Pulitzer Prize-Winning Critic Returns to Hamilton College

Author and former Washington Post staffer Henry Allen delivers Nov. 2 lecture.

On Monday night, as part of the ongoing Journalism Lecture Series sponsored by student newspaper The Spectator, former Washington Post culture critic Henry Allen (pictured) paid a visit to his Alma Mater, Hamilton College, in Clinton, N.Y. These days, he paints, writes books and contributes to various outlets.

To report on the lecture by this member of the Class of 1963, Hamilton tapped TC Topp (Class of 2016). And we must say, his summary is one of the more erudite pieces of this kind that we’ve recently read.

Topp starts off by setting the campus scene, touching on ‘the uneven cadence of fingers on a keyboard’ and ‘the golden quill atop its chapel.’ Later, he winds his way to transmogrification:

The Washington Post, where Allen worked for 39 years, now has roughly half the number of subscribers as it did in the 1980s. This doesn’t mean that the public is less-informed than previously; rather, “it doesn’t matter how [the piece] is written because it will already be told to the public by other sources. Words don’t matter as much anymore, [and articles are] more like a form [that] print journalists fill out after events.”

This transmogrification is particularly unsettling for Allen, who was developing his craft in the days of Arthur Miller and J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac and Ernest Hemingway, or “the Era of Writers,” as he put it. “It was an age that is now over,” he memorialized, “literary writers have abandoned their cabins for faculty offices; now jobs require MFAs instead of talent; quantity has replaced quality, [seen in] the formulaic stories of John Grisham; authors hire ghostwriters to produce their own work, like James Patterson; it’s a business, it’s manufacturing, you need no more proof than that writers are now called ‘content providers.’”

Allen won the 2000 Pulitzer for Criticism for his Post writings about photography. A few years ago, when Jeff Bezos stepped in, Allen penned a brief essay for The New York Times about some of the ups and downs he experienced while at the paper:

It was a hard place to work. Labor wrangles erupted, and The Post hired consultants to do “attitude surveys.” One surveyor was said to have been puzzled — he’d never seen a workplace where the morale was so low but the pride in the organization was so high.

[Photo via: hamilton.edu]