So it is not surprising that within a few years of the publication of that essay and anthology, the revolution that Wolfe had evoked with such delight had ground to a halt. In its place would come the very sort of ossification and hewing to convention (“What, no anecdotal lede?”) that Wolfe and his cadre had worked so hard to crack. More and more, journalists would trade in the most expedient forms: stylistic flourishes and one-liners and the witty turn of phrase that is the last redoubt of the fellow who, as Faulkner once said, can write but has nothing to say.
The revolution built upon reporting in service of achieving the feel of fiction was never about the writing, at least not for its own sake. But who cared? So many young journalists, myself included, did not necessarily think of ourselves as reporters.
But Wolfe did. And so did Cornelius Ryan.
I will confess to a romantic attachment to The Longest Day that has nothing to do with journalism. It was the first “grown-up” book I read. I was not a reader, but I had seen the movie and watched Combat! on TV and, in my pre-Vietnam growing up, was a sucker for war stories. Having dipped in and out of the Landmark young-adult books on great battles and heroes, I was ready for something more. My father, hoping to find a book that might catch me up, handed me The Longest Day. It worked; I read. At least, I read that one.
He did it again, for sentimental reasons, in 1978, giving me a new copy after I had moved to Chicago for a newspaper job. I do not recall rereading the book. I was too much in the throes of Wolfe and company and, given where my aspirations lay, did not see how The Longest Day and its author could be of much use.
It would take a long time and a good many stories before I began to fall in love with reporting. The realization came as I began to understand that while my writing would after a time improve only incrementally, reporting was a craft that could, if done ambitiously, remain beyond perfecting. The lonely and maddening business of writing could be fueled not by what dexterity with words I could summon but by all the many things I had to find out. I fell in love with reporting only after I was old enough to appreciate that, journalistically speaking, it could keep me young.
Which is what led me back to The Longest Day. I had not opened the book in many years. And yet the story, or rather the many small stories that filled the narrative, had stayed with me. I had seen the movie from time to time over the years. It is a remarkably faithful adaptation—Ryan had worked on the screenplay. But was it the film or my early memories of the book that drew me back? Or was it something else entirely: my growing realization that the qualities that made the book endure—the precise details, the way each of Ryan’s many set pieces unfolded so quickly, even as the sentences were packed with multiple facts—could come only through an approach to reporting that I had long considered secondary to the words themselves?
I opened the book on the eve of a long weekend. I was hooked after a single page. Something was taking place in the telling of this story that transcended the journalistic equivalent of mere looks—a richness, a depth. A little like love, not as it happens for teenagers, but for adults.
Ryan opens his story in the coastal village of La Roche-Guyon. He lingers there for only two pages, long enough to establish the date (June 4), the weather (gray, misty), and the sounds of dawn (a church bell ending the nighttime curfew and heralding day 1,451 of the German occupation) before introducing his most compelling character, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. When we meet him, the German commander—and D-Day’s biggest loser—is awaiting the invasion in the village’s castle. It is a neatly accomplished piece of foreshadowing; Ryan sprinkles in his facts without gumming up the machinery, and delivers an implicit promise to the reader. You want details? You want characters? I’ve got a million of ’em.