Today, April 18, is National Columnists Day. Like I needed to remind you! I can just imagine the wild celebrations going on from the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream Waters. In realty, columnists are generally revered with the same gusto as people reserve for National Floor Wax Week, but humor me.
April 18 was so chosen because on this day, in 1945, World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by machine-gun fire on Ie Shima, an island off Okinawa Honto, in the South Pacific. And the National Society of Newspaper Columnists decided a few years ago that Pyle was as good a columnist as any to single out: his bare-bones, attention-to-detail style and flat-out courage represents the best of column writing.
I first started reading his stuff in 2001 when researching a book, American Nightingale (Atria Books, 2004), about Frances Slanger, the first nurse to die after the landings at Normandy during World War II. (How can it be nine years since I first made a phone on that project? Makes me feel like I’m 103.) Pyle helped me understand war you won’t find by reading Wikipedia and, in some cases, by interviewing those who fought it or patched those wounded in it. (Not that eye witnesses aren’t often a writer’s best source, but not all who were there remember the details or care to share them. Not their fault, just the way it is.)
“There is nothing left behind but the remains — the lifeless debris, the sunshine and the flowers, and utter silence,” Pyle wrote in a piece on the fighting in Normandy. “An amateur who wanders in this vacuum at the rear of a battle has a terrible sense of loneliness. Everything is death — the men, the machines, the animals — and you alone are left alive.”
Every columnist, I believe, has a different goal, passion, style and audience. Pyle was what I’d call a tour guide columnist, the kind of writer who helps us better understand people, places, trends and events, in this case, war. He didn’t pontificate. He didn’t lace everything with opinion. He didn’t tell us what to believe. He simply said: This, folks, is the way it is. And he said it well.
Sometimes he did that while rambling around the U.S. during the Depression, writing about people and places and the oddities therein. (Later compiled in a book called Home Country.) But he was best at writing about war. A few lines he wrote following the invasion:
“The strong, swirling tides of the Normandy coastline shift the contours of the sandy beach as they move in and out. They carry soldiers’ bodies out to sea, and later they return them. They cover the corpses of heroes with sand, and then in their whims they uncover them.”
Pyle’s profundity was in his simple writing. And in his being there. Not writing from Paris or England, but while amongst his subjects, dead or alive.
In my two years of Nightingale research, the only other writer who captured war with the same sense of Pyle was Lee Miller. Weirdly, she was a war correspondent for Vogue magazine. (I don’t think Vogue covers wars these days, does it?) And, earlier in her life, had studied theater in Paris and been a model in New York, not exactly the kind of hard-bitten credentials you might expect of someone writing about the first use of napalm at the siege of St. Malo.
But sometimes the best column writing comes from writers who are new to their subject and, because of it, describe those subjects with an honesty and freshness not always present in those steeped in such things.
So, a tip of the helmet — and hats — today to the likes of Miller and Pyle and all the columnists who help us better understand the world, be that world as familiar as our own backyards or as far away as the shores of a Normandy beach.