It’s exhausting, and I say this as a pro-labor zealot who agrees that corporate excess has crippled the working class. American society has failed in spectacular fashion, and it’s good that journalists are venturing out to record the wreckage. But the best work Hedges did for the Times in, say, Bosnia, proved that when the evidence of tragedy is so obvious and overwhelming, a good reporter need only describe it and let the facts speak for themselves.

One can’t help comparing the book to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Walker Evans-James Agee collaboration that profiled three southern sharecropper families at the tail end of the Great Depression; its subjects demand your empathy, but never your pity. Or, more recently, to 2011’s Someplace Like America, in which photographer Michael Williamson and journalist Dale Maharidge chronicled their own cross-country poverty tour. In that book’s introduction, Maharidge reflects on the surprising tenacity and resilience he saw in the eyes of American’s junkies, squatters, laborers, and dreamers. They have been battered, but they are not beaten. “You cannot defeat people with eyes like these,” he writes.

But throughout Days, in the oral histories and the illustrations, the subjects’ eyes are downcast or vacant, as if awaiting either a savior or the guillotine, whichever comes quicker. (The only smiles and exuberance come in Sacco’s sketches that accompany the final chapter, a segment on Occupy Wall Street in which the protests are compared to the actions that toppled Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the Berlin Wall.) Hedges and Sacco looked America in the eye, and maybe this is what they saw. But it doesn’t feel like the whole picture.

 

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.