Saturday, September 15, 2007

Going Undercover

Yesterday in my Literary Nonfiction class we discussed truth-telling in nonfiction and how it relates to authors going undercover in order to get a story. For class, we read a series of journal entries by Lawrence Otis Graham (Graham's blog) he called "Invisible Man," originally published in New York (excerpt) , in which he describes temporarily giving up his life as a wealthy New York lawyer in order to sign on as a busboy at an exclusive country club in Connecticut, one that at the time banned blacks and Jews. Graham, who is black, tells a series of predictably appalling stories about overheard conversations and his own treatment at the hands of country club members.
Ehrenreich and Conover

This led us to a talk about Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed, in which she takes on a succession of blue collar and pink collar jobs and reports on her struggle to make ends meet in the process. Going back to the sixties, there is also John Howard Griffin's controversial Black Like Me in which he, a white man, colors his skin and passes as black in order to ride a bus through the south and then write about the experience. One of my favorite undercover stories is that of Ted Conover, for whom going undercover is his usual modus operandi, and who for one book, Newjack, became a guard at Sing Sing Prison.

A widely publicized case that takes the matter of "going undercover" to an unethical extreme is the story of the British pianist Joyce Hatto, whose husband passed off a hundred or more exquisite recordings by other pianists as her own. Well after her death by cancer, he went on concocting for her an elaborate fictitious life of concerts and recordings, which he sold on his own label. Mark Singer tells the tale in the current New Yorker in his article, "Fantasia for Piano."

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