none of the houses are actually worth 1.2 million dollars and that all the banks are actually broke, and we all look around and ask Ôwho did this to us?! It was the bad bankers that did it to us.Õ And the answer is, my friend, you did it to yourself. That is the American answer because we created this economic crisis by virtue of being Americans and believing in the future and every bit as much as any bad banker did or CitiBank, or Bank of America. And at the same time, there are unscrupulous people, people who thrive on deception, who take this belief in self-invention in a sociopathic direction. We see them sometimes in high office, we see them in our economic life, we see them as drifters, passing through peopleÕs lives, telling people that theyÕre one thing, and turning out to be another person entirely. Those people interest me very much, and I often find a decent amount of them professionally. I pay attention precisely because of the insight that they offer into the nature of what we all believe as Americans.


Now you can understand from this little portrait that IÕve painted of an America that lives half in the present and half in this imagined future. That the question of who are we exactly is one that comes up again, and again, and again in American life because we donÕt have a settled answer to it. And itÕs why I would argue that this form, long form, fact-based narrative which sometimes takes the form of magazine journalism, sometimes takes the form of fiction, different forms a bit more powerful at different moments of American history, but this, they all try to answer this very very basic question: who are we? What are we doing? Who lives in California? What are those people like? Why are they doing all this crazy stuff? There are these sort of first of order questions that we have about ourselves that people in other countries really donÕt have.


I remember once talking with a Chinese journalist and a French journalist and they were admiring the kinds of long-form, fact-based narratives that we have here, magazines like The New Yorker, long non-fiction books, and I said you donÕt have those. ChinaÕs got a state controlled press, so thereÕs a reason they donÕt have them there, but France, you donÕt really have it either, and interestingly they both gave the same answer as to why. They said well we donÕt ask those questions about ourselves. And itÕs true, because if you were to ask a freshman what makes a freshman? Who are freshmen? YouÕre an idiot because youÕre supposed to already know the answer to that question. Anybody whoÕs answering that question is either a hopeless outsider, in which case youÕre not interested in what they have to say, or theyÕre playing some sort of fake little na•ve game to trap you.


WeÕre authentically curious. We donÕt know who we are. I remember once talking to a friend of a friend of California and asking how his family got to California, and he said – this is a guy in his forties – Ôwell I think my father came here.Õ I said, Ôcame from where?Õ He said, ÔI donÕt know from where.Õ And I said, Ôwell what did he do?Õ And he said, Ôhe worked for a company.Õ ÔWell what did the company do?Õ He says, ÔI donÕt know.Õ And he was quite serious. And thatÕs California which I think, if weÕre getting to an extreme, but itÕs not that uncommon. American life, America, urges us to lose track of these things, to not pay too much attention exactly to where our parents came from and what they were doing and to pay a little more attention to the future. So this question of what binds us together, who are we? What are people doing here? is a live question for us just as it was a live question for journalists in the 1840Õs and the 1850Õs, and we still have part of the cycle of forgetting what characterizes American life, because a part of the vital energy in this country is a need to keep asking the question, remind us again, what are we doing here? Who are we? Why? And thatÕs what I think this form does, and where it gets its energy and its value in this society as opposed to others.


Now, going a little bit to the practical aspects, how do you make this thing? You donÕt just go out and answer the question, hereÕs what weÕre doing, hereÕs who we are. You find a model world. At least thatÕs what I do. I find a world that seems to me to touch on some of these questions that IÕm asking. Con artists are getting deception, hope – you find a little group of people somewhere and get into their lives, and get into whatever it is that theyÕre doing, and underneath it, youÕre exploring these larger questions. Who are we? Why? Is this forgetting thing that we do completely disruptive? Is it hopeful? Is it disruptive and hopeful at the same time? And re-visit those questions again and again and again. And the way that I do, is I find a group of people whose lives, whose activity, seems to give me some way of thinking about that in a fresh and new way. So on one hand IÕm telling their story, but thereÕs an urgency beneath that, and thatÕs what makes me want to pick up a piece and read it, the sense of the author answering one of these larger questions. That even if they donÕt have an answer to it, theyÕre grappling with it. And people talk about the fact that I love specific detail. I love detail because thereÕs something – the deeper that you go into the specifics of somebodyÕs life, the more you can register who exactly they are and how they express that. I think the closer you get to the big things, I think that the mean to have them is through those little details and so thatÕs what I concentrate on. Until the thing that IÕm writing becomes a metaphor for something larger. It has all of its particularity, in the end it stands in for something much larger. The tension between those two things creates the energy of the work.


People ask me, Ôwell how do you decide what to write about? which of these little worlds?Õ and the way I decide is, I find something that interests me as opposed to what I think is going to interest someone else. See this really does interests me. I donÕt know why. I want to spend time with pot growers in California. I donÕt know, pot makes people forget a lot of stuff. So looking for people who have kind of trackless lives, and kind of want to be separate from the past, and canÕt remember what happened yesterday, well a big group of pot smokers is probably a good basis. On the other hand, this is all about a new beginning because thereÕs a new economy of marijuana in California. ThereÕs a lack of marijuana, and suddenly people believe theyÕre going to get rich. So now we have another good American theme. So I have a world, I get into that world, and stories lead to other stories.


I recently, the last piece I had published was a piece in The New Yorker in December; it was about a truck driver from Waukesha Wisconsin named John Coster-Mullen. He became the worldÕs foremost expert in the mechanics of the first two atomic bombs that were dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And over the course of his research he showed that all the explanations of how the bombs worked, explanations in Pulitzer Prize winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, itÕs all wrong. And the diagrams are wrong, the mechanics are wrong, and I got Richard Rhodes, the former director of the Los Alamos National Lab to say Ôyes, John Coster-Mullen is right and weÕre wrong.Õ And so hereÕs an interesting guy, right, obviously being obsessive compulsive person who has to know, has to solve the hardest crossword puzzle in the whole world. How did those bombs work? What were all the little pieces and how did they fit together? So on one level you have a piece about an American eccentric – a self taught man who became the master of an arcane subject and did something hard.


Well, thatÕs a nice little story. But the animating energy beneath it is, this is how hard it is to find truth. This is what someone who really cares about finding the truth looks like. HereÕs how obsessive and obnoxious we are. HereÕs how little we actually care, the rest of us about really knowing what happened, about really really getting the details right. And so in the end the piece that I wrote was a metaphor about finding the truth –how unwelcome it is. How obnoxious that kind of behavior can be. How irritating it is to others and how really the rest of us are interested in something else besides the literal factual truth. In fact you have to be so far outside a certain kind of conversation, not having graduated from college, and driving a truck to even think that thatÕs what people actually care about, let alone to spend your life trying to figure it out. And so, in the end, a very sweet story about a truck driver from Wisconsin ends up having a heartfelt and kind of polemical point about something much much bigger than you think. And thatÕs what makes these pieces work.


Now how did I come up with the idea for this? Well, a long time ago I went to do a piece in Nevada about Yucca Mountain I had some spare time, I wanted to do a piece on a friend who was editing an outdoor magazine, called MenÕs journal. I had little time, I said why donÕt you do a piece thatÕs set out in some kind of nature landscape, but not be positive. I said hereÕs one, thereÕs a mountain in Nevada, stuffed with all the radioactive nuclear waste in America. I said I want to go see that. Why? ItÕs a big metaphor. HereÕs this big thing we want to forget. ItÕs America. We want to take all the nuclear waste, all this toxic stuff, and we want to stash it somewhere where no one will ever see it, and weÕll stop resonating, and weÕll stop contaminating, but we canÕt. No matter how far you put it, itÕs still going to catch up. So that was my big metaphor – it was memory, America, the past symbolized by stuffing nuclear waste into a big mountain out in the dessert. And I wanted to see the mountain because at the same time as IÕm interested in the metaphor, itÕs the details of the stuff that grab my imagination. What does that mountain look like? Where are they going to put the waste? Is it hollow inside? Can you drive through it? I want to see that, it sounds ridiculous.


So, I went out there, and looking through this big mountain, and the department of energy sent me some guys, and the guys took me down, and they said you can go here, you canÕt go here. Look up, look down, look at this, look at that. I said Ôwow, this is all great, so impressive; itÕs kind of spooky, thereÕs a lizard there.Õ Then suddenly, this guy, after we spend about five or six hours together, he said Ôthis is alright.Õ I said, Ôyeah itÕs alright, IÕm really excited to be here, thanks for taking me.Õ He said Ôno, itÕs okay, you donÕt have to be enthusiastic about it.Õ I said Ôwhy? Maybe you got something better to show me?Õ he said Ôyeah, I do.Õ I said Ôwell whatÕs that?Õ He said ÔitÕs whatÕs on the other side of the mountain.Õ I said ÔwhatÕs on the other side of the mountain?Õ He said Ôwell, itÕs the bombastic test site.Õ I said Ôwell whatÕs that?Õ He said ÔitÕs the place where we set all the nuclear bombs.Õ And I said Ôwhat are you talking about?Õ And then he said Ôwe set off a lot of bombs.Õ And I said Ôwell how many bombs?Õ And he said Ôoh about 1000.Õ And I said Ôyou set off 1000 nuclear bombs in the continental United States? I thought there were like a few tests they did in the pacific.Õ He said, yeah everybody thinks that. ThereÕs Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then a few tests that they had. And I said Ôhow many do you set off . so there are people whose job was that they came out to that site two or three times a week and they set off nuclear bombs?Õ He said Ôyeah, thatÕs my job, thatÕs what I do.Õ I said Ôwill you show me that place now?Ó He said Ôyeah, sure, come on. LetÕs get in the car and weÕll go.Õ I said Ôokay.Õ So then we drove to the other side of the mountain, and he just starts driving though this landscape, and it was amazing, just patches of like green glass, that had been turned into green sand, had been turned into plastic by the force of the nuclear explosion, and shattered bumpers, and ridges and stuff that theyÕd set up to judge the effect of different glass. I was like Ôoh my God this is crazy! I want to write about this.Õ But I was smart enough to know that I just had to not put that in the Yucca Mountain piece.


So I turned in my article, about the nuclear waste site, and then I went and said okay weÕll do a new article. ItÕs going to be about the bombastic test site. We put together a team of people that worked here; find out where they are now, what theyÕre doing, talk to them, and tell the history of this completely forgotten place where the thing that people thought of as the most horrifying extreme possibility that nuclear bombs would go off was in fact peopleÕs daily life. And They learned to live with that just fine. And so I wrote that piece. And of course in writing that piece I had people describing to me what they would put together. They said we put the round softball thing into the case and there will be wires coming out. And then I go what part of the bomb goes bad? They said ÔI donÕt know, I just work there.Õ I take the round thing and put it into the big thing. And so I went to this guy from at the department of energy that I knew, and I said Ôcan you give me a diagram, not an exact diagram, just some very rough thing that shows what the inside of a nuclear bomb looks like. So I can understand what these guys are talking about.Õ and he was like Ôno.Õ I said Ôwhy not?Õ He goes Ôwell thatÕs private classified information. I canÕt give you a diagram of what the inside of a nuclear bomb looks like inside.Õ And so I was like ÔdoesnÕt anybody have that?Õ and he was like Ôno.Õ and so then I went to look for it, and he was right. There were some diagrams out there, but they werenÕt very good. And so I said how am I supposed to report this thing if I canÕt understand what anybody is telling me? So then I did some research and there was a show in Washington at the Corcoran Gallery a sculptor named Jim Sanborn had put this installation together of the inside of a nuclear bomb. And so I figured okay, I have to go there, and then IÕll be able to visualize what these guys are talking about. So I went there, and I saw some things that they were talking about, and then I said well alright, Jim Sanborn, where did you get this information. Obviously heÕs a sculptor – what was this based on? Was this even right? And they said, well all this comes from this guy, John Coster-Mullen. I said well who is he? And they said well heÕs a truck driver. He is the one who has figured this all out. And then I checked into it, and people were like this is the one accurate diagram, it was produced by this guy. And I said well does he have a book? And they said yeah, itÕs a self-published book, he runs it off in Kinkos, and you can order a copy for 50 dollars. And I said okay, IÕll write a story about him next. And so thatÕs kind of what the process of doing stuff works.


Especially for those of you who are younger, who see the bad economic news, I can tell you the news is bad. You wonder how thatÕs going to affect your job prospect, it will. The institutions that have supported journalism in general, and the kind of thing that I do, are under enormous stress, because thereÕs a role of new technology that you grew up with that has changed the way people consume information. ItÕs changed peopleÕs expectations about whether they pay for it or not. ItÕs affected whether advertisers want to buy space. And weÕre in a moment where this landscape, the one that I started my career in is changing, and many of these institutions are collapsed. But the good news is, that I think that this form is incredibly vital right now. It fills a space. It answers questions that are very important to people and even more important now when the landscape changes and people become afraid and ask the question why? Who are we? How did we get here? What is this country? What holds it together? What is it about? And I still think that this form is the place where people go to get these answers and itÕs an incredibly powerful tool for giving people those answers in a form that lasts, that resonates with them, and that they connect to in a personal way. That isnÕt someone shouting their opinion about something. And so while in the short term I expect a lot of pain and disruption in this business as in every business pretty much in America, I think that learning to do this thing, and learning to read this thing are invaluable things to do, and invaluable things that will pay off in your personal lives, and in you want to do it professionally.


Thank you.




Copyright 2009 David Samuels. All rights reserved.