Writerland, Chapter 29: Samuel G. Freedman’s Excellent (Re)education

Writerland is a newsletter from The Delacorte Review whose mission is to help writers tell the stories they need to tell.

Reporting, like writing, can assume the best and worst qualities of form. Best in that reporting gives nonfiction writers a framework for finding things out, a rhythm to the work of posing questions and searching for answers. Ironically, the more you do it, the harder it gets because if you are ambitious about reporting you will ask ever trickier questions that require you to learn more ways to find your answers. 

Done right, reporting is never easy. It is also a lot of fun. Norman Mailer called reporting “chores.” Norman Mailer said and did a lot of very dumb things and that was one of them. 

But reporting is also susceptible to the perils that come when you do it the same way over and over and decide there is only one good way to report. I remember talking with a great journalist who insisted that he could not report a story unless he could witness events first-hand. I made the mistake of telling him how much I was enjoying archival research. He looked at me as if I was nuts. 

My friend, Sam Freedman, is that rare journalist who can do pretty much everything well. I know this because since we met in 1976 at a paper in New Jersey, and worked together again at another paper in Chicago, I’ve marveled at how he could move from assignment to assignment with an ease that eluded me. Most reporters excel at one or two things and fall flat at others. I was not much of a beat reporter because my mind was always drifting to the next feature I could report. Scooped again, dammit.

Sam was a standout reporter for The New York Times before he left to write magazine stories and books that have earned him praise and awards, including being a Pulitzer finalist. (I should also add in the interest of full disclosure that he is perhaps the most successful matchmaker in history, having retired with a perfect record after making one introduction which happened to be me to my wife.) 

For the past six years, Sam has been at work on a new book about a particular period in the life of Hubert Humphrey, a familiar name for those over the age of 60. For younger readers, Humphrey was a Democratic senator from Minnesota, Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, and unsuccessful -- though just barely -- presidential candidate in 1968. He was what was once called a classic liberal. 

Humphrey died in 1978 and Sam is focussing on events that took place 30 years before that, events that would make Humphey the sort of person Sam wanted to know all about. To do that, he would have to become a different kind of reporter. 

Six years is a long time to spend trying to understand someone you never met. I asked Sam what he needed to learn to do this.

He wrote, “There's a poster in my office that was designed by a former student of mine who had a background in science. It's a chart that's meant to resemble the Periodic Table of the Elements, but it's called the Periodic Table of Human Nature. That's a phrase and a concept I've used in class over the years to explain my unending fascination with human nature -- the most compelling subject possible for a writer. So just as all material things can only be made from this finite number of elements -- iron, sodium, helium, etc -- so any person whom I write about has the same essential emotional components. The joyous challenge for me is to fathom and express the unique composition of each character in a book, and to grasp how someone's interior life affects their exterior life.

“My first two books were products of immersion reporting. I spent nearly every day for roughly a year observing and often debriefing a brilliant teacher (Jessica Siegel of Seward Park High School in "Small Victories) and a world-class minister (Rev. Dr. Johnny Ray Youngblood of Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in "Upon This Rock"). I was totally absorbed by each of them, and proud of those books, but I also have to say that immersion reporting mapped very neatly on what I'd done as a newspaper journalist for a dozen years. And so, after those two books, I was restless to move more into what historians and biographers do.

“With later books of mine like "The Inheritance" (a political history of three working-class families) and "Who She Was" (about my long-deceased mother's coming-of-age in the 1930s and 40s) and "Breaking The Line" (about Black college football and the Civil Rights Movement), I still had a large number of living informants to interview. But now I was often asking them about events that had taken place decades earlier. And that meant I had to verify these remembered accounts -- not because my subjects lied, but because memory is fallible -- and to start to do my own primary-source, archival research.

“In the process, I realized that I loved searching for and going through the paper trail, whether in a formally organized archive or the disheveled papers in somebody's attic. So the book that I've been working on since 2015 -- about Hubert Humphrey and his leadership in the battles against racism and anti-Semitism during and right after World War II -- has been built probably ninety-five percent from primary-source research. For the first time, I'm centering a book on someone I never met, never knew firsthand. Even the Humphrey aides and colleagues who are still alive now mostly worked with Humphrey in the years in the Senate or as vice president, long after the period my book will cover.

“I started on this book with an intellectual appreciation of Humphrey's role in what I like to call the lower-case civil rights movement that preceded the proper noun Civil Rights Movement of Brown v Bd of Ed, Dr. King, etc. But I actually didn't know if I'd be able to make the visceral connection to Humphrey as a character. And that connection was going to be vital. Because the existing writing on Humphrey treats his political positions as products purely of cerebral activity. And, to some extent, the existing biographies trot out family stories that Humphrey first used in his own memoir. But going back to doing "The Inheritance," I've operated on this belief that political actions are the result of a conversation between experience and theory. A theory only makes sense to someone when it corresponds to, and helps make sense of, his/her personal experience.

“I'm very fortunate that Humphrey was a packrat and so his collected papers are vast. I was even more fortunate that his son, and executor -- Hubert III, known by everyone as Skip -- permitted me access to his father's personal papers, which are not open to the general public. And when I was reading, for example, the love letters between Humphrey and his future wife, or the letters between Humphrey and his idealistic and influential younger sister, Frances, or the letters Humphrey's friends were sending back from World War II battlefronts, I could palpably feel Humphrey becoming a three-dimensional person for me, as if a kind of hologram rose up literally visibly before my eyes from these old letters. And as I read even more deeply, the hologram took on actual flesh. After six years of this work, I do believe that I have a purchase on Humphrey's fears, yearnings, desires, insecurities, faith, and more -- all the elements on his Periodic Table of Human Nature. Nothing in my writing life could be more satisfying.”

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