Top ten American columns in history
October 5, 2011 6:40 AM   Subscribe

John Avlon, senior political columnist for Newsweek-The Daily Beast, created an informal poll listing 15 historically vital columns, basing the sample on research for his new book, Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns. He passed the list around the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and they and a public poll on their web site ranked the top 10. The winner was Ernie Pyle's The Death of Captain Waskow. All 15 columns are available for download in a PDF file.
posted by Harald74 (16 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks! Good reading!
posted by Renoroc at 6:44 AM on October 5, 2011

These are great. Mencken was so good!
Thus qualified professionally, I rise to pay my small tribute to Dr. Harding. Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English I have even encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.
posted by OmieWise at 6:55 AM on October 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Strange Rumblings in Aztlan - It takes a truly fearless man to show how journalists can be corrupted by fear.
Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu - Sports writing doesn't get better than this.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:59 AM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think Grantland Rice is in the actual book, though not in this PDF:
Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore their names are Death, Destruction, Pestilence, and Famine. But those are aliases. Their real names are: Stuhldreher, Crowley, Miller and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds this afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down upon the bewildering panorama spread out upon the green plain below. (more)
The lead is, of course, famous, but I like the sportsmanship of the wrap-up almost as much:
One strong feature of the Army play was its headlong battle against heavy odds. Even when Notre Dame had scored two touchdowns and was well on its way to a third, the Army fought on with fine spirit until the touchdown chance came at last. And when the chance came, Coach McEwan had the play ready for the final march across the line. The Army has a better team than it had last year. So has Notre Dame. We doubt that any team in the country could have beaten Rockne's array yesterday afternoon, East or West. It was a great football team brilliantly directed, a team of speed, power and team play. The Army has no cause to gloom over its showing. It played first-class football against more speed than it could match.

Those who have tackled a cyclone can understand.
posted by Jahaza at 7:05 AM on October 5, 2011

I got choked up reading about John F. Kennedy's burial, seeing in my head the vision of Jacqueline Kennedy walking to the open grave with her particular dignity and grace. I followed that up with Molly Ivins and came close to tears mainly because of the deft way she writes about this manifestation of long buried grief and how just touching the Vietnam War Memorial is both cathartic and wounding. But then I chuckled over Dave Barry-- so I feel better now. Especially goat boogers. I laughed at goat boogers.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:12 AM on October 5, 2011

The download's great, but a bit of introduction on each one would have been welcome (on "The Halloween of my Dreams", it took me a few reads to figure out that the author is musing on Halloween because she has cancer and may not live long; without that knowledge it reads as more of an Erma-Bombeck type of thing and lacks a punch).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:16 AM on October 5, 2011

Can't wait to read these. Great Post!
posted by benito.strauss at 7:39 AM on October 5, 2011

When he had come to the end of the hardest half hour in the hardest life possible for a human being in these United States, Mose Wright’s story was shaken; yet he still clutched its foundations. Against Carlton’s voice and Milam’s eyes and the incredulity of an all-white jury, he sat alone and refused to bow.
If it had not been for him, we would not have had this trial. It will be a miracle if he wins his case; yet it is a kind of miracle that, all on account of Mose Wright, the State of Mississippi is earnestly striving here in this courtroom to convict two white men for murdering a Negro boy so obscure that they do not appear to have even known his name.

This is just an amazing piece of writing. the hardest half hour in the hardest life possible for a human being in these United States is absolutely perfect and awful in all its implications.
posted by oneirodynia at 7:51 AM on October 5, 2011

The beauty of the Mencken graf posted by Omiewise is that you could also repurpose it to prove that Mencken somehow psychically pre-described the prose of Thomas Friedman.
posted by COBRA! at 7:54 AM on October 5, 2011

Or was channeling P.G. Wodehouse.
posted by OmieWise at 7:58 AM on October 5, 2011

Yes it was the "pish" and the "posh" that pulls it into the Wodehouse camp.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:07 AM on October 5, 2011

From there to the end, really. I didn't recognize it at first, and only realized that that's part of why I liked it so much on re-reading. But to use that as a takedown of someone in a newspaper column, as part of the public debate...that's pure Mencken.
posted by OmieWise at 8:10 AM on October 5, 2011

I'd be happy to have it both ways and say he channeled Wodehouse to, among other things, warn us of the terrible scourge of Friedman.
posted by COBRA! at 8:21 AM on October 5, 2011

Don't be so hard on Thomas.

With great Friedman comes great reprehensibilty.
posted by srboisvert at 9:52 AM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow, that Mencken column is exactly what I love about his writing. I don't have any idea what he was writing about. It surely must have been known by his contemporary audience. But now, it doesn't matter at all. All that matters is Mencken's panache. And that graf that OmieWise quoted? It violates all the rules. It's all run on sentences and splices, fragments and cliches, and it all works perfectly. This is a prime example of how to willfully break all the rules, for effect. The writing is so good that it doesn't matter what he's writing about. I couldn't care less what Dr. Harding wrote, and Mencken is incapable of making me care. The pleasure of watching Mencken mutilate Harding is enough.

But now that Molly Ivins column is the other extreme. The writing is utterly plainspoken, but full of metaphors. The metaphors are emotional but not sentimental. We experience the event through the eyes of someone whose emotional response is so strong, we cannot help but bond with that person, through that event. I cried.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:02 AM on October 5, 2011

Glad to see Royko made the cut, though I think his "Mary and Joe" would have been an even better choice.
posted by Reverend John at 10:13 AM on October 5, 2011

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